We look at the origins of yoga and what yoga really means.
What is yoga? Do we really know what it means? Is it a practice for stress relief? Is it to make our bodies fit and flexible? Is it to feel relaxed and at peace? Is it a class we do once a week or daily incorporating asana (postures), pranayama (breathing) and relaxation practices? Or do we have to practice deep meditation in the forest to be practising yoga?
The truth is that each of these ideas are just a part of the huge science that is yoga. There are many ways to look at what is yoga and we will begin by looking at where yoga came from.
It is said that, mythologically, Lord Shiva was the creator of yoga and tantra and his first disciple was his wife Parvati. We know that yoga truly began when humans became aware of themselves as individual beings and started to ask the questions, “Who am I?”, “What is the purpose of life?” and “Why am I here?” This is the point where the individual began his search for self discovery and this later became what we now know as yoga. The earliest written evidence of what we call yoga is more than 5,000 years old, dating back to the early Vedas and we know that before that yoga was propagated by word of mouth from teacher to student. There is evidence that yoga was more widespread than just the area now known as India. It is believed that yoga covered the entire world but due to various reasons such as war, famine and politics, this knowledge was lost. Yoga almost disappeared from India also but managed to survive. This knowledge was preserved and became a part of the Indian way of life.Knowledge of the body and its functions was the beginning of self-understanding. Knowledge of the mind was the start of self-awareness. Knowledge and the experience of the spirit was the start of self-realisation. For these a healthy body was required and therefore cleansing practices (shatkarmas), yoga postures (asanas) and breathing practices (pranayama) were developed. A clear mind was also needed so systems of concentration and meditation practices were developed. As the population grew and communities developed, philosophies and behaviour evolved to help maintain the balance between each other.
The word ‘yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yug’ which means yoke. Yoke means a joining together, harmony, balance, unity. Yoga therefore means union, self-knowledge, awareness and understanding. Ultimately it means union with the higher consciousness. There are many divisions and different practices under the umbrella of yoga but at the end they all lead to the same thing, which is self-discovery. The aim is to give you the realisation of yourself as an individual, your strengths, weaknesses, everything, and to unfold your higher nature.
Evolution is a process through which we learn to harmonise ourselves. We are all on the path of evolution but yoga helps us to accelerate on that path. It is a progressive path developed by those who had achieved self-realisation and has been carried on by different sannyasins, saints and sadhus. Yoga is a combination of philosophy, lifestyle and techniques that evolves the whole person. It is important here to see that yoga looks at the whole picture and evolves all aspects of the individual, the physical body, mind, emotions, wisdom, ethics, relationships and spiritual reality of each of us.
Yogic philosophy comes from many systems with the major ones being Samkhya, Vedanta and Tantra. It helps us to understand our personal reality and place in the family, society, planet and universe. It is not essential to believe in every aspect of it and yoga is not a religion but it is encouraged that we understand the yogic philosophy. There are also lifestyle principles that cover how we live our life regarding our personal health and wellbeing, our environment, interactions with others, work, behaviour and relationship with the universe.
Ultimately Swami Satyananda defines yoga as a method by which consciousness is disconnected from the entanglement with mind and the manifested world, resulting in yoga or union. If we look at Patanjalis Yoga Sutras, written more than 2,500 years ago, he gives the definition of yoga in the first two sutras. The first sutra, Atha yoga anushasanam means, ‘Therefore, yoga is the way to control the subtle expressions of one’s personality.’ He is then asked what happens once this has been attained he answers in the second sutra, Yogaschitta vrtti nirodhah. ‘Then one attains the ability to block the currents of consciousness.’ He says that to block the patterns of consciousness is yoga. To be able to control the functioning of the mind. Now this definition of yoga is much deeper than just finding peace of mind. It involves blocking the disturbances of awareness. This sutra hints that a different state of consciousness can be achieved by blocking the flow of consciousness. Now this is a big subject that can take some time to get your head around so instead we will look at what yogic practices can be incorporated into our lives, which may lead us to block these patterns within our individual consciousness.
The well known ones are, of course, postures (asanas) and breathing practices (pranayama). Then there are the cleansing practices (shatkarmas), postural attitudes (mudras) and muscle locks (bandhas). There is also mantra yoga, such as chanting of Om, mental relaxation (pratyahara), concentration and meditation (dharana, dhyana and samadhi). The general lifestyle can also be looked at and tailored to suit a more wholistic lifestyle, following the yogic principles. Karma yoga is an important lifestyle principle which involves a way of living and working for others and the world without attachment to the fruits. It is one of the paths that Swami Satyananda always encourages and believes is one of the most important. There are many other practices which can be incorporated such as bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion and jnana yoga, the yoga of knowledge.
The science of yoga covers a huge array of subjects and we can pick and choose what we feel is right for us at this time. The practices need to be tailored to suit our needs and requirements. It is said that what is best is to use a combination of these practices and principles and apply them to our lives. However nothing is set in stone and it is up to us where we want to go with yoga and what we want to achieve from it. It is not important where we begin with yoga, only that we aim to have harmony within the body and mind.
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