What is Yoga?
The word yoga means “union” in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India where yoga originated. In reality it’s a very general term that encompasses many different disciplines, from the purely physical to the purely spiritual – and everything in between. Yoga is a vast collection of spiritual techniques and practices all aimed at integrating or uniting the mind, body and spirit and achieving a state of enlightenment or oneness with the universe.
What is normally thought of as “yoga” in the West is really Hatha Yoga, one of the many paths of yoga. Yoga is said to have 8 paths in all known as the ‘Eight limbs of Yoga’.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
According to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali often called the father of yoga, 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. Here is a brief description of the eight limbs.
The Yamas are the moral, ethical and societal guidelines for the practicing yogi. These guidelines are all expressed in the positive, and thus become emphatic descriptions of how a yogi behaves and relates to her world when truly immersed in the unitive sate of yoga. The Five ethical guidelines regarding moral behavior towards others is-
Asteya: Non stealing
Brahmacharya: Non lust
Aparigraha: Non covetousness
This eight-limbed Yoga system contains the five internal practices of Niyama (observance). They are the five ethical guidelines regarding moral behavior towards oneself-
Tapas: Sustained practice
Svadhyaya: Self study
Isvara pranidhana: Surrender to God
Practice of yoga postures. The heart of any yoga practice is the performance of yoga positions (called asanas), each of which has specific physical and and mental benefits.
Practice of breathing exercises. Prana translates into “life force energy” and Yama translates into “control or mastery of”. Thus, Pranyama is used to control, cultivate, and modify the Prana in the body. Prana is taken in through the air we breathe, and since the Pranayama exercises increase the amount of air we take in, they also increase our intake of Prana.
Pratyahara is withdrawal of the senses. Pratyahara occurs during meditation, breathing exercises, or the practice of yoga postures any time when you are directing your attention inward. Withdrawal of the senses, meaning that the exterior world is not a distraction from the interior world within oneself.
Concentration or dharana involves teaching the mind to focus on one point or image. Concentration, meaning the ability to focus on something uninterrupted by external or internal distractions.
Uninterrupted meditation without an object is called dhyana. Concentration (dharana) leads to the state of meditation. The goal of meditation is not unconsciousness or nothingness. It is heightened awareness and oneness with the universe. Building upon Dharana, the concentration is no longer focused on a single thing but is all encompassing.
The ultimate goal of the eightfold path to yoga is samadhi or absolute bliss. This is pure contemplation, super consciousness, in which you and the universe are one. Those who have achieved samadhi are said to be enlightened.
Different Paths of Yoga
What we commonly call ‘Yoga’ in the West is technically Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga (ha=”sun” tha=”moon”) attains the union of mind-body-spirit though a practice of Asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (yoga breathing), mudra (body gestures) and shatkarma (internal cleansing). These body centered practices are used to purify the body and cultivate prana (life force energy) and activate kundalini, the subtle energies of the body.
The practice of Hatha Yoga can help you recognize your hidden physical and mental potentials. Through the continued performance of Asanas, you will gain flexibility and strength, and learn to be more relaxed under otherwise stressful situations. Some Hatha yoga poses also massage and tone your internal organs, and are said to help prevent diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, and hypertension. Pranayama a part of hatha yoga, on the other hand, is said to help manage asthma and bronchitis.
This particular system of yoga is the most popular one, and it is from which several other Styles of Yoga originated including Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, and Kundalini Yoga.
Raja Yoga is viewed as the “royal path” to attaining the state of yoga or unity with mind-body-spirit. Raja Yoga is so highly revered because it attains enlightenment from direct control and mastery of the mind. This approach makes Raja Yoga an extremely challenging and difficult practice to engage in. Hatha Yoga, what we usually know as just “yoga” in the West is a much easier path. Hatha Yoga aims to control the body and breath to still prana (energy) that in turn stills the mind. Although Hatha Yoga was developed as a preparation for Raja Yoga, they can be practiced simultaneously.
Jnana (wisdom or knowledge) is considered the most difficult of the four main paths of Yoga, requiring great strength of will and intellect. In Jnana yoga, the mind is used to inquire into its own nature and to transcend the mind’s identification with its thoughts and ego. The fundamental goal of Jnana yoga is to become liberated from the illusionary world of maya (thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve union of the inner Self (Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman). This is achieved by steadfastly practicing the mental techniques of self-questioning, reflection and conscious illumination that are defined in the Four Pillars of Knowledge.
Bhakti Yoga is one of the four main yogic paths to enlightenment. Bhakti means “devotion” or “love” and this path contains various practices to unite the bhakta (Bhakti Yoga practitioner) with the Divine.