What is upasana yoga?
Upasana yoga is the second phase in the process toward Self-inquiry. Similar to karma yoga, it is considered a preparation for Self-knowledge. Karma yoga purifies the mind, while upasana yoga helps to steady the mind. A steady mind is important for gaining Self-knowledge because without one, the knowledge won’t go in. This is also the reason why Vedanta isn’t for everyone, because there are qualifications.
Upasana yoga, traditionally, is defined as “worship through meditation” with the idea that one becomes what one meditates on. If you’re a businessman and want to succeed financially, you must think about money often and devise ways to get closer to it. If you have faith in God and want to succeed religiously, you might think about God often and devise ways to get closer to God. Whatever one’s object of meditation, that you will come closer to. As such, traditionally, upasana includes visualizing or contemplating the aspects of Saguna Brahman (God without attributes; Ishvara). For example, in the Bhagavad Gita, all of Chapter 10 is a meditation on the glories of God. If we take such thoughts internally as single-pointed meditation, that is upasana. So, traditionally, upasana yoga is a kind of bhakti (devotion).
However, today, upasana yoga is defined more as meditation in the general sense (as a form of worship or not) and is derived from another kind of yoga—ashtanga yoga (the eight-limbed yoga1), which Vedanta accepts as a legitimate practice for learning right values, cultivating discipline and working with the mind. Ashtanga yoga (also referred to as raja yoga or samadhi yoga) originates from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and while Vedanta rejects Yoga Darshanam or Yoga philosophy (Vedanta has its own philosophy), it accepts the Yoga sadhana or discipline for training the mind.
As an aside, the process leading to Self-realization is traditionally taught as (1) karma yoga, (2) upasana yoga and then (3) jnana yoga (only this last phase being actual Vedanta). However, Ramana Maharshi suggested it should be (1) karma yoga, (2) upasana yoga, (3) ashtanga yoga and then, (4) jnana yoga—leaving in traditional upasana yoga as a devotional practice and separating it from ashtanga yoga. However, this sequence isn’t widely accepted, especially by westerners who are not inclined to take up worshipping God as a primary step in their spiritual journey.
Vedanta doesn’t stress religion as a requirement for Self-knowledge, but it does emphasize purifying and stilling the mind as a prerequisite. One doesn’t need religion to grasp knowledge of the Self—in fact it can be a hindrance due to the perceived separation between God and oneself—but one does need a mind that is introverted enough to take hold of the subtle teachings. That Vedanta still refers to the second step in route to Self-realization as “upasana yoga” is a bit confusing. Nevertheless, I’ll continue to refer to it as “upasana yoga” with the idea that upasana, in this case, refers to various types of meditation, whether it be Saguna Brahman or meditation on another object, such as the breath in order to strengthen concentration and quiet the mind.
In many ways, upasana yoga is fitness for the mind, because the objective is to cultivate a mind fit for Self-knowledge. In order to do so, we must develop certain values, strengthen our ability to concentrate, and confront our binding likes and dislikes as well as any uncomfortable memories rooted from our childhood. The idea is to weaken distracting thoughts and strengthen our ability to focus. This is the work to be done if we ever hope to understand and absorb the subtle teachings of Vedanta.
Swami Paramarthananda, when talking about the discipline one gains through the practice of upasana yoga, refers to it as quality and quantity control. The four disciplines associated with upasana yoga are:
Physical discipline should be obvious, but often isn’t due to our conditioning and lack of knowledge about proper eating, proper sleep, and proper exercise. As individuals, we often ignore or sacrifice our health for our desires and then wonder why, later, we feel anxious or lethargic and incapable of concentration. Eating, sleeping and getting enough exercise are more important than one realizes for reaching one’s spiritual objectives. This is why basic lifestyle changes are often the very first requirement for leading a spiritual life. Because no amount of meditation, chanting or reading scripture is going to help you if you are neglecting your physical wellbeing. If the body is considered the vehicle that takes you to moksha, why would you not do your best to keep it in excellent working shape? Fortunately, in this day and age, there are plenty of resources available for learning and maintaining good physical discipline. However, more often it’s a case of not wanting to stop doing what we’ve always done. For example, drinking those three espressos everyday or binge watching into the late hours. Other forms of physical discipline include proper use of one’s sexuality, as well as control of any tendency toward physical violence.
