Despite its widespread acceptance and the number of lives it has improved, what most of us in the West commonly associate with yoga represents only the tip of the iceberg that is yoga, a tiny fraction of what is a vast and profound science. In fact, many people, including some who practice yoga, assume that yoga is nothing more than a form of exercise, or they believe that only the physical aspects of yoga have relevance to their lives. Nothing could be farther from the truth. When yoga is understood in its totality, it is neither a form of exercise, nor is it an esoteric philosophy or religion; it is a practical and comprehensive science for realizing life's ultimate aims.
The yoga tradition provides one of humankind's most effective systems for achieving enrichment and happiness in every aspect of life. In short, in the same way that the physical practice of yoga so effectively benefits your body and mind, the larger science of yoga is similarly powerful in unlocking the vast potentials of your body, mind and spirit to help you achieve your best life imaginable.
Yoga's most sublime objective is to awaken an exalted state of spiritual realization; however, the tradition also recognizes that this state does not exist in absolute isolation from the world and worldly matters. Thus, the yoga tradition also addresses how to live and how to shape your life with a commanding sense of purpose, capacity and meaning. Ultimately, yoga has less to do with what you can do with your body or even your mind than it does with the experience of realizing your full potential.
This is the understanding of yoga that was instilled in me by my teachers -- both of whom were masters. Approaching yoga from this context is the centerpiece of my teaching -- whether I am teaching asana (yoga postures), meditation or philosophy -- precisely because it provides such powerful and practical guidance for the journey toward living your best life.
What does "living your best life" mean to you? Does it mean accumulating wealth and fulfilling all your material wants? Or, does it mean turning away from the material world in order to fully realize the gift of spirit? We often tend to think of these objectives as being mutually exclusive: material fulfillment or spiritual fulfillment, not both together. A little exposure to the philosophy of many Eastern spiritual traditions -- including yoga -- could easily lead you to conclude that if you aspire to achieve goals in the material world you cannot fulfill yourself spiritually, or vice versa. However, since all of us, at some level, long for fulfillment in all aspects of our life, it is essential to understand that these two aims are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the yoga tradition asserts that lasting happiness is dependent on prospering both materially and spiritually.
If yoga is about life, this means all of life, not just part of it. Together, the spiritual and material comprise the whole you, the whole of the experience of being human and the nature of the universe in which you live. There may be no more important step to achieving ultimate fulfillment than accepting what the Vedas, the scriptural source of yoga, teach us about desires -- that some desires are inspired by your soul.
The Four Desires
According to the Vedas, your soul has four distinct desires, which collectively are described as purushartha, "for the purpose of the soul." The first of these four desires is dharma, the desire to fully become who you were meant to be. It is the longing to achieve your highest state of well-being -- in other words, to thrive and, in the process, to fulfill your unique purpose, your destiny. The second desire is artha, the desire for the means (like money, security, health) to help you fulfill your dharma. The third desire is kama, the longing for pleasure in any and all forms. The fourth is moksha, the desire to be free from the burdens of the world, even as you participate fully in it. Moksha is the longing to experience spirit, essence or God, to abide in lasting peace and to realize a state beyond the reach of the other three desires.
These four desires are inherent aspects of your soul or essence. Your soul uses them for the purpose of fulfilling its unique potential. Learning to honor all four of your soul's desires compels you to thrive at every level, leads to lasting happiness as well as a complete and balanced life. Perhaps most significantly, this teaching from the yoga tradition on the four desires is the touchstone to achieving real and lasting happiness and, in the process, to making your most meaningful and beneficial contribution to the world.
Of course, not all desires lead to happiness. Desires can and do lead to pain and frustration. However, according to the ancient tradition, it is attachment to desire, not desire itself, that is the underlying cause of practically all of our pain and suffering. It's vital to understand that while you are alive, there is no end to desire, since the seed of your every thought and your every action is a desire. Thus, when it comes to desire, it's not a matter of avoiding desire, but rather learning to discern those desires that are helpful and necessary for your growth -- those that serve your soul and help you continue to thrive -- from those that do not. The critical question when it comes to desire is, how do you differentiate what Buddha referred to as "wholesome" from "unwholesome" desires, or what the yoga tradition describes as helpful (shreya) desires from simply pleasant (preya) desires?
Admittedly, being able to recognize which of your desires are vital to pursue and which ones are not is often less than easy. This is precisely why the ancient sages counseled that we practice yoga. Their point was a very practical one: You are best able to discern which of your many desires should (and should not) be responded to when your mind is calm and tranquil. From this perspective, clear perception is the cornerstone and an absolute necessity for living your best life -- and that's exactly what the focus of a yoga practice should be all about.
Yoga's ultimate intent is to achieve something far deeper and more meaningful than just a better body or less stress and tension. Its ultimate aim is to help you hear your soul's call so that you can be consistently guided to make the best decisions -- the ones that serve your highest state of wellbeing. In the process of doing so, you will necessarily be made more whole and act in such a way as to support the larger world of which you are a part. It will also lead you to a truly fulfilled, meaningful and purposeful life.
Excerpt adapted from "The Four Desires: Creating a Life of Purpose, Happiness, Prosperity, and Freedom by Rod Stryker." Copyright © 2011 by Rod Stryker. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.