Yoga is a practice or discipline that originated in ancient India, which focuses on bringing harmony between mind and body, and continues to gain prevalence in modern times. Yoga offers individuals a holistic approach to blissful life, healthy body, balanced diet, and a peaceful mental disposition through a range of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines rooted in ancient Indian philosophy, science, and indigenous wisdom. The word ‘yoga’ has its origin in Sanskrit and it has been developed over the eras as a practice to still the mind, rein in negative thoughts, maintain overall health, ensure physical flexibility and to adopt a sense of detachment from life’s stresses.
Yoga is like an immense, flourishing tree with its various branches, practices and objectives spread across its numerous traditional and evolving forms. In recent decades, the world has woken up to the amazing physical and mental benefits of yoga, with the practice rapidly achieving international acclaim and rising to the status of a popular physical workout.
In its most traditional form, yoga involves intense meditation techniques designed to build up a sense of detachment from the material world. However, in the Western world, most people prefer to follow an evolved form of Hatha yoga that primarily consists of postures (asanas), relaxation techniques and breathing exercises for stress-relief.
Meditation as a part of Yoga
Gaining control over the mind is crucial to lead a successful, joyful, and grateful life. Keeping desires in check, combating anxieties, and preventing depression demands a calm yet strong mind capable of objectively analysing situations and arriving at practical decisions. All these coupled with the stresses of modern life has brought yoga into the limelight.
The various schools of yoga are rich in several meditation techniques designed to help enhance concentration and relaxation. The techniques are generally implemented through different breathing exercises and by controlling the path of thoughts. An increased sense of awareness and systematic breathing aids in better control of thoughts that in turn stimulates mental relaxation.
Ancient History of Yoga
The ancient origin of yoga is clear from its mention in the Rigveda and Upanishads that constitute the bulk of literature in ancient India. According to historians, the word ‘yoga’ first appeared in its present-day meaning in the Katha Upanishad that is believed to have been composed in the period between 5th BCE and 3rd BCE. In the ensuing centuries, yoga continued its gradual growth into a systematic discipline of learning and practice. This was especially evident amidst the numerous Sramana and ascetic movements that swept across ancient India during the 5th and 6th centuries.
Yoga Sutras by Patanjali, hailed as the most extensive work on yoga dates back to the early centuries of the first millennium. The significance of yoga further elevated during the latter part of the first millennium when yoga, its philosophy and practice came to be regarded as one among the six philosophical branches of orthodox Hinduism. The next major development in yoga occurred between the 9th and 11th centuries when texts on Hatha yoga based on Tantra began gaining popularity.
Yoga became accepted among the general population through the Bhagavad Gita that forms a crucial part of the epic ‘Mahabharata’. It features comprehensive references to yoga such an exclusive chapter dedicated to describing the practice of traditional yoga. Additionally, it is also notable for its inclusion of meditational practices. Most importantly, the Bhagavad Gita introduces humankind to three major branches of yoga – Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga and Jnana yoga.
Major Types of Yoga
Jnana Yoga: The word ‘jnana’ means knowledge. Followers of Hinduism believe that knowledge is the path to spiritual liberation or moksha. Jnana yoga that dates back to the Vedic era emphasizes this philosophy of seeking knowledge to attain spiritual liberation. Its practice involves the search for a suitable guru under whom the practitioner will learn to reflect on the most profound questions like ‘who am I’. The guru will impart invaluable lessons on meditation, thought processes and on the true nature of the soul. Jnana yoga is therefore considered an option for individuals interested in immersing in philosophical reflections and intense meditation.
Bhakti Yoga: ‘Bhakti’ is a Sanskrit word that means devotion, faith, attachment, or love towards a deity, be it Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Rama, Shakti, Durga or any other personal deity. Bhakti yoga seeks to offer a path to salvation through a union of the soul with the Divine. Rooted in antiquity, Bhakti yoga finds mention in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad and later in the Bhagavad Gita. It gained momentum with the Bhakti movement that originated in South India around the 1st millennium. The movement played an integral role in perpetuating these ideas all over the Indian sub-continent, eventually becoming an indispensable part of the religious practices of Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism.