Verbal discipline is equally over-looked. Most people these days take little interest in proper speech, and as a result speak half-truths, fill precious silence with small talk, or use harsh language that our ancestors would only speak on the rarest of occasions, if ever. Growing up, a friend of mind use to like to use the f-word with frequency. His father eventually advised him that he should moderate his use of the word, because otherwise when he’s really angry he wouldn’t have any way to express himself! In the case of my friend, not only did he have a quality problem, but a quantity one too. As a culture, we also seem to have taken up complaining as a favorite pastime. We like to complain about everything, mostly in order to have something to talk about with friends and family and feel a connection (unified in our disgust of everything). How does one judge whether or not their speech has quality? If it’s non-hurtful, polite, useful and truthful. Quantity, also, can be judged by the speech’s usefulness. In other words, it’s worth asking yourself if what you’re about to say is really adding to the conversation, or if it’s just unfiltered emotion?
Sensory discipline is being selective about what we expose ourselves to. It’s similar to physical discipline and what we take in via the mouth to eat, except with the senses, it’s mostly about what we choose to take in through our eyes and ears. Sensory discipline means we try to avoid interacting with objects that end up polluting the mind. The media, in particular, provides plenty of opportunities to muck things up. If spiritual progress is your goal, it’s important to learn to say “no” to certain kinds of music, movies, television, sports, books, magazines, news, etc., and the amounts, if any, you take in. One must learn to protect what they’ve so carefully cultivated. Sometimes life throws things our way that inevitably agitate us and make us lose composure, but most often our sense of inner peace is upset by indulging in one thing or another due to lack of self-control. Guarding the senses is not easy, especially if we’ve developed certain tendencies (vasanas) over a lifetime that make it hard to resist certain objects. It can often feel like swimming upstream, especially in a culture that encourages the pursuit of unrestrained pleasure at every turn. In the end, “you are what you eat,” or as they also say, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Developing mental discipline is really where traditions like Patanjali’s Yoga or Buddhist Vipassana have much to show us. It’s no surprise that many people who come to Vedanta arrive via one of these routes. Both traditions promote a similar eight-fold path, although Buddhism has gained much more popularity in the West in recent decades. Buddhist mindfulness meditation, in particular, is an excellent way to learn how to observe the mind and put us back in control of our thoughts. It can also be a way for many people to work out latent and/or unresolved emotions from childhood, and eventually get past their “stuff.” There are different kinds of meditation including relaxation meditation (for both body and mind), concentration meditation (for strengthening one’s focus and attention span), insight meditation (for investigating sensations, feelings, emotions, recurring memories, etc.), expansion meditation (for expanding one’s mind to include the Total and diminish the size of our perceived problems), loving-kindness meditation (for cultivating kindness toward oneself and other beings, and to soften the ego), and others.
Through meditation one can also begin to perceive the space between the knower and one’s thoughts. This subject/object distinction is an important step in preparing the mind for Vedanta, because you can’t be what is known by you. Lastly, part of learning good mental discipline is gaining an understanding and appreciation of the “value of values.” Because without an appreciation for values and integrating them into one’s life, one risks a mind that is constantly agitated, distracted, and unable to focus on what matters.
In the Katha Upanishad, the physical body is compared to a chariot, the sense organs are compared to its horses, the mind are the reins, and the intellect is the driver. Each require attention if we ever wish to get to where we want to in our spiritual journey. In short, upasana yoga is about making sure the body-mind is in good working order for the road ahead.
* The eight limbs of ashtanga yoga are: yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (posture), pranayama (breath control) , pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (unifying meditation).