A Non-Believer Reads the Bhagavad Gita: Gita’s Definitions of Yoga

Introduction: A Non-Believer Reads the Gita

The Bhagavad Gita (=Song of the Lord) is the Gospel of Hinduism and the collection of yoga teachings by Sri Krishna–believed to have been an avatar (=divine incarnation) of Lord Vishnu, the second person in the Hindu Trimurti (=Trinity) made up of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. In a future post about how God is imagined in Hinduism, I will delve more into who Krishna was.

The Gita includes, in 18 chapter-sermons, a summary of the entire Vedic tradition and of all the yogas. There are several versions of the Bhagavad Gita online, and in the past I’ve read several paperback translations of it in both Spanish and English. Due to the considerable amount of missionary work by Srila Prabhupad and his lineage, which goes back to the beloved medieval Vaishnava saint Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the most widely known translation of the Gita in the West by far is Bhagavad-Gita As It Is, which includes transliteration, translation, and purport by AC Bhaktivedanta Srila Prabhupada.

This time, in order to gain a different perspective on it, I re-read the two-volume version with commentary by Paramahansa Yogananda (inspired in the teachers of Kriya Yoga from his own monastic lineage, which founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in the West) titled God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita.

Defining Yoga

In 2016, UNESCO listed yoga as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. But there are many definitions of yoga, ranging from mystical interpretations to completely secularized ones. What is colloquially understood as yoga in the West is actually hatha yoga, which includes breathing and movement exercises that increase self-control and health. This is precisely what the dictionary definition of yoga in English implies:


a Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation.


Sanskrit, literally ‘union’.

We should not dismiss Hatha Yoga merely because it is not mentioned in the Gita. This yoga teaches that there is a connection between mind and body, and that the mental or emotional experiences are anchored in, or affect, certain parts of the body (that is, they are are psychosomatic). I can think of butterflies in the belly when we feel insecure or ashamed, gut feelings, repulsion, and of how different thoughts produce tension in different parts of the body.

At times, yoga seems to be interpreted as the many paths, methods, or means to (union with) God–and so we can speak of Karma Yoga (the yoga of action, sometimes described as seva, or service), Dhyana Yoga (yoga of meditation), Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion), and so on. Since the next few blogs are a book review of the Bhagavad Gita, we should look at the Gita’s definitions of yoga. In BG 8:10 the claim is made that if a person fixes her thoughts on God on the third eye at the time of death, that person will “attain God”–and so one of the religious uses of yoga is in service of theology and as part of liberation from the cycles of reincarnation.

One who, at the time of death, fixes his life air between the eyebrows and in full devotion engages himself in remembering the Supreme Lord, will certainly attain to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

The Gita takes place in the middle of a battlefield, and addresses issues of right action versus hesitation to act in the world. In service of this, Krishna rejects the ideal of sannyasa (monastic renunciation of the world, as traditionally understood), and reinterprets it as renouncing all desire-filled actions, as well as the fruits of action.

The Supreme Lord said, To give up the results of all activities is called renunciation [tyaga] by the wise – BG 18:2

We will learn more about this role for yoga as activity in the discussion of Karma Yoga. For those more emotional than intellectual, Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion) is recommended. This yoga trains the heart to experience softer, happier, healthier, and sometimes ecstatic emotions, and induces the brain to release oxytocin, a chemical of trust and well-being. This will be discussed in a future blog.

Yoga of Meditation (Dhyana Yoga)

Then there is yoga as the art of stewarding experience or controlling the mind’s content, as we are advised to do in PD 20. This is another one of the conventional ways to understand yoga, but it’s not for everyone. The Gita says that the mind is as difficult to master as the wind.

For the mind is restless, turbulent, obstinate and very strong, O Krsna, and to subdue it is, it seems to me, more difficult than controlling the wind. – BG 6:34

And so we see, as in Buddhism, a great concern over controlling one’s mind.

