What is Yoga? Derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Yuj’ it literally means union. It is about becoming one with the universe. What exactly does this mean? In the Yoga Sutras, Sage Patanjali refers to yoga as “Chitta-Vritti-Nirodhah”. In other words, when the fluctuations of the mind have been quietened, we reach a state of consciousness that is in union (yoga) with the universe. We are then able to perceive that we are all one and the same including everything in this universe.
If every atom in our body is in constant interaction, communication and co-ordination with every other form out there in the universe, so be it life or lifeless; How can we think, that we can ignore this very fact and live in the isolation of our limited identity. This whole existence is nothing but just one energy manifesting in various forms. Most religions talk about this energy in terms of a ‘God’ and science talks it in terms of ‘Energy’ but the underlying reality is still the same. Yoga is going beyond science and a belief system and realizing we are this energy and whatever we see out there is a manifestation of our true self. If we can experience this reality of oneness, then we are in ‘Yoga’ and we become a true ‘Yogi’
How do we accomplish this mastery over our mind and body This is where the practice of Yoga comes in. We can do this through Meditation and Contemplation, which is Raja Yoga, through knowledge and wisdom, Gnyaana Yoga, through selfless work and service, Karma Yoga or through love and devotion (whatever you believe in) which is Bhakti Yoga. We can practice yoga through one or more or even through all of these paths of yoga which leads to the same destination, which is the realization of oneness and freedom from all of the vagaries of life, and that is the true purpose of Yoga.
Being a human is not a fixed state nor is it set in stone. It is a possibility. A possibility to realize the true potential of being human. Yoga, is a system of practices for the realization and development of this human potential. Understanding the mechanics of this human body and its relation to how life works in general.
Right now, our perceptions are limited to the physical nature of our existence. Sadly, most people’s understanding of yoga is relegated to twisting their bodies in various ways, mixing it with dance forms or acrobats. It is mostly looked and understood through the lens of the physical aspect of it all. Yoga is not just about postures or physical workouts, which is a pretty minuscule aspect of it.
The true practice of Yoga, as outlined by Sage Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras, the path to achieve Chitta Vritti Nirodhah, is through Ashtanga Yoga (not to be confused with similar names), which literally means ‘eight limbed yoga’. It is a codification of the core principles of yoga compiled by Sage Patanjali who realized the path to self-realization has to encompass every aspect of the human body. The physical, mental and spiritual. So, he set forth eight different practices to attain this self-realization.
These eight practices are:
A code of conduct that governs our interactions with others through five moral restraints.
Five observances that regulate our inner wellbeing. These followed in conjunction with Yamas gives us the moral codes of ‘dos and don’ts
Series of postures, practiced over time will enable us to regulate and balance our body, so the physical body can support the real purpose of the practice of yoga.
If we can learn to control our breath we can control our biology/physiology to a great extent. The calming and quieting effect upon the mind and the senses, prepares us for the more internal practices of yoga that is to follow.
Now that our physical body is able to support our mental body through breath, we can practice sensory withdrawal.
Sensory withdrawal will help us to focus and intentionally channel our thoughts to bring our awareness back to whatever we are trying to focus thereby helping us to concentrate.
Now that our body and mind is still and focused, it’s time to contemplate, introspect or in other words meditate. Meditation does not necessarily mean we need to sit in a quiet place, stay still and force ourselves not to think. In fact, it is the exact opposite. No point in learning to concentrate if you don’t know what to concentrate on. So, we need to find a purpose and then meditate on it. Once we find a purpose then we know exactly what to meditate on.
last stage is reserved only for serious spiritual seekers and doesn’t really apply to most of us.
So, yoga is a comprehensive set of practices that can be thought of as a science, a philosophy, a spiritual and a physical practice. It is a science because its overall effects are predictable, observable and measurable if followed correctly. As a spiritual and physical practice, yoga is a positive and comprehensive approach to holistic health and wellbeing through the integration of body, mind, and spirit. Philosophical because it helps us ask the bigger questions of life. Yoga is all encompassing and brings people of all faiths and of no faith together. Its inclusive and not exclusive.
The various postures, breathing and meditation techniques are linked with observation, wide acceptance, and understanding. So much so that it is widely popular and integrated in modern mind sciences like consciousness studies, transpersonal psychology etc and general health and wellbeing. Some of these include:
Herb Benson’s relaxation response based on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation
Lucid dreaming by Stephen Laberge, Relaxation techniques like Body Scan method, autogenic training, guided imagery; which has its firm roots in Yoga Nidra.
Dialectal Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness Meditation etc based on Vipassana.
Wim Hoff and Stig Severinsen's breathing methods based on Kumbaka and other yogic breathing techniques to name a few.
So, is Yoga Hindu or Buddhist? Yoga is neither a religion nor does it promote or advocate any religion. As we learned so far, it is rooted firmly in experiential confirmation rather than religious faith. It transcends both the cultural and geographical boundaries. The very fact that people from all walks of life, with all kinds of religious affiliations, so be it Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims etc practice some form of yoga is irrefutable proof that yoga is not based on a religion or preaches ‘A’ religion. However one of the problems with this method of practice is many yoga teachers and new age gurus, diluted and customized the process so yoga can be practiced comfortably by people of all faiths.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by yoga comes down to the fact that everyone
has, his or her own idea of what yoga is. Religious versus Secular,
Meditation versus Exercise, Exclusive versus Inclusive.
Yoga is more than postures and breathing. It can be that as well but it has a lot more to offer so why just settle for a downward dog or lion breath. It is an experience in itself and a lifestyle. It is an entire methodology for self-evolution which can be applied in the real world. Simply put, Yoga, is a way of life. So go ahead and embody the true essence of yoga...
P.S: Finding the right yoga teacher is imperative for your practice and progression. A good teacher should help you understand the essence and spirit of yoga rather than just information. Just because a teacher can do complicated asanas doesn't necessarily make them a good teacher. So, invest some time in finding the right teacher before you embark on your yogic journey.
Yoga is not the only way to attain or achieve the things mentioned in this article. There are other means as well. So feel free to explore and experience whatever is out there and pick what makes the most sense to you and works for you!