Yoga is an ancient practice which unifies mind, body and spirit. The word yoga literally means ‘yoke’ or ‘join’ and derives from the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. One of the joys of yoga is that everyone can start it, no matter what their age or their state of health or state of mind. In this fast paced world, we are always in a rush and stressed to a certain degree and yoga allows us to centre ourselves, giving us a feeling of vitality, calm and well being. Long time yoga teacher and author, Shakta Kaur Khalsa, says “Yoga promises – and