A man must elevate himself by his own mind, not degrade himself. The mind is the friend of the conditioned soul, and his enemy as well. For him who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends; but for one who has failed to do so, his very mind will be the greatest enemy. – BG 6:5-6

The mind is difficult to master. However, this is no excuse to avoid attempting to control the mind, as too much is at stake. The implied end of life is happiness, and to enjoy happiness one must have tranquility, and to have tranquility one needs meditation. Therefore, meditation is a means to happiness.

One who is not in transcendental consciousness can have neither a controlled mind nor steady intelligence, without which there is no possibility of peace. And how can there be any happiness without peace? As a boat on the water is swept away by a strong wind, even one of the senses on which the mind focuses can carry away a man’s intelligence. – BG 2:66-67

This criticism of the wandering faculties sounds a bit like the Epicurean insistence on using the canon (one’s own faculties). The word that is implied as the end and translated as happiness is sukham, which is the same word used in Buddhism for bliss as opposed to dukham (suffering).

Meditative yoga is therefore only for those of great self-control and (verse 44) is more advanced than the study of scriptures. In 2:53 and 2:46, this final union with God or “trance of self-realization” is again contrasted with the scriptures as superior to it because it is direct and experiential, and is attained when the intelligence leaves “revealed truth” and is securely anchored in bliss. And so we see in the insights of meditation a version of gnosis, of a spirituality that is personal and directly experienced. This practice of meditative yoga is not mutually contradictory with other yogas, but complementary to them. For instance, we see it here blended with devotional yoga:

One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the end of the nose. Thus with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life. – BG 13-14

In BG 8:8 we read that yoga stabilizes the mind. Elsewhere, we see this role for yoga as a way to practice focus and to cultivate one-pointed determination as opposed to nurturing the unending, ramified reasonings of an undecided mind.

Those who are on this path are resolute in purpose, and their aim is one. O beloved child of the Kurus, the intelligence of those who are irresolute is many-branched. – BG 2:41

One who is able to withdraw his senses from sense objects, as the tortoise draws his limbs within the shell, is to be understood as truly situated in knowledge. – BG 2:58

We are getting closer to what is typically associated with yoga. On one hand, the yogi’s senses are under control and he experiences steadiness. This ability to control the excitement of the senses and distrust of them–to the point where Spirit is a refuge FROM the senses–seems other-worldly and subjective, and seems to go against the Epicurean canon. On the other hand, these passages remind us again of the logic of mind over matter in PD 20. The Gita takes place in the battlefield at Kurukshetra, with Krishna acting as Arjuna’s counselor and charioteer. This imagery of the higher self as the charioteer is a rich metaphor for the imparting of wisdom that happens in the Gita, and for yoga–for how the intelligence must control the senses and the body.

The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence. – BG 3:42

There is also an attitudinal component to yoga. In 2:47-48, the Gita argues that the mental evenness associated with performing all actions without attachment to fruits, and with indifference to success or failure, seems to confer confidence to those who are able to follow this path. It is true that if one cares too much about what others say, one loses one’s cool. Epicurus’ insistence that he did not cater to the crowds, and Nietzsche’s solitary sage ideal, both seem to indicate a similar ideal. As for non-attachment to the fruits of one’s labor, this will be addressed when we discuss Karma Yoga.

The stage of perfection is called trance, or samadhi, when one’s mind is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This is characterized by one’s ability to see the self by the pure mind and to relish and rejoice in the self. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness and enjoys himself through transcendental senses. Established thus, one never departs from the truth, and upon gaining this he thinks there is no greater gain. Being situated in such a position, one is never shaken, even in the midst of greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact. – BG 6:20-23

Yoga therefore seems to produce an inner source of joy and a way to cultivate independence and self-sufficiency in our pleasure. It resonates with the Lucretian fortress of the wise, the inner refuge that the philosopher creates. The most specific instructions for yoga are given in BG 6:10-14:

A yogi should always try to concentrate his mind on the Supreme Self; he should live alone in a secluded place and should always carefully control his mind. He should be free from desires and feelings of possessiveness.

