Yoga: What is it?

The definition of yoga according to The Oxford Dictionary is:

A Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation.

But what does this really mean, and where did it come from? What are the three structures, the eight limbs, the four (or six) branches/paths? Is yoga an exercise form, a religion, or something else? I will attempt to answer some of these questions in a simple form that you can move on from with a basic understanding.

Yoga History

It is hard to trace the history of yoga beyond written accounts, the earliest writings were done on palm leaves, easily destroyed or lost, and so much of the beginnings of yoga were passed on by word of mouth. The earliest images known of are thought to be around seven thousand years old, and the earliest surviving text using the word yoga ‘The Rig Veda’ dates back to 12-1500 BC. Yoga’s development can be traced back about five thousand years, though it is believed to date back as far as ten thousand years.

Yoga is a living science, one that continues to develop in accordance to the needs of humanity. If we wish to simplify the history of yoga, we can divide it’s progression into four main time frames, historical snapshots that represent the continuous development.

  • Vedic Yoga (Archaic Yoga) – The Upanishads
    Refers to the earliest evidences available to us, and blends into what some refer to as Pre-classical Yoga. The Rig Veda is one of four ‘Vedas’, collections of texts describing rituals, chants, and hymns used by the Brahmans. The Brahmans and Rishis slowly refined and developed yoga from the Vedas and documented their practice in The Upanishads. They took the ideas of ritual sacrifice and internalised it, teaching sacrifice of the ego through self-awareness, action, and wisdom. The Upanishads are often now considered part of the Vedas.
  • Classical Yoga (Râja-Yoga) – The Yoga-Sûtras
    Patanjali took the various ideas, and techniques of Vedic yoga and organised yoga practice into an ‘eight-limbed path‘ with steps toward attaining enlightenment. Written in the second century AD, Patanjali’s Sanskrit Yoga-Sûtras text is composed of just under 200 sutras (Sutra translates literally as thread). Often considered the father of yoga, Patanjali’s sutras are still a strong influence in most modern yoga styles.
  • Post-Classical Yoga (Tantra yoga)
    A few centuries later yoga masters refined a system of practices aimed at rejuvenating the body and prolonging life. Previous generations of yogis had all but ignored the body, aiming rather for leaving the body to merge with the spirit. Now some were rejecting the ancient Vedas, and embracing the physical body as a means of achieving enlightenment. With the influence of alchemy, these new yoga masters developed techniques that regarded the body as a temple of the immortal spirit, exploring the possibilities of energising it to the point of changing its biochemistry. What they developed was Tantra yoga, who’s branches include Hatha yoga, an amateur version of which is now practiced worldwide.
  • Modern yoga (Western Yoga)
    Around the 1800s, yoga masters began traveling to the West, and The 1900’s saw a succession of yoga masters spreading their teachings more widely, and the different forms of Modern yoga found their roots.
    Notable figures include:
    Swami Vivekananda who made a lasting impression on attendees at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 with his lectures about yoga and the universality of the world’s religions.
    Swami Sivananda, a practicing doctor, brought the authority of his medical background to the teachings of yoga, while explaining complex subjects in simple terms, he set up an ashram, a yoga academy. and finally the divine life society in 1935, and sent Swami Vishnudevananda to spread the practice to the West, who established an international network of Sivananda Yoga Centers.
    Indra Devi was the most influential female yogi in bringing Yoga to the West, she opened a yoga studio in Hollywood in 1947, and wrote one of the first Yoga books for Westerners in 1953.

The Four (Six, n) branches of Yoga

When you think of yoga the first thing that may come to mind is someone doing exercises on a mat. This is because Hatha Yoga is the most popular in the West. However, in Yoga there are many paths that can be taken, each appealing to different temperaments. The number of paths and ways they are categorized varies between sources, this is because yoga is a living science that changes with time, the origin starts from four main paths within Raja Yoga, but these four paths have been separated and added to leading to six (or more in some sources that separate some of these further) paths of yoga. I say separate, but it is important to understand that these different paths of Yoga are all aspects of a whole that is called Yoga. The paths of Yoga work together, like fingers on a hand.

The main paths of Yoga which are in practice today are:

  • Raja Yoga – Yoga of Self-Control
    Raja means “royal”. This path is considered to be the King of Yoga and this may be due to the fact that most of its practitioners are members of religious and spiritual orders.
    Raja Yoga aims to lead the practitioner from the illusion of the mind to liberation through the eight limbs of yoga (see below). A Raja Yogi sees the self as central, and as such, respect to oneself and for all creation are vital to this path. They achieve self-respect by first learning to be masters of themselves. If you wish to learn discipline, then Raja Yoga may suit that need.

