Yoga refers to traditional physical and mental disciplines originating in India, to the goal achieved by those disciplines, and to one of the six orthodox (?stika) schools of Hindu philosophy. Outside India, yoga is mostly associated with the practice of asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga or as a form of exercise. A practitioner of Yoga is called a Yogi (male) or Yogini (female).
Classified by the type of practices, some branches of yoga are: Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. Raja Yoga, compiled in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and known simply as yoga in the context of Hindu philosophy, is part of the Samkhya tradition. Many other Hindu texts discuss aspects of yoga, including the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and various Tantras.
The Sanskrit term yoga has many meanings. It is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, “to control”, “to yoke”, or “to unite”. Common meanings include “joining” or “uniting”, and related ideas such as “union” and “conjunction”. Another conceptual definition is that of “mode, manner, means” or “expedient, means in general”.
History of Yoga
While the most ancient mystic practices are vaguely hinted at in the Vedas, the ascetic practices (tapas) are referenced in the Br?hma?as (900 BCE and 500 BCE), early commentaries on the vedas. In the Upanishads, an early reference to meditation is made in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the earliest Upanishads (approx. 900 BCE). The main textual sources for the evolving concept of Yoga are the middle Upanishads, (ca. 400 BCE), the Mahabharata (5th c. BCE) including the Bhagavad Gita (ca. 200 BCE), and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (200 BCE-300 CE). Several seals discovered at Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300–1700 BC) sites depict figures in a yoga- or meditation-like posture, “a form of ritual discipline, suggesting a precursor of yoga” that point to Harappan devotion to “ritual discipline and concentration”, according to Archaeologist Gregory Possehl.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
In Indian philosophy, Yoga is the name of one of the six orthodox philosophical schools. The Yoga philosophical system is closely allied with the Samkhya school. The Yoga school as expounded by Patanjali accepts the Samkhya psychology and metaphysics, but is more theistic than the Samkhya, as evidenced by the addition of a divine entity to the Samkhya’s twenty-five elements of reality. The parallels between Yoga and Samkhya were so close that Max Müller says that “the two philosophies were in popular parlance distinguished from each other as Samkhya with and Samkhya without a Lord….” The intimate relationship between Samkhya and Yoga is explained by Heinrich Zimmer:
These two are regarded in India as twins, the two aspects of a single discipline. S??khya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, enumerating and defining its elements, analyzing their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage (bandha), and describing their state of disentanglement or separation in release (mok?a), while Yoga treats specifically of the dynamics of the process for the disentanglement, and outlines practical techniques for the gaining of release, or ‘isolation-integration’ (kaivalya).
The sage Patanjali is widely regarded as the founder of the formal Yoga philosophy. Patanjali’s yoga is known as Raja yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. Patanjali defines the word “yoga” in his second sutra, which is the definitional sutra for his entire work:
This terse definition hinges on the meaning of three Sanskrit terms. I. K. Taimni translates it as “Yoga is the inhibition (nirodha?) of the modifications (v?tti) of the mind (citta)”. Swami Vivekananda translates the sutra as “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).”
Patanjali’s writing also became the basis for a system referred to as “Ashtanga Yoga” (“Eight-Limbed Yoga”). This eight-limbed concept derived from the 29th Sutra of the 2nd book, and is a core characteristic of practically every Raja yoga variation taught today. The Eight Limbs are:
(1) Yama (The five “abstentions”): non-violence, non-lying, non-covetousness, non-sensuality, and non-possessiveness.
(2) Niyama (The five “observances”): purity,
contentment, austerity, study, and surrender to god.
(3) Asana: Literally means “seat”, and in Patanjali’s Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
(4) Pranayama (“Lengthening Pr?na”): Pr?na, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, “?y?ma”, to lengthen or extend. Also interpreted as control of prana.
(5) Pratyahara (“Abstraction”): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
(6) Dharana (“Concentration”): Fixing the attention on a single object.
(7) Dhyana (“Meditation”): Intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation.
(8) Samadhi (“Liberation”): merging consciousness with the object of meditation.
The Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of the Lord’), uses the term yoga extensively in a variety of ways. In addition to an entire chapter (ch. 6) dedicated to traditional yoga practice, including meditation, it introduces three prominent types of yoga:
Karma yoga: The yoga of action
Bhakti yoga: The yoga of devotion
Jnana yoga: The yoga of knowledge
Madhusudana Sarasvati (b. circa 1490) divided the Gita into three sections, with the first six chapters dealing with Karma yoga, the middle six with Bhakti yoga, and the last six with Jnana (knowledge). Other commentators ascribe a different ‘yoga’ to each chapter, delineating eighteen different yogas.
Hatha Yoga is a particular system of Yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika in 15th century India. Hatha Yoga differs substantially from the Raja Yoga of Patanjali in that it focuses on shatkarma, the purification of the physical body as leading to the purification of the mind (ha), and prana, or vital energy (tha). Compared to the seated asana, or sitting meditation posture, of Patanjali’s Raja yoga, it marks the development of asanas (plural) as full body ‘postures’ now in popular usage.
Hatha Yoga in its many modern variations is the style that many people associate with the word “Yoga” today. Because its emphasis is on the body through asana and pranayama practice, many western students are satisfied with the physical health and vitality it develops and are not interested in the other seven limbs of the Raja Yoga tradition.
Yoga practices in other traditions
Yoga and Sufism
The development of Sufism was considerably influenced by Indian yogic practises, where they adapted both physical postures (asanas) and breath control (pranayama). The ancient Indian yogic text, Amritakunda, (“Pool of Nectar)” was translated into Arabic and Persian as early as the 11th century.
Yoga and Buddhism
Main article: Yoga and Buddhism
Yoga is intimately connected to the religious beliefs and practices of the Indian religions. The influence of Yoga is also visible in Buddhism, a descendant of Hinduism, which is distinguished by its austerities, spiritual exercises, and trance states.
Yogacara (Sanskrit: “Practice of Yoga [Union]” ), also spelled yog?ch?ra, is a school of philosophy and psychology that developed in India during the 4th to 5th centuries.
Yogacara received the name as it provided a yoga, a framework for engaging in the practices that lead to the path of the bodhisattva. The Yogacara sect teaches yoga in order to reach enlightenment.
Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism
Zen (the name of which derives from the Sanskrit “dhyana” via the Chinese “ch’an”) is a form of Mahayana Buddhism. The Mahayana school of Buddhism is noted for its proximity with Yoga. In the west, Zen is often set alongside Yoga; the two schools of meditation display obvious family resemblances. This phenomenon merits special attention since the Zen Buddhist school of meditation has some of its roots in yogic practices. Certain essential elements of Yoga are important both for Buddhism in general and for Zen in particular.
Yoga is central to Tibetan Buddhism. In the Nyingma tradition, practitioners progress to increasingly profound levels of yoga, starting with Mah? yoga, continuing to Anu yoga and ultimately undertaking the highest practice, Ati yoga. In the Sarma traditions, the Anuttara yoga class is equivalent. Other tantra yoga practices include a system of 108 bodily postures practiced with breath and heart rhythm. Timing in movement exercises is known as Trul khor or union of moon and sun (channel) prajna energies. The body postures of Tibetan ancient yogis are depicted on the walls of the Dalai Lama’s summer temple of Lukhang. A semi-popular account of Tibetan Yoga by Chang (1993) refers to Dumo, the generation of heat in one’s own body, as being “the very foundation of the whole of Tibetan Yoga” (Chang, 1993, p7). Chang also claims that Tibetan Yoga invol
ves reconciliation of apparent polarities, such as prana and mind, relating this to theoretical implications of tantrism.
Yoga and Tantra
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. 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. It is considered to be a kind of Kundalini Yoga for the purpose of moving the Goddess into the chakra located in the “heart,” for meditation and worship.
Goal of Yoga
The goal of yoga may range from anywhere between improved health and reaching Moksha. Within the monist schools of Advaita Vedanta and Shaivism the goal of yoga takes the form of Moksha, which is liberation from all worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara), at which point there is a realisation of identity with the Supreme Brahman. In the Mahabharata, the goal of yoga is variously described as entering the world of Brahma, as Brahman, or as perceiving the Brahman or Atman that pervades all things. For the bhakti schools of Vaishnavism, bhakti or service to Svayam bhagavan itself is the ultimate goal of the yoga process, wherein perfection culminates in an eternal relationship with Vishnu, Rama or Krsna.