Karma Yoga: In Sanskrit, the word ‘karma’ stands for ‘action’. Karma yoga denotes a spiritual path to salvation through ethical and unselfish action. In other words, the right action is like a prayer to a practitioner of karma yoga. This branch of yoga in spiritual Hinduism emphasizes that one must always perform the rightful action, be dedicated to one’s duty and strive to perform to one’s maximum abilities without expecting rewards or worrying about the outcome. According to the Bhagavad Gita, karma yoga has the power to purify the mind and connect oneself to the Divine.
Kundalini Yoga: In Vedantic culture, the term ‘kundalini’ denotes the life fore or spiritual energy of the divine feminine that lies dormant at the base of the spine. This energy is often depicted as a coiled serpent. Kundalini yoga features practices designed to activate the kundalini energy so that it uncoils, passes through the 6 energy chakras and finally reaches the crown believed to be the seat of the 7th chakra. Featuring influences of Shaktism and Tantra, Kundalini yoga proceeds through yogic breathing exercises, postures (kriyas) and meditation (sadhana) that combine to assist individuals in attaining their maximum potential.
Hatha Yoga: The Sanskrit word ‘Hatha’ stands for ‘force’ and the term ‘Hatha yoga’ therefore denotes a more physical and Yogic system of mudras (handling energies), asanas (postures) and kriyas (exercises). The 11th century Buddhist work ‘Amṛtasiddhi’ features the oldest known reference to Hatha yoga. In the later centuries, hatha yoga adopted practices from Kundalini yoga to develop into a complex yogic system.
The Western world has embraced an evolved form of hatha yoga that mostly consists of asanas and is primarily viewed as physical exercise. However, in the Indian and Tibetan contexts, Hatha yoga represents a comprehensive system involving complex physical exercises, diet, meditation, breathing exercises, cleansing and adherence to ethics.
Yoga Sutras by Patanjali
Although yogic texts belonging to different schools of yoga existed right from ancient times, it was the sage Patanjali who took the effort to amalgamate the available texts and organize the information in it to compile a magnificent and extensive work on yoga known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Compiled in the early years of the first millennium, the work features comprehensive knowledge on the yogic theories and practices that existed at the time.
The most notable element in the Yoga Sutras is Patanjali’s organization of traditional yoga into Ashtanga yoga or the ‘eight limbs of yoga’. These eight aspects of yoga practice include:
◙ Yama (abstinences)
◙ Niyama (observances)
◙ Asana (yoga postures)
◙ Pranayama (breath control)
◙ Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
◙ Dharana (mental concentration)
◙ Dhyana (meditation)
◙ Samadhi (absorption)
These eight elements are structured to represent phases of yogic practice starting from the outer self and progressing to the inner self. It incorporates numerous aspects of Buddhist yoga traditions, including considerable number of terminologies.
Although the text remained largely unknown until the 19th century, it soon gained the status of a classical text with the efforts of Swami Vivekananda and the Theosophical Society. Today, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are considered to be the classical foundation of yoga principles, practices and goals.
Significance of Yoga
Yoga is known to have originated in ancient India, with reference in the Rigveda – most likely composed between 1500 and 1000 BCE. The sages of the time realized the potential of this practice that subtly blended physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines to aid the health and development of individuals in all these spheres. Although no written texts from the period have been discovered, the knowledge related to the principles and practice of this ancient science was passed on from gurus to disciples through the millennia. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras codified the vast knowledge into a neat system of categories that have immensely benefitted generations of practitioners and knowledge seekers.
As per Hinduism the practice of Yoga leads to the union of individual consciousness with that of the universal consciousness, indicating a perfect harmony between the mind and body. Yoga also holds high stature in Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The core philosophy in Buddhism involves renouncing material pleasures and focusing on the inner self to eliminate worldly suffering. Yoga – with its emphasis on the inner self – was therefore imbibed into the Buddhist tradition and perpetuated everywhere that the religion spread to. Jainism specifies following the paths of right view, right knowledge, and right conduct to attain salvation or moksha. From ancient times, Jainism has promoted yogic practice as facilitating the attainment of moksha. Sikhism tends to focus more on the meditation aspect of yoga to achieve a sense of detachment from the material world and the union with the cosmic force.
Scientific research and studies regarding yogic practices continue to offer insightful information into the numerous benefits of this ancient science. Yogic exercises are known to create equilibrium of various cosmic and life energies affecting the body and mind to promote health, well-being and self-awareness. The incredible benefits of yoga have led to a burgeoning number of yogic practitioners in modern India who are especially impressed with the rejuvenating and de-stressing capabilities of yogic exercises and meditation.