What is Yoga?

As a well cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different colour of light, so does the word Yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavour to win inner peace and happiness.

Many people are taking up Yoga techniques for physical exercise and most are unaware of the history of Yoga. When I first started to practice Yoga I had no idea of its history or the meaning of such terms as Hatha Yoga. I discovered that for every ten people I asked the question ‘What is Hatha Yoga?’ I received ten different answers.

Yoga is not something you can explain as you would a game of rugby. The subject is simply too vast. It is also a unique experience to each individual. However, what one can do is provide a framework of understanding. I shall endeavour to do this the best I can.

Yoga has been developed over thousands of years and, in ancient times, the tradition was for students to live, work and study with their teacher. This is the Gurukula system (Guru meaning teacher; kula meaning home). Students would traditionally spend twelve years learning from a master of Yoga.

Only in recent history have these teachings been made so readily available, and this is by no means an accident. Recent masters of Yoga, such as Swami Sivananda, 1887-1963, recognized the need to open the teachings of Yoga to the world. A world increasingly fast paced and material and a world losing its understanding, appreciation and respect of nature. These masters were fully aware of the down side of opening up these ancient teachings; namely misconceptions, misunderstandings and, in the wrong hands, abuse. However they deemed the need too great to ignore and trusted the advantages to far outweigh the disadvantages.

Yoga is not a religion. You don’t have to adopt any beliefs, gurus or foreign deities. There is no conflict with whatever you believe in. You should question and challenge everything and take nothing at face value. I recently read in a national newspaper that a church had banned Yoga lessons from taking place within its grounds. The reasons given showed a complete misunderstanding of what Yoga actually is.

In general, Yoga is any practice that can turn the practitioner inward to find and experience an individual’s true essence, to realize or awaken to his/her spiritual nature. When the word Yoga is first mentioned most people immediately think of some physical practice for stretching and stress reduction. This is one aspect of Yoga and actually only a very small part, relatively recent in development.

Most people who practice Yoga practice Hatha Yoga, enjoying its enormous physical and mental benefits. Hatha Yoga consists of physical postures, asanas, and breathing techniques, pranayama. The practice of Hatha Yoga develops a healthy, strong and flexible body and mind. This prepares the Yogi for the more advanced stages of Yoga, namely stillness of mind and Union of Body, Mind, and Soul.

There are several schools of Hatha Yoga which students may follow. They include Sivananda Yoga, founded by Swami Sivananda. Sivananda Yoga focuses on five key principles, namely; proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet, and positive thinking. Iyengar yoga, founded by B.K.S. Iyengar, is known for the precision of the asanas and the use of props (chairs, belts, weights, etc.). Ashtanga yoga, developed by K. Pattabhi Jois, which might be the most physically demanding school of yoga, focuses on intense vinyasa (a steady flow of connected asanas). Integral yoga, founded by Sri Swami Satchidananda, integrates various forms of yoga to benefit the whole person, emotionally, spiritually and physically. There are also numerous other schools.

It is interesting to note that Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), BKS Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga), T.K.V. Desikachar (ViniYoga), Indra Devi (The First Lady of Yoga) all share the same Guru, Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya taught Yoga to suit the individual, hence the four disciples above developing their own style. Indeed I’m sure it wouldn’t be far from the truth to say that most of the respected Yoga Teachers of today have studied under one of Krishnamacharya’s disciples, if not then from someone who has been greatly influenced by them.

Whilst the vast majority of practitioners will not go beyond the physical practice of Hatha Yoga it is a worthwhile exercise to understand how Hatha Yoga fits in with the wider picture of Yoga.

The 4 Paths of Yoga

There are four main paths of Yoga – Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Jnana Yoga. Each is suited to a different temperament or approach to life. All the paths lead ultimately to the same destination – to union of Body, Mind and Soul.

To maintain balance it is advised that a Yogi practises, to some degree, all four paths. Hatha Yoga acts as a tool to ensure the Yogi’s body and mind remain strong, healthy, and flexible. Whatever the chosen path – the healthier the body and mind, the greater chance of a productive and long life!

Often called the “royal road” it offers a comprehensive method for controlling the waves of thought by enhancing our mental and physical energy. Raja Yoga is also called Ashtanga Yoga referring to the eight limbs leading to absolute mental control. The chief practice of Raja Yoga is meditation. It also includes all other methods which help one to control body, energy, senses and mind. Hatha Yoga can be used by the Raja Yogi to gain control of the physical body and the subtle life force called Prana. When body and energy are under control meditation comes naturally.

Karma Yoga, The Yoga of Action

It is the path chosen primarily by those of an outgoing nature. It purifies the heart by teaching you to act selflessly, without thought of gain or reward. By detaching yourself from the fruits of your actions, you learn to sublimate the ego. To achieve this, it is helpful to keep your mind focused by repeating a mantra while engaged in any activity. Mother Teresa is a wonderful example.

Bhakti Yoga, The Path of Devotion or Divine Love

This path appeals particularly to those of an emotional nature. The Bhakti Yogi is motivated chiefly by the power of love. Through prayer, worship and ritual he surrenders himself, channelling and transmuting his emotions into unconditional love or devotion. Chanting or singing form a substantial part of Bhakti Yoga.

Jnana Yoga, The Yoga of Knowledge or Wisdom

This is the most difficult path, requiring tremendous strength of will and intellect. Taking the philosophy of Vedanta (ancient scriptures of India) the Jnana Yogi uses his mind to inquire into its own nature. We perceive the space inside and outside a glass as different, just as we see ourselves as separate from others. Jnana Yoga leads the devotee to experience his unity with others directly by breaking the glass and dissolving the veils of ignorance. Before practicing Jnana Yoga, the aspirant needs to have integrated the lessons of the other yogic paths – for without selflessness and love, strength of body and mind, the search for self-realization can become mere idle speculation.

Raja Yoga (Also referred to as Ashtanga Yoga) – The Eight Limbs of Yoga

As the majority of people relate to Raja Yoga, the Yoga of meditation, I will explain Raja Yoga in more detail.

According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the ancient texts that is the basis for the philosophy behind Yoga, there are eight “limbs” (Ashtanga in Sanskrit) of yoga. Each limb relates to an aspect of achieving a healthy and fulfilling life, and each builds upon the one before it. You may be surprised to hear that only one of the limbs involves the performance of yoga postures, and these are sitting meditative asanas. Here is a description of the eight limbs.

1. Yama: Five ethical guidelines regarding moral behaviour towards others:

  • Ahimsa: Non violence
  • Satya: Truthfulness
  • Asteya: Non stealing
  • Brahmacharya: Non lust
  • Aparigraha: Non acquiring

2. Niyama: Five ethical guidelines regarding moral behaviour towards oneself:

  • Saucha: Cleanliness
  • Santosa: Contentment
  • Tapas: Sustained practice
  • Svadhyaya: Self study
  • Isvara pranidhana: Surrender to life

3. Asana: Practice of yoga postures.

4. Pranayama: Practice of breathing exercises.

5. Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the senses, meaning that the exterior world does not affect the peace within us.

6. Dharana: Concentration, meaning the ability to focus on something uninterrupted by external or internal distractions.

7. Dhyana: Meditation. Building upon Dharana, the concentration is no longer focused on a single thing but is all encompassing.

8. Samadhi: Bliss. Building upon Dhyana, the transcendence of the self through meditation. The merging of the self with the universe. Sometimes translated as enlightenment.

If you wish to build an interest in Yoga do not blindly put faith in others. Trust your instinct and, as much as is possible, find a teacher who is respectful of the traditions of yoga

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