Yoga philosophy views consciousness as a property of the soul. Consciousness lets us perceive both the world outside, and our inner world of thoughts, feelings and so on. Yoga aims to relink us with the Absolute Truth by elevating our consciousness from material to spiritual perception.
What is Consciousness?
When we’re aware of thoughts and sensations, that awareness itself is consciousness. The Absolute Truth possesses complete consciousness, and we souls share this faculty to limited degrees. The limitations placed on our consciousness depend on environmental conditions.
There are two environments, or energies, in which our consciousness operates: spiritual and material. The energy is transformed based on our perception of it. The spiritual energy manifests when we want to serve others. The drive to exploit gives rise to matter.
Thinking of our hearts and bodies as environments is a hallmark of yoga philosophy. We’re used to considering the places we live, work and spend time in as environments. But in yoga, a key environment to be conscious of is the body in which we reside. Bhagavad-gita 18.61 says:
isvarah sarva-bhutanam hrid-dese ‘rjuna tishthati
bhramayan sarva-bhutani yantrarudhani mayaya
God is situated in everyone’s heart, O Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities, who are seated as on a machine, made of the material energy.
Our body is a machine, and the soul is inside it. From the soul, consciousness radiates and animates the body. When the soul leaves the body, consciousness leaves with it. That process is called death. The soul then reincarnates and animates a new body with consciousness.
The spiritual energy of the Absolute Truth allows us to serve others perfectly. This is the natural environment of the soul, full of unconditional inner peace, fulfilment and joy. In this interior environment, we perceive the world and other beings in relationship with the Absolute Truth.
Yoga culminates in reconnecting with the Absolute Truth, and serving others in this spiritual environment. The inner environment is called the chit-akasha, or the space of consciousness. Bhagavad-gita 6.20-23 describes how the spiritual space opens up in the heart of the yogi:
yatroparamate chittam niruddham yoga-sevaya
yatra chaivatmanatmanam pasyann atmani tushyati
sukham atyantikam yat tad buddhi-grahyam atindriyam
vetti yatra na chaivayam sthitas chalati tattvatah
yam labdhva chaparam labham manyate nadhikam tatah
yasmin sthito na duhkhena gurunapi vichalyate
tam vidyad duhkha-samyoga-viyogam yoga-samjnitam
In the stage of perfection called trance, or samadhi, one’s consciousness is completely restrained from material mental activities by practice of yoga. This perfection is characterized by one’s ability to see the soul by the soul and to relish and rejoice in the soul. In that joyous state, one is situated in boundless transcendental happiness, realized beyond the 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 the greatest difficulty. This indeed is actual freedom from all miseries arising from material contact.
The second environment of consciousness is material. In the material space, our consciousness is covered by the modes of nature. All energy, or shakti, of the Absolute Truth is divine, but when we try to enjoy it without offering it first in sacrifice, the energy acts materially.
This selfish attitude covers our nature as souls, which is to serve others. The degree to which we become covered ranges from conditions of goodness, to passion and finally ignorance. These three modes of nature cover our consciousness by progressively heavier degrees:
dhumenavriyate vahnir yathadarso malena cha
yatholbenavrito garbhas tatha tenedam avritam
As fire is covered by smoke, as a mirror is covered by dust, or as the embryo is covered by the womb, the living entity is similarly covered by different degrees of this selfish interest. (Bhagavad-gita, 3.39)
Here’s a table showing how kama, or selfish interest, covers our consciousness in each mode:
|COVERING OF SELF-AWARENESS
|Fire covered by smoke. Our identity as souls is clear to us.
|The mirror covered by dust. A semblance of the soul is visible.
|The womb of ignorance completely conceals our identity as souls.
Turning Consciousness Within
When we’re run ragged by the ever-shifting bodily and mental urges, we limit who we are able to serve and when. In reality, only unconditional loving service can satisfy the soul. In order to compensate for spiritual starvation, our consciousness flows outward craving material goods and services.
Profiteers can then capitalize on our vulnerability, and manipulate us to do their bidding. For example, our consciousness could be limited to thinking about gourmet food as the best means for our personal happiness. Restaurateurs can then drag us by the tongue wherever they want.
The joy of yoga involves turning consciousness inward. Through self-realization, and realization of the Absolute Truth, we experience spiritual happiness which can’t be commodified. As the Workers’ Hymn reminds us: “Life’s for the free and fearless — Death’s for the bought and sold!”