An Introduction to Yoga

Yoga is the traditional physical and mental disciplines aiming at keeping the mind and body healthy and fit. Yoga is closely related to meditative practices in Buddhism and Hinduism. In Hinduism, Yoga also refers to one of the six orthodox (astika) schools of Hindu philosophy and to the object toward which that school expresses its practices. Yoga does not perceive man as having only a physical body. On the contrary, it lays greater importance on the value of the mind and soul which characterizes an individual’s personality. It must, therefore, be remembered that whenever Yoga refers to good health it always includes, in addition to physical fitness, the mental and moral reliability of the person as well. When the mind is clear and is engaged in work, one has progressed well on the path of self improvement, and thus to a holistic life.

The history of Yoga dates back to the time of the birth of Hindu mythology. Lord Shiva is seen to mediate in the typical Padmasana posture. However, the Vedic Samhitas contain references to ascetics, while ascetic practices (tapas) are referred in the Brahmanas (900 to 500 BCE), early explanations on the Vedas. Several seals excavated at Indus Valley Civilization (3300-1700 B.C.) sites portray figures in positions similar to a common Yoga or meditation pose, showing a form of ritual authority. Some type of association between the Indus Valley seals and later Yoga and meditation practices is analyzed by many scholars, though there is no conclusive evidence. The word Yoga seems to have been first used in the Rigveda, then in the Yajurveda and Atharvaveda and also in such later Vedic works as the Satapath.

The objective of Yoga may range from improving health to achieving Moksha. Within Jainism and the monist schools of Advaita Vedanta and Shaivism the primary aim of Yoga is attaining Moksha, which is release from all worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara), at which point there is a realization of identity with the Supreme Brahman. In the Mahabharata, the purpose of Yoga is variously described as entering the realm of Brahma, as Brahman, or as perceiving the Brahman or Atman that pervades all things. For the Bhakti schools of Vaishnavism, bhakti or service to Svayam bhagavan itself may be the final goal of the Yoga process, where the goal is to enjoy an everlasting relationship with Vishnu.

The shramanic tradition and the Upanishadic tradition developed the methods for experiencing higher states of consciousness in meditation. A sentence in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad is one of the earliest Upanishads (800-500 BCE) that is an early textual reference to meditation. Other scholars translate the sentence in various ways. The Buddhist texts are probably the earliest texts that describe meditation techniques. Buddhism state meditative practices, which had existed before the Buddha as well as those which were first developed within Buddhism. In Hindu literature, the term “Yoga” was initially seen in the Katha Upanishad, where it refers to control of the senses and the pause of mental activity that finally leads to a supreme state. Important textual sources for the evolving concept of Yoga are the middle Upanishads, (ca. 400 BCE), the Mahabharata including the Bhagavad Gita (ca. 200 BCE), and also the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (150 BCE).

Yoga is classified into some particular heads, according to Hindu Philosophy major branches of Yoga include Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Raja Yoga is also known simply as only “Yoga” in the context of Hindu philosophy and was compiled in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is part of the Samkhya tradition. Many other Hindu texts discuss the various aspects of Yoga, including the Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and various Tantras. The Sanskrit word Yoga offers several meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj that means “to control”, “to yoke” or “to unite”. Translations include “joining”, “union”, “uniting”, “conjunction”, and “means”. Outside India, the term Yoga is typically associated with Hatha Yoga and its asanas (postures) or also as a form of exercise. The individual who practices Yoga or follows the Yoga philosophy is called a Yogi or sadhaka.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comprise an integral chapter in the development of Yoga in India. In Indian philosophy, Yoga is the name of one of the six orthodox philosophical schools. The Yoga philosophy is closely associated with the Samkhya School. The Yoga school that is expounded by the sage Patanjali acknowledges the Samkhya psychology and metaphysics, but is more theistic than the Samkhya. The explanation of Yoga by Samkhya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, detailing and defining its elements, explaining their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage (bandha), and describing their state of unscrambling or separation and releasing (mok?a), while Yoga treats purposely the dynamics of the process for the straightening out, and the instructions for convenient techniques to achieve salvation. Patanjali is extensively regarded as the founder of the formal Yoga philosophy. Patanjali’s Yoga is known as Raja Yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. Patanjali defines the word “Yoga” in his second sutra.

The phrase by Patanjali – `Yoga? citta-vrtti-nirodhah actually defines Yoga. This short definition centers on the meaning of three Sanskrit terms. One of the Yoga Gurus has translated it as “Yoga is the inhibition (nirodhah) of the modifications (vrtti) of the mind (citta)”. The use of the word nirodhah in the opening definition of Yoga is an example of the significant role that Buddhist technical terminology and concepts play in the Yoga Sutra; this role proposes that Patanjali was aware of Buddhist ideas of his system. Swami Vivekananda translates the phrase as “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).”

Patanjali is the founder of the system referred to as “Ashtanga Yoga” or the “Eight-Limbed Yoga”. This eight-limbed concept is derived from the 29th Sutra of the 2nd book, and is a nucleus characteristic of basically every Raja Yoga variation that is taught today. The Eight Limbs include Yama (The five “abstentions”): non-violence, non-covetousness, non-lying, non-sensuality, and non-possessiveness; Niyama (The five “observances”): purity, austerity, contentment, study, and surrender to God; Asana: Literally means “seat”, and in Patanjali refers to the seated position used for meditation; Pranayama (“Suspending Breath”): Prana, breath, “ayama”, to restrain or stop – also explained as control of the life force; Pratyahara (“Abstraction”) or the withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects; Dharana (“Concentration”) or fixing the attention on a single object; Dhyana (“Meditation”) or intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation and finally, Samadhi (“Liberation”) or merging consciousness with the object of meditation.

