Yoga has become a global phenomenon over the last several decades. What started out thousands of years ago in the East as a meditative practice has now evolved into a modern lifestyle craze that generates billions of dollars. This can be attributed to its adaptability—people from all walks of life can practice and receive the benefits of yoga. Many celebrities swear by this physical and spiritual practice, and even those who don’t practice yoga seem to know someone who does. Practitioners often describe their experiences using terms like peace, calm, balance, strength, flexibility, and relaxation. But what exactly is yoga? And how far has this practice strayed from its ancient roots?
What is yoga?
Yoga is a Sanskrit word translated as “yoke” or “union.” To yoke means to draw together, to bind together; or to unite. Its aim is to yoke or create a union of the body, mind, soul, and universal consciousness. This process of uniting the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of ourselves is what allows yogis to experience deep states of freedom, peace and self-realization.
Yoga is an ancient system of physical, mental and spiritual practices that have been passed down through the generations from teacher to student. Yogic practices include breathing techniques, postures, relaxation, chanting, and other meditation methods. There are many different styles of yoga, each with their own unique focus and approach to creating a unitive state.
Its origins are traced back thousands of years to the Upanishads, a collection of yogic texts dating from roughly 800 BC to 400 AD. While the word “yoga” was first mentioned in the Rigveda, but the first time it was used with its modern meaning is in the Katha Upanishad. This ancient spiritual text was written sometime between the 5th and 3rd century BCE.
The Yoga Sutras is one of the most famous text on the fundamentals of yoga and was written by Patanjali around 200 BCE. In this foundational text, he defines yoga in sutra 1.2 as: yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah. This translates as “Yoga is the cessation of the whirling fluctuations of the mind.”
This cessation of thoughts is the result of a dedicated and consistent practice of yoga. By calming our mental chatter, this contemplative practice connects to the source of our being where we can experience the unity of our own self, as well as the unity of everything else around us.
Goals of Yoga
Yoga is a meditative process of self-discovery and liberation. It is a diverse collection of practices that aims to control the mind, recognize a detached witness consciousness, and free oneself from the cycle of birth and death. It teaches us to see ourselves clearly, to understand what is true about who we are, and to let go of anything that does not serve us. It helps us to become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and to change them when they no longer serve us. It gives us the tools to make better choices in life, and to live more fully.
Yoga is a practice that allows us to transform and purify our bodies, minds, and souls. It expands our consciousness to help us connect with nature and the universe around us. It also gives us greater access to inner resources to teach us about self-awareness, acceptance, compassion, patience, gratitude, forgiveness, humility, love, peace, and joy.
8 limbs of yoga
Patanjali laid out the fundamentals of yoga philosophy and practice in his classic text, the Yoga Sutras. He describes eight limbs or steps to reach the goal of the practice. Each limb is a spiritual, mental, or physical practice that builds upon one another. The limbs of the eightfold path are:
- Yama – The moral codes of conduct
- Niyama – The physical observances and internal practices
- Asana – The proper posture
- Pranayama – The proper breathing exercises
- Pratyahara – The withdrawal of senses from external distractions
- Dharana – The mental concentration and focusing the mind
- Dhyana – The meditation and focus on a single point
- Samadhi – The cessation of all mental activity to attain a state of oneness
The practices of yoga
There are six main branches of traditional yoga. In each of these, the goal of unity is achieved through different yoga practices. Each of these different aspects of yoga will resonate differently with practitioners based on their disposition, skill, and ability.
- Raja (the royal path) – focuses on meditation practices
- Karma (the path of action) – focuses on action and service in daily life
- Jnana (the path of knowledge) – focuses on discriminative wisdom and self inquiry
- Bhakti (the path of devotion) – focuses on devotion to God
- Tantra (the path of ecstasy) – focuses on ritual and initiation
- Hatha (the forceful path) – focuses on energy and movement of the body
Modern yoga in the West
In the West, the word “yoga” has come to mean a particular style called hatha yoga. This branch emphasizes postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), stress relief, relaxation, physical fitness and wellness. The focus is primarily on the physical body which differs from traditional yoga, where the focus is more inward and spiritual. There are many schools of hatha, each with its own unique style and philosophy.
A philosophy of life
Yoga isn’t just meditative exercise, it is a complete philosophy of life. It is a detailed methodology to connect with our highest truth, live with intention, and to make choices that serve our highest good. Through yoga, we come back to our true nature again and again, as we peel back layers of conditioning and habit. Each time we stand on our yoga mat or sit on a meditation cushion, we have the opportunity to discover who we truly are, and we begin to understand the true nature of the universe.