What is Union?

Exploring Union and Yoking in Yoga Philosophy

Watch the video or read the discussion notes and ideas for exploring union and yoking in your personal practice or in your yoga teaching.

Welcome Everyone!

In this discussion we explore a core concept in yoga philosophy: the idea of yoga meaning ‘union’ or ‘to yoke.’

We hear about these ideas in yoga al the time, but what do they really mean?

I know that in my first few years in yoga, I had this idea that yoga means union, but I didn’t really know what it meant. So, today we’ll dig into the meaning and practice of union and yoking in yoga.

What’s interesting is that there are many ways of looking at union and yoking – depending on the philosophy, yoga form, and of course it’s different how you uniquely experience union

One of the lenses that we’ll look at these ideas through are the lenses of dualist and nondualist philosophy.

We’ll look at how these frameworks interpret the journey toward unity and connection, both within ourselves, body-mind-spirit, and with the world around us, self-other-universe.

I am really looking forward to your insights, experiences, and thoughts on the top. I’m keen to hear a few things, if you’d like to share:

• where you first encountered the idea of yoga being about ‘union’
• how you experience union or yoking in your practice
• how you might educate your students and invite discussion on the idea of yoga being oriented towards a union – whether that be a union of body and mind or body-mind-spirit, yoking or union between self and others, or between community, humankind, or divine or universal connection.

I have a few thoughts to share up front, but your insights are most valuable in this discussion, so let’s talk about union!

Definitions of Union and Yoking

The word ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj,’ which means ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite.’

In agriculture – a yoke is a device or harness, like a wooden beam, that connects animals together to do jobs like pull a plough. So, to yoke is to harness or connect so you can use that energy (horsepower, oxpower) for a purpose.

To Yoke in Yoga:

The act of ‘yoking’ in yoga symbolizes the discipline and practice required to bind or connect the practitioner to their goals, whether they be physical, mental, or spiritual.

Union in Yoga:

Union in yoga often refers to the merging of individual consciousness with universal consciousness, the integration of mind, body, and spirit, or the harmony between our inner and outer worlds.

Dualist and Nondualist Philosophy

Before we move into discussion of our experiences – which is really important to today’s chat, I want to explain two of the different philosophical perspectives in yoga – dualist and non-dualist philosophy. These are important to understand, because there are quite different ideas of what union and yoking mean between dualist and non-dualist philosophy.

Dualist Perspective:

Samkhya (or Sankhya) Philosophy:

Foundational Texts: The Samkhya philosophy, like we see in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, is a dualist system that distinguishes between two fundamental realities: Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (nature or matter).

So, you could look at the dualist perspective as one that sees union relating to the union of body and mind, or body and spirit.

Union (Samadhi): In the 8th limb of yoga, ‘union’ refers to the process by which we understand or experience consciousness (Purusha) as distinct from Prakriti (material world). The goal in this philosophy could then be seen as achieving liberation (Kaivalya) by recognizing the true nature of Purusha and disentangling it from the material world of matter (bodies, senses, feelings, etc.)

In simple terms, in the dualist perspective, our bodies and our consciousness (spirit) are separate and distinct from one another and is achieved by overcoming one to reside in the other. In dualist philosophy the spirit or consciousness is considered superior to matter.

Yoke (Yuj): ‘Yoking’ here relates to yoking or controlling or harnessing the mind. In Ashtanga Yoga this involves the dedicated practice of the eight limbs of yoga – the ethics (yamas and niyamas), postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), withdrawal of senses (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and union (samadhi).

In this philosophy, the practice of these 8 limbs help to settle or restrain the fluctuations of the mind (chitta vritti nirodha) and ultimately facilitate that understanding of the distinction between Purusha and Prakriti.

In practice:

Meditation Practices: In meditation, we aim to yoke or harness our mind to a single point of focus to transcend the influences of Prakriti (body, senses, feelings etc.) and realize the pure consciousness of Purusha.

Nondualist Perspective:

Foundational Texts: Advaita Vedanta, a major nondualist school, posits that there is no fundamental distinction between Atman (individual self) and Brahman (universal self); rather, they are one and the same.

Union: ‘Union’ in this context is the understanding or experience that the individual self is not separate from the ultimate reality, Brahman. This realization of nonduality leads to liberation (Moksha).

Yoke (Yuj): ‘Yoking’ from the nondualist perspective involves practices that dissolve the illusion of separation (Maya) and ignorance (Avidya). This can include the practices of self-inquiry, meditation, and the study of scriptures or yogic texts.

