Yoga is a physical, mental, and spiritual practice that originated in ancient India. First codified by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras around 400 C.E, the practice was in fact handed down from teacher to student long before this text arose. Traditionally, this was a one-to-one transmission, but since yoga became popular in the West in the 20th century, group classes have become the norm.
The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning “to yoke,” or “to unite”. The practice aims to create a union between body, mind, and spirit, as well as between the individual self and universal consciousness. Such a union tends to neutralize ego-driven thoughts and behaviors, creating a sense of spiritual awakening.
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, and whilst many different interpretations and styles have been developed, most tend to agree that the ultimate goal of yoga is to achieve liberation from suffering. Although each school or tradition of yoga has its own emphasis and practices, most focus on bringing together body, mind, and breath as a means of altering energy or shifting consciousness.
General Explanation of YOGA
Modern yoga is most commonly associated with the physical practice of asana, a series of postures often weaved together in styles such as Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga. Asana practice is generally intended to build strength and stamina, improve flexibility, coordination, and balance, and relax the body. However, this provides only one small aspect of the tradition of yoga as a whole.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras provide the traditional foundation of yoga, in which he outlines an eightfold path of the practice. Known as the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga,’ this path offers a guide to individuals who are dedicated to creating a union between body, mind, and spirit.
Each of the Eight Limbs offers a means of living with more integrity, self-discipline, respect for nature, and connection with the spiritual aspects of life. These eight practices are intended to be carried out in a holistic and integrative manner:
- Yamas – Five universal, ethical, and moral observances to live by (nonviolence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-covetousness)
- Niyamas – Five spiritual and self-discipline observances (cleanliness, contentment, spiritual austerities, study of scriptures, and surrender to God)
- Asana – physical posture, originally intended only for seated meditation, but more recently adapted to encompass all physical yoga practices
- Pranayama – breathing exercises to control the flow of prana (vital life force)
- Pratyahara – Withdrawal of the senses
- Dharana – Single pointed concentration
- Dhyana – Meditation
- Samadhi – Liberation or blissful union with the Divine
The four traditional paths of yoga are
- Bhakti (devotion)
- Karma (action/selfless service)
- Jnana (knowledge/self-study)
- Raja (self-discipline/practice).
Although modern schools of yoga such as Jivamukti, Bikram, and Sivananda offer alternative interpretations, most are rooted in the same philosophical concepts and practices as Patanjali’s Eight Limbs.
Yoga is also used as a therapeutic tool for many physical and mental conditions, and mind-body research is now demonstrating its effectiveness as a treatment for chronic pain, anxiety, depression, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, to name but a few.
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