Studying yoga in the traditional way differs from most other studies. Its primary purpose is to bring about a transformation in the practitioner's consciousness. It is only secondarily meant for technical and theoretical knowledge.
'Traditional' refers to an ancient system of knowledge transmission called parampara. To study through parampara is not important if one is primarily interested in yoga for a temporary state of well-being. There is nothing wrong with that. Studying through parampara is important if one is interested in achieving total freedom. This requires a serious and life-long commitment.
Three Meanings of Yoga
'Yoga' refers either to 1) philosophy, 2) practice, or 3) goal. A lot of confusion about yoga can be avoided simply by clarifying which of the three meanings is being discussed.
1) As philosophical school, it is rooted in a text called Yoga-sutra, attributed to sage Patañjali. Yoga-sutra explains that future suffering has to be avoided. The cause of suffering is ignorance, manifesting as selfishness. Selfishness drives us to repeat pleasant experiences, and to avoid unpleasant ones. Clinging to a selfish life, fear of death arises. Any thought, word, or action motivated by selfishness leads to mental imprints, that breed experiences and thoughts. They keep the mind restless, lead us to suffering, and prevent us from seeing our true nature. Yoga-sutra presents samadhi and surrendering to the Supreme as the primary means of overcoming ignorance. Secondary means contain a host of supporting practices.
Even though 'yoga' as a philosophical school is specifically connected to Yoga-sutra and its commentaries, it is not the only text to discuss the philosophy behind yoga. Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana, Yoga Yajñavalkya, and the main Upanishads give philosophical ideas that deal with yoga. It would be too narrow to restrict philosophy about yoga to the Yoga-sutra.
2) 'Practice' is the second meaning of yoga. Yoga-sutra emphasises meditative practices. The most important practice is samadhi, a state of total mental stillness. Other texts present other kinds of practices. Hatha yoga texts deal primarily with physical practices that are meant to lead to mental stillness. Karma yoga is a method of doing one's tasks and duties as a means of purifying the mind from selfishness. Jñana-yoga has two departments. The first one is about studying wisdom texts, and learning to see life and world from a spiritual point of view. The second one is about mental discrimination, where the practitioner gradually trains oneself to see one's real self as separate from the activities of the mind. Bhakti-yoga is about developing selfless devotion to the Supreme. It is important to understand that while Yoga-sutra emphasises practices to bring about total mental stillness, other approaches are utilising mental operations as components of a structured practice. The goal is to create mental patterns conducive to freedom.
3) Freedom is the goal of yoga practice. It does not mean freedom to do what one likes. In stead of being enslaved by one's mind and senses, the goal of yoga is to become the master of one's mind and senses. Once such a mastery is achieved, there are many different ways of conceptualising the life of freedom. The word 'yoga' is explained in some texts to refer to a freedom of oneness, where the self loses its sense of individuality, and becomes absorbed in an all pervading spiritual consciousness. Another explanation for 'yoga' is 'connection'. Here, freedom means freedom to love, share and interact on a liberated realm, in contact with the Supreme and other selves. Interestingly, Yoga-sutra does not explain the goal of yoga practice to be 'yoga' as oneness or connection. Yoga-sutra explains the goal of yoga to be kaivalya, a state where consciousness becomes free from the influence of the mind. Kaivalya is better translated as isolation, or a state of separation, than oneness.
Parampara - the Chain of Teachers and Students
Yoga can be practiced alone, but should be learned from a teacher that hands down his or her knowledge through a chain of knowledge transmission. A teacher trains students, and some of the students become qualified to pass down the knowledge to the next generation. Nowadays, it is not uncommon that one practices without any connection to parampara. It is also possible that one gets only one aspect of yoga through parampara, and other aspects without such a connection. It is at least theoretically possible to learn physical practices from one teacher, meditative practices from another one, and philosophy from yet another.
The physical practices are the least important. It is ok to learn physical practices from a book, or from many teachers, whereas it is important to get the tools for meditation, and the philosophical understanding of meditation through parampara.
Several valid paramparas are still alive today. Almvik is dedicated to teaching the meditational practices and the philosophy behind them through a devotional or bhakti parampara, called Gaudiya-Vaishnavism. The central practice in this lineage is the practice of sacred sound. The three primary forms of practicing sacred sound are personal mantra-practice, collective chanting, and explication of sacred knowledge. All three are important. The physical yoga practices have an important supporting role.
Yoga is the greatest challenge of human life, since it requires one to give up all of one's selfishness, and control the mind which is more difficult than controlling the wind. However, it is possible by regular, long lasting, and dedicated practice. Our recommendation for serious yoga students is to stick to one lineage and one path. This will give the required mental focus to one's practice.