    • Hatha Yoga – Yoga of Force, or Postures
      This branch of Yoga uses the three structures (see below) physical poses or Asana, Breathing Techniques or Pranayama, and Meditation, to achieve better physical and mental health. There are many styles within this path – Iyengar, Integral, Astanga, Kripalu, and Jiva Mukti to name a few.
      If what you want is a healthy body and a peaceful mind to go along with it, Hatha Yoga may be the path for you.
    • Karma Yoga – Yoga of Action or Selfless Service
      In this Yoga of Service every action is a form of sacrifice. Any action is done without thought of reward, incentive, or attachment, to any outcome. Through the selfless act the practitioner looses identity of self in the action and what remains is the ‘action’. It is a process of dissolving the ego or sense of self. Karma Yoga is closely tied in with the concept of reincarnation, and running through it is the idea that no effort is ever lost.
    • Jnana Yoga – Yoga of Knowing, or Mind
      Jnana Yogis aim to unify wisdom and intellect to surpass the limitations of both. Since they wish to gain knowledge, they are open to other philosophies for they believe that an open and rational mind is crucial in knowing the spirit.
      Through deep meditation the practitioner drops away all external attachments and thoughts, repeatedly peeling away layers until they are unable to strip away anything more. At this point they will have discovered their True Self (Atman). According to Jnana Yoga there are four pillars of knowledge (see below).Note: In this path of Yoga the practitioner must be extremely disciplined and have complete control over their energy (Prana) and their senses. This requires strict control over diet and day to day activities. It is a path of complete renunciation and as such reserved for those who devote their lives solely to this path. However, for those wishing to participate in worldly life – family, work, etc – it can still be useful to utilise the Jnana techniques of meditation and rational thinking.
    • Bhakti Yoga – Yoga of Devotion, or heart
      Yogis who practice this branch see the ‘Divine’ in everyone and everything. Bhakti Yoga teaches a person to have this devotion by developing a person’s love and acceptance for all things.
      This is the path of love and devotion. The subject, by immersing themselves so completely with devotion for their chosen object, merges into it. The subject and object become one, which is the Ultimate Truth (Brahman-Atman).
      Bhakti Yoga is very open, and the object of devotion can be anything or anyone. This can be in the form of a diety but the bhakti or devotion could also be directed towards formless ‘objects’ such as Love. According to Bhakti Yoga there are nine forms of devotion (see below).
  • Tantra Yoga – Yoga of Dissolution, or Rituals
    Perhaps the most misunderstood of all the paths, Tantra Yoga is about using rituals to experience what is sacred. Although it can be appied to sex, that is not the focus of it since this path aims to find what is sacred in everything we do. Central to Tantra Yoga is the concept of Kundalini-Shakti. The focus is on the subtle body, prana, chakras and awakening Kundalini energy. One of the most striking aspects of Tantra is that it does not view the body or world as an illusion. Instead it sees them as manifestations of Ultimate Reality, and as such must be treated as sacred. Both the body and the universe as a whole should be treated as divine, and nurtured as such. This path uses Mantra, Yantra, and Puja, as its main techniques (see below). Tantra Yogis must possess certain qualities like purity, humility, devotion, dedication to his Guru, cosmic love, and truthfulness among other things.

The Eight limbs of Yoga

At the core of Patanjali’s Yoga-Sûtras is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice.
Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine.

In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows:

  1. Yama :  The five restraints (code of conduct, or, universal morality)
  2. Niyama :  The five observances (positive behaviours or personal observances)
  3. Asanas :  Physical  body postures
  4. Pranayama :  Control of prana (breathing exercises)
  5. Pratyahara :  Withdrawal (control) of the senses
  6. Dharana :  Concentration (cultivating inner perceptual awareness)
  7. Dhyana :  Meditation (devotion)
  8. Samadhi :  Super-conscious state (liberation)

Find out more here 

The Three Hatha Yoga Structures

Ancient Yogis believed that to be in harmony with oneself and one’s environment, they must integrate the body, mind, and spirit. For these three to be integrated, emotion, action, and intelligence must be in balance. Yogis formulated a way to achieve and maintain this balance through exercise, breathing, and meditation – the three main Yoga structures.

Exercise: The body is treated with care and respect because it is the primary instrument in ones work and growth. Yoga Exercises improve circulation, stimulate the abdominal organs, and put pressure on the glandular system of the body, which can result in better general health.

Breathing: Techniques were developed based on the concept that breath is the source of life. In Yoga, students gain breathing control as they slowly increase their breathing techniques.

Meditation: Contrary to the misconception that your mind has to go blank, in meditation, activities of the mind are brought into focus resulting in a ‘quiet’ mind.

By practicing physical poses and breathing techniques that develop awareness of our body, and meditation to develop awareness of our mind, Yoga helps practitioners to focus and relieves us from our everyday stresses.

The Jnana Yoga Four Pillars of Knowledge

The four pillars of knowledge or the ways to liberation

1) Discernment
2) Renunciation
3) The urge for Liberation
4) The six virtues (tranquility, sense restraint, cessation, endurance, faith and mental collectedness)

Find out more here

The Bhakti Yoga Nine forms of Devotion

According to Bhakti Yoga there are nine forms of devotion. Although these are prescribed practices their performance should be done spontaneously, inspired by the devotion that the practitioner feels.

1) Listening to devotional songs and scriptures
2) Chanting and Mantra
3) Constant thought of the ‘object’ of devotion
4) Worshipping the feet of the Guru
5) Ritualistic worship
6) Prostration
7) Self-less Service
8) Friendship with the ‘object’ of devotion
9) Self-offering

Find out more here

The Tantra Yoga Techniques

Mantras are sacred Sanskrit sounds that are manifestations of the divine power. (Use of Mantras is sometimes classified as Mantra Yoga as a seperate Yoga in it’s own right)

Yantras are sacred geometric forms used for concentration and visualization in Tantric rituals.

Puja is the active devotional worship of a chosen deity through offerings of food, incense, light, water and gems.

Find out more here


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