The above mentioned steps of Yoga is believed to be the systematic approach of practicing Yoga represents the way of life which endows perfect health-physical, mental, moral and spiritual. While formulating the systematic path of Yoga, Patanjali specially tried train the beginners to reach the ultimate level of salvation. To achieve this great art and science of life, a comprehensive practical system of self culture has been formulated by Patanjali in his Ashtanga Yoga. This system, through the development of one`s body, mind and psychic potencies, ultimately leads to physical strength and further on to spiritual consciousness. However besides, the above mentioned path, spirituality in Yoga should be started with the properties of Yoga like Achara, Vichara, Ahara and Vihara. ‘Bhavas’ are the attitude of the Yogin, who slowly incorporates bhavas like Jnana, Vairagya, Dharma and Aishwarya into his lifestyle. Parikarmas are social attitudes of the Yogins that include Maitri, Karuna, Mudita and Upeksha.

The Bhagavad Gita uses the term Yoga extensively in a number of ways. In addition to an entire chapter that is dedicated to traditional Yoga practice, including meditation, it introduces three prominent types of Yoga, namely Karma Yoga: Yoga of action, Bhakti Yoga: Yoga of devotion and Jnana Yoga: Yoga of knowledge. Madhusudana Sarasvati classified the Gita into three sections, with the first six chapters dealing with Karma Yoga, the middle six with Bhakti Yoga, and the last six with Jnana (knowledge). Other commentators credit a different ‘Yoga’ to each chapter, separating eighteen different Yogas.

Hatha Yoga is a particular system of Yoga that was described by Yogi Swatmarama in his Hatha Yoga Pradipika of the 15th century India. Hatha Yoga is substantially different from the Raja Yoga of Patanjali and in that it focuses on shatkarma, the purification of the physical body as it leads to the purification of the mind (ha), and prana, or vital energy (tha). Compared to the seated asana, or sitting meditation posture, of Patanjali`s Raja Yoga marks the development of asanas (plural) into the full body ‘postures’ that are widely popular in contemporary India. Hatha Yoga in its various modern variations is the style that many people relate with the word “Yoga” in present day.

Tantra is supposed to alter the relation of its practitioners to the ordinary social, religious, and logical realism in which they survive. Through Tantric practice an individual can perceive reality as maya, illusion, and the individual also achieves liberation from it. This particular path to salvation amongst the several offered by Hinduism, connects Tantra to those practices of Indian religions, such as Yoga, meditation, and social renunciation, which are focused on temporary or permanent withdrawal from social relationships and modes. During tantric practices and studies, the student is instructed further through the processes of meditation technique, particularly chakra meditation. It is considered to be a kind of Kundalini Yoga for the purpose of moving the Goddess into the chakra located in the “heart,” for contemplation and worship.

The practice of Kundalini Yoga consists of various bodily postures, expressive movements and utterances, character logical cultivations, breathing patterns, and degrees of concentration. Like all other forms of Yoga, Kundalini also links movement with breadth. The way it differs is its direct focus on moving energy through the chakra system, stimulating the energy in the lower chakras and moving it to the higher chakras. Kundalini Yoga awakens the energy that resides in the spine. Although Kundalini is very much a physical form of Yoga, the main benefit is derived from the inner experience. Most popularly known as the `Yoga of awareness`, Kundalini Yoga awakens the unlimited potential already existing in all human beings. When this energy is awakened in the body, it gives the individual enhanced intuition and mental clarity and creative potential.

Yoga benefits at both mental and physical level. At the physical level, Yoga and its cleansing practices have proven to be extremely effective for a variety of disorders. Yoga is extremely effective in increasing flexibility, since it acts upon the various joints of the body including those joints that are never really on the `radar screen` let alone exercised. It also increases lubrication of the joints, ligaments and tendons. Yoga is perhaps the only form of activity which massages all the internal glands and organs of the body in a thorough manner. Yoga acts in a healthy manner on the various body parts. This stimulation and massage of the organs in turn benefits the mass by keeping away diseases. Yoga ensures the optimum blood supply to various parts of the body, by gently stretching muscles and joints as well as massaging the various organs.

Regular Yoga practice brings about mental clarity and calmness, increases body awareness and also relieves chronic stress patterns, relaxes the mind, centers attention and also sharpens concentration. Yoga strives to increase self-awareness on both physical and psychological level. Studies have also shown that Yoga effects in increased brain activity with better performance and doctors even suggest that Yoga can enhance cognitive performance. Presently, the Yoga Institutes in India are employing various ways and means to support healthy mind and body. The participants can attend classes and get involved in various other activities such as meditation, chanting, karma Yoga, walks, and spontaneous gatherings and workshops. These institutes or ashrams create an openness of the mind, thus the visitors get introduced to a specific style of Yoga.

Yogic theory and practice in India has been followed since ages. The knowledge attained through Yoga is not merely that of the practical kind relating to techniques, but especially of a spiritual type pertaining to grasping something about the nature of the self at rest. Yoga is a complete system that includes practices for body, mind and spirit such as ethics, meditation and physical postures. Classical Yoga is practical and is applied to daily life. It is total control of personality complexes which reflects after practicing Yoga regularly and consciously. Yoga strongly believes in balanced state of mind. In this state, work performed can be of high quality. The science of Yoga is for better and healthy living. It is education of total personality development and the most important aspect of Yoga is the sense of confidence that it generates. This is so because the Yogi views whatever is there in the universe, is a miniature form within every being.


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