What is it? Why do people do it? What can be gained from it? This is a rich and wonderful subject, yet this is just a beginning into the insights of the practice an study of yoga.
Yoga is the physical, mental and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India with a view to attain a state of permanent peace of mind in order to experience one’s true self. The term yoga can be derived from either of two roots, yujir yoga (to yoke) or yuj samādhau (to concentrate). The Yoga Sutras of Patahjali defines yoga as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind”. Yoga has also been popularly defined as “union with the divine” in other contexts and traditions.
Various traditions of yoga are found in Hinduism, Buddhism and Janism. In Hinduism, yoga is one of the six antika schools (accepts authority of Vedas) of Hindu philosophy. Yoga is also an important part of Vajrayana and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy.
Gurus from India later introduced yoga to the west in the late 19th and early 20th century. In the 1980s, yoga became popular as a system of physical exercise across the Western world. This form of yoga is often called Hatha yoga. Many studies have tried to determine the effectiveness of yoga as a complementary intervention for cancer, schizophrenia, asthma, and heart disease. In a national survey, long-term yoga practitioners in the United States reported musculo–skeletal and mental health improvements.
There are very many compound words containing yog in Sanskrit. Yoga can take on meanings such as “connection”, “contact”, “method”, “application”, “addition”, and “performance”. In simpler words, Yoga also means “combined“. For example, guṇá-yoga means “contact with a cord”; chakrá-yoga has a medical sense of “applying a splint or similar instrument by means of pulleys (in case of dislocation of the thigh)”; chandrá-yoga has the astronomical sense of “conjunction of the moon with a constellation”; puṃ-yoga is a grammatical term expressing “connection or relation with a man”, etc. Thus, bhakti-yoga means “devoted attachment” in the monotheistic Bhakti movement. The term kriyā-yoga has a grammatical sense, meaning “connection with a verb”. But the same compound is also given a technical meaning in the Yoga Sutras, designating the “practical” aspects of the philosophy, i.e. the “union with the Supreme” due to performance of duties in everyday life.
Someone who practices yoga or follows the yoga philosophy with a high level of commitment is called a yogi (may be applied to a male or a female) or yogini (traditionally denoting a female).
The ultimate goal of Yoga is liberation though the exact definition of what form this takes depends on the philosophical or theological system with which it is conjugated. In Shaiva theology, yoga is used to unite kundalini with Shiva. Mahabharata defines the purpose of yoga as the experience of uniting the individual Atman with the universal Brahman that pervades all things.
Apart from the spiritual goals, the physical postures of yoga are used to alleviate health problems, reduce stress and make the spine supple in contemporary times. Yoga is also used as a complete exercise program and physical therapy routine.
The origins of yoga are a matter of debate. It may have pre-Vedic origins. Ascetic practices, concentration and bodily postures used by Vedic priests to conduct Vedic ritual of fire sacrifice may have been precursors to yoga. Pre-philosophical speculations of yoga begin to emerge in the texts of c. 500–200 BCE. Between 200 BCE–500 CE philosophical schools of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were taking form and a coherent philosophical system of yoga began to emerge. The Middle Ages saw the development of many satellite traditions of yoga. Yoga came to the attention of an educated western public in the mid-19th century along with other topics of Indian philosophy.
This dichotomization is too simplistic, for continuities can undoubtedly be found between renunciation and Vedic Brahmanism, while elements from non-Brahmanical, Sramana traditions also played an important part in the formation of the renunciate ideal.
The term “yoga” first appears in Hindu where it is defined as the steady control of the senses, which along with cessation of mental activity, leads to the supreme state. Katha Upanishad integrates the monism of early Upanishads with concepts of samkhya and yoga. It defines various levels of existence according to their proximity to the innermost being Ātman. Yoga is therefore seen as a process of interiorization or ascent of consciousness.
The Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of the Lord’) uses the term “yoga” extensively in a variety of ways. In addition to an entire chapter dedicated to traditional yoga practice, including meditation, it introduces three prominent types of yoga: (1) Karma yoga: The yoga of action. (2) Bhakti yoga: The yoga of devotion. And (3) Jnana yoga: The yoga of knowledge. Nirodha–yoga emphasizes progressive withdrawal from the contents of empirical consciousness such as thoughts, sensations etc. until purusha (Self) is realized. Terms like vichara (subtle reflection), viveka (discrimination). There is no uniform goal of yoga mentioned in the Mahabharata. Separation of self from matter, perceiving Brahman everywhere, entering into Brahman etc. are all described as goals of yoga. Samkhya and yoga are conflated together and some verses describe them as being identical.