To practice yoga, one should go to a secluded place and should lay kusa-grass on the ground and then cover it with a deerskin and a soft cloth. The seat should neither be too high nor too low and should be situated in a sacred place. The yogi should then sit on it very firmly and should practice yoga by controlling the mind and the senses, purifying the heart and fixing the mind on one point.

One should hold one’s body, neck and head erect in a straight line and stare steadily at the tip of the nose. Thus with an unagitated, subdued mind, devoid of fear, completely free from sex life, one should meditate upon Me within the heart and make Me the ultimate goal of life.

This is the As It Is translation. Yogananda argues that most English translations are wrong, that it is not “the tip of the nose” but the origin of it–that is, the third eye, the point between the eyebrows, in which one must concentrate with the spine erect. Interestingly, studies show that this technique produces an instant alpha state of mind. According to MBV,

The alpha state of mind is a lucid and vivid state of relaxed awareness. This is achieved during deep meditation or while entering deep sleep.

Neurologists carry out tests of the brain waves (alpha, beta, gamma, theta, delta) when assessing the mental health of patients. These are the basic frequencies at which human brains emit waves. Today, studies are also carried out on meditators in order to study what yoga does to the mind. According to Mental Health Daily,

This frequency range bridges the gap between our conscious thinking and subconscious mind. In other words, alpha is the frequency range between beta (awake) and theta (daydreaming, sleep). It helps us calm down when necessary and promotes feelings of deep relaxation. If we become stressed, a phenomenon called “alpha blocking” may occur which involves excessive beta activity and very little alpha. Essentially the beta waves “block” out the production of alpha because we become too aroused

And so it’s not difficult to see the potential utility of an ancient technique that helps to enter instant alpha state.

The Gita’s chapter on Dhyana Yoga also says that we must not eat or sleep too much or too little, and that there should be regularity in all the activities, so that it recommends a complete regimen of well-being and heath (6:16-17).

The Yoga of Knowledge (Jnana Yoga)

This is how Vedanta.org explains the yoga of knowledge:

Jnanis take a different but equally effective track. They know that although the body or the mind performs action, in reality they do no work at all. In the midst of intense activity, they rest in the deep stillness of the Atman. Maintaining the attitude of a witness, jnanis continually remember that they are not the body, not the mind. They know the Atman is not subject to fatigue or anxiety or excitement; pure, perfect and free, the Atman has no struggle to engage in, no goal to attain.

This most Platonic of all yogas really sounds like alienation from one’s own body and self. I remember attaining a state similar to this when I practiced zazen, but if this experience is taken to mean that we do not engage in action and are not the body, then this may cause confusion to some people. I do not believe the experience of witnessing one’s own body in stillness needs to be interpreted in the manner that some of the authors of the Gita seem to imply.

The Blessed Lord said: O sinless Arjuna, I have already explained that there are two classes of men who realize the Self. Some are inclined to understand Him by empirical, philosophical speculation, and others are inclined to know Him by devotional work. – BG 3:3

The Gita teaches that initially God gave two basic yogas to humankind: this so-called “speculative” (in the words of Prabhupad, who is an advocate of devotion) yoga of knowledge (jnana yoga) is for the wise, and karma yoga (action as devotion) is for the rest. The the yoga of knowledge and discrimination is proposed by Samkhya, the rationalistic School of Vedic wisdom which favors philosophy, reason, and understanding. It seems like the authors of the Gita were attempting to bring together their teachings and those of other prevalent schools into one volume, as a compendium of Vedic knowledge.

We have seen that the Gita, in including all these yogas, seems like an attempt to encompass all the ancient Schools of Hindu philosophy and to make everyone happy. This is done through the mouthpiece of Sri Krishna by Him saying that everyone engages in some kind of yoga appropriate for their nature. I will discuss the basic teachings of these Schools, and my take on them and some of their contradictions, in future blogs.

External Links:

Bhagavad Gita As It Is

God Talks with Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita (Self-Realization Fellowship) 2 Volume Set

What Happened to the Hare Krishnas

The Science of Slow Deep Breathing


About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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