In Practice:
Self-Inquiry: using the method of self-inquiry (asking ‘Who am I?’) to yoke your awareness to the true nature of the self, gradually dissolving the illusory distinction between the self and the universal consciousness.

Points of Comparison: dualist vs nondualist philosophy

Nature of Reality:

Dualist: Maintains a clear distinction between the individual self (Purusha) and the material world (Prakriti). Union is about recognizing and transcending this duality.

Nondualist: Asserts that the self and the universal are inherently one. Union is the realization of this inherent oneness, transcending all perceived dualities.

Goal of Practice:

Dualist: Aims for the separation of pure consciousness from the material entanglements (body, senses, feelings), leading to liberation.

Nondualist: Aims for the realization that there is no separation to begin with, leading to liberation through the recognition of one’s true nature as non-different from the universal consciousness.

Method of ‘Yoking’:

Dualist: Emphasizes structured practices and dedicated effort to control the mind and senses, facilitating the discernment of duality.

Nondualist: Emphasizes direct realization and the dissolution of ignorance through practices that reveal the nondual nature of reality.

Approach to the Body:

Dualist: sees the body (and senses, feelings, needs, desires) as obstacles to union.

Nondualist: sees the body as an essential part of self, not separate from consciousness, spirit, or universal existence.

It’s interesting to reflect on how these perspectives might influence the way we approach our bodies. Are they an essential part of our experience of union, or are they an obstacle to union? Do we embrace the experience of being in our bodies as a springboard to consciousness, or something that we will eventually discard on our journey to enlightenment? How might these different approaches influence the way we practice and care for our bodies?

Integrative Perspective:

Modern Yoga Practice: Many modern yoga forms, including Modern Postural Yoga forms like Vinyasa Flow, integrate aspects of both dualist and nondualist philosophies. While practicing physical postures (asanas) and concentration (dharana) or meditation (dhyana) techniques, they might also explore the deeper philosophical teachings that align with both separation and unity. For many this is about finding a personal balance that enhances their unique journey.

For example, in our Vinyasa Flow practice, we use the disciplined approach of Ashtanga Yoga practice (dualistic) to prepare the ground for the realization of nonduality (non-dualistic), or body/mind/spirit union, so, you might see this as bridging the gap between these philosophical perspectives.

Questions for Reflection:

To inspire your own practice, or to bring these philosophies into your classes, you might consider the following:

Practical Application:

How can the practice of yoga create a sense of union within an individual?
What are some specific yoga techniques or practices that embody the concept of ‘to yoke’?

Personal Experience:

How have you experienced the concept of ‘union’ in your personal yoga practice?

In what ways has the practice of ‘yoking’ (connecting or uniting) impacted your daily life outside of yoga sessions?

Comparative Analysis:

How do the concepts of ‘union’ and ‘to yoke’ in yoga compare to similar concepts in other spiritual or physical disciplines?

Can you draw parallels between the idea of ‘union’ in yoga and in other forms of physical exercise, meditation, or religion?

Integration of Practices:

Consider the ways in which physical postures (asanas), breath control (pranayama), and meditation contribute to this sense of union.

Explore how yoking represents the effort and discipline needed to achieve union, and how this effort is reflected in various aspects of yoga practice, such as adherence to ethical principles (yamas and niyamas).

Discuss how the integration of different practices within yoga (e.g., Hatha, Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana yoga) contributes to the overall experience of union and yoking.

Consider the holistic approach of yoga and how different paths of yoga aim to yoke different aspects of human experience towards a state of unity.

Modern Interpretations:

How modern yoga practices and interpretations have maintained or diverged from the traditional meanings of union and yoking.

The role of yoga in contemporary society and how its practice can foster a sense of community and connectedness among practitioners.

How do we relate to the idea of harnessing our bodies, mind, consciousness in a world where our attention and efforts are increasingly distracted, fragmented, and occupied with productivity?

Union and Yoking in Yoga

These questions and points of discussion can help deepen the understanding of the rich and multifaceted meanings of ‘union’ and ‘to yoke’ in yoga, both historically and in contemporary practice.

I hope that this gives you some insight into the origins and different perspectives on the concepts of union and yoking in yoga. If you’d like to hear more discussion, watch the video above, or find more podcasts and videos on our YouTube channel.

If you’d like to learn more about Yoga Philosophy, learn with us! Yoga Philosophy Professional Development training, Sequencing & Theming, and Ayurveda & Yoga are online, on-demand courses that give you a chance to dive deeper into the philosophies of yoga, and bring them into your practice and your teaching.

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