Another yoga system that predated the Buddhist school is Jain yoga. But since Jain sources postdate Buddhist ones, it is difficult to distinguish between the nature of the early Jain school and elements derived from other schools. The early Buddhist texts describe meditative practices and states, some of which the Buddha borrowed from the ascetic tradition. One key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative absorption must be combined with liberating cognition. Meditative states alone are not an end, for according to the Buddha, even the highest meditative state is not liberating. Instead of attaining a complete cessation of thought, some sort of mental activity must take place: a liberating cognition, based on the practice of mindful awareness. The Buddha also departed from earlier yogic thought in discarding the early Brahminic notion of liberation at death. While the Upanishads thought liberation to be a realization at death of a non-dual meditative state where the ontological duality between subject and object was abolished, Buddha’s theory of liberation depended upon this duality because liberation to him was an insight into the subject’s experience.
Tantrism is a practice that is supposed to alter the relation of its practitioners to the ordinary social, religious, and logical reality in which they live. Through Tantric practice, an individual perceives reality as maya, illusion, and the individual achieves liberation from it. Both Tantra and yoga offer paths that relieve a person from depending on the world. Where yoga relies on progressive restriction of inputs from outside; Tantra relies on transmutation of all external inputs so that one is no longer dependent on them, but can take them or leave them at will. They both make a person independent. This particular path to salvation among the several offered by Hinduism, links Tantrism to those practices of Indian religions, such as yoga, meditation, and social renunciation, which are based on temporary or permanent withdrawal from social relationships and modes. During tantric practices and studies, the student is instructed further in meditation technique, particularly chakra meditation. This is often in a limited form in comparison with the way this kind of meditation is known and used by Tantric practitioners and yogis elsewhere, but is more elaborate than the initiate’s previous meditation.
Hatha yoga differs substantially from other yogas in that it focuses on the purification of the physical body as leading to the purification of the mind (ha), and vital energy. It is similar to a diving board – preparing the body for purification, so that it may be ready to receive higher techniques of meditation. The word “Hatha” comes from “Ha” which means Sun, and “Tha” which means Moon.
The American College of Sports Medicine supports the integration of yoga into the exercise regimens of healthy individuals as long as properly-trained professionals deliver instruction. The College cites yoga’s promotion of “profound mental, physical and spiritual awareness” and its benefits as a form of stretching, and as an enhancer of breath control and of core strength.
While much of the medical community views the results of yoga research to be significant, others argue that there were many flaws that undermine results. Much of the research on yoga has been in the form of preliminary studies or clinical trials of low methodological quality, including small sample sizes, inadequate blinding, lack of randomization, and high risk of bias. Long-term yoga users in the United States have reported musculoskeletal and mental health improvements, as well as reduced symptoms of asthma in asthmatics. There is evidence to suggest that regular yoga practice increases brain GABA levels and has been shown to improve mood and anxiety more than some other metabolically matched exercises, such as walking. The three main focuses of Hatha yoga (exercise, breathing, and meditation) make it beneficial to those suffering from heart disease. Overall, studies of the effects of yoga on heart disease suggest that yoga may reduce high blood pressure, improve symptoms of heart failure, enhance cardiac rehabilitation, and lower cardiovascular risk factors.
Zen, the name of which derives from the Sanskrit “dhyaana” via the Chinese “ch’an” is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. This phenomenon merits special attention since yogic practices have some of their roots in the Zen Buddhist school. Certain essential elements of yoga are important both for Buddhism in general and for Zen in particular.
Some Christians integrate yoga and other aspects of Eastern spirituality with prayer and meditation. This has been attributed to a desire to experience God in a more complete way. The Roman Catholic Church and some other Christian organizations have expressed concerns and disapproval with respect to some eastern and New Age practices that include yoga and meditation. Some fundamentalist Christian organizations consider yoga to be incompatible with their religious background, considering it a part of the New Age movement inconsistent with Christianity.
Another view holds that Christian meditation can lead to religious pluralism. This is held by an interdenominational association of Christians that practice it. “The ritual simultaneously operates as an anchor that maintains, enhances, and promotes denominational activity and a sail that allows institutional boundaries to be crossed.”
The development of Sufism was considerably influenced by Indian yogic practices, where they adapted both physical postures and breathe control. The ancient Indian yogic text Amritakunda (“Pool of Nectar)” was translated into Arabic and Persian as early as the 11th century. Several other yogic texts were appropriated by Sufi tradition, but typically the texts juxtapose yoga materials alongside Sufi practices without any real attempt at integration or synthesis. Yoga became known to Indian Sufis gradually over time, but engagement with yoga is not found at the historical beginnings of the tradition.