You might hear about the Upanishads in yoga class, but what are they and what sort of lessons do they contain? This article will lay out some key lessons from these texts and how they can be applied to the yogic life.

What Are the Upanishads?

While the Vedas are considered the most sacred and treasured texts of India, it is the Upanishads that transferred the wisdom of the Vedas into practical and personal teachings. The word, upanishad, literally means “sitting down beside,” and the collection of Sanskrit texts known as the Upanishads are thought to be the direct teachings received at the foot of the ancient Indian sages. This illustrates the position of receiving wisdom and guidance humbly from a teacher or guru.

The Upanishads contain information regarding the philosophical principles and concepts of Hinduism, including karma (right action), Brahman (Ultimate Reality), the Atman (true Self or Soul), moksha (liberation from the cycle of reincarnation) and Vedic doctrines that explain Self-realization through yoga and meditation practices. (Learn more in The Main Message of the Upanishads Explained.)

The transmission of the Upanishadic teachings was not merely a matter of passing on theories, rather, it involved the transmission of the spiritual force or presence of the teacher who had at least glimpsed the Self, if not not fully realized it. The qualified aspirant was expected to be like an empty vessel where the guru's grace and wisdom could be poured.

The texts govern and explain the ideas of Self-realization, which can require the practice of yoga and meditation. They also cite the concepts of non-violence, compassion, charity and self-restraint as ethical characteristics. Many people translate the texts subjectively contributing to varied Hindu schools of philosophy and religious practice, as well as various yoga practices.

4 Key Lessons of the Upanishads

Lesson 1: Inefficiency of the Intellect

The Upanishads contain esoteric teachings about the "secret" of the transcendental Self. One of the first lessons that we learn in the Upanishads is the inadequacy of the intellect. Human intellect is not an adequate tool to understand the immense complexity of reality. The Upanishads do not claim that our brain is entirely useless; it certainly has its use. However, when it is used to unlock the great mysteries of life, the eternal and the infinite, then it simply is not enough. The highest understanding, according to this view, comes from direct perception and intuition.

The Upanishads contain the knowledge of the invisible and subtle aspects of creation — namely the Self, the breath, the deities in the body and the Supreme Brahman. Therefore, when you read the Upanishads, you enter a hidden realm, which is not perceptible to the senses or comprehensible to the intellect. The Upanishads are, therefore, special. They challenge you to rise above your ordinary thinking and see the world differently with the vision of your inner soul.

Lesson 2: The Core of Self

The central and most important theme is the realization that the ultimate, formless and inconceivable Brahman is the same as Atman. Brahman represents the entire universe, and the Atman is a little piece of that divine oneness that we contain inside us.

The Upanishads tell us that the core of our own self is not the body or the mind, but Atman. Atman is the core of all creatures, our innermost essence. It can only be perceived by direct experience through meditation. That is when we are at the deepest level of our existence.

Lesson 3: General Principles for Humanity

Even though the Upanishads do not offer a single comprehensive system of thought, they do develop some basic general principles. Some of these principles are dharma, karma, samsara and moksha.

From Sanskrit, dharma means “right behavior” or “duty.” It is the idea that we all have a social obligation and specific responsibilities.

Karma, which literally means “action,” is the idea that all actions have consequences, good or bad. It's the future consequences of one’s current intentions, thoughts, behaviors and actions. Karma determines the conditions of the next life, just like our life is conditioned by our previous karma. There is no judgment or forgiveness, simply an impersonal, natural and eternal law operating in the universe. Those who do good will be reborn in better conditions while those who are evil will be reborn in worse conditions. (Learn more in The Law of Karma: How Karmic Forces Really Work.)

It is the accumulation of karma that binds us to samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. The concept of samsara is reincarnation, the idea that after we die, our soul will be reborn again in another body.

To escape the endless cycle of samsara requires one to attain enlightenment through the realization of Atman/Brahman. That brings us to moksha, which means "liberation" or "release." The eternal cycle of deaths and resurrection can be seen as a pointless repetition with no ultimate goal attached to it. Moksha is the liberation from this never-ending cycle of reincarnation, a way to escape this repetition. (Learn more in The Meaning of Moksha.)

Lesson 4: Self-Realization

We all seek to maximize happiness and minimize pain and suffering. Beneath this fundamental theme is the urge to find our true identity. Self-realization — the recovery of our true identity as Atman — depends on applying discernment to everything that is presenting itself to our conscious awareness; realizing that any object of consciousness may or may not be Self. Self will always remain the transcendental subject.

I am not this (idam na aham)
I am not that (tan na aham)
Neither this, nor that (neti-neti)

So, then, who am I?

For mankind, the Upanishads might just be the first offering of systematic and reflective thought on the relationship between the “above” and the “below.” It’s the first offering for mankind that teaches us how to find the point of connection between the internal and the external.

The more one delves into this great collection of texts, the more one will see all the grandiose questions that begin to arise. The Upanishads want us to understand and be in the place of connection between the breath and the cosmos, Atman and Brahman.

Putting the Upanishads Into Practice

Practice non-violence, compassion, charity, self-restraint, meditation, introspection and the knowing that behind all — subjective and objective — we are all part of the Whole. When wisdom dawns on us, our sense of identity shifts from the body, mind and external world, to the witnessing of Self. Self-realization is the end of all suffering, which is the highest human objective.

It is through methodical exertion that you are able to attain a higher state of consciousness; realizing Oneness. Yoga brings an awareness to the quest for identity. Meditation identifies Brahman/Atman. See through all eyes, hear through all ears, breathe through every breathing being in the universe, illuminate every single mind, shine in every star, and spread out infinitely the interstices between galaxies and infinite universes that constitute the cells of our space and time transcending Being-Consciousness.

Tat tvam asi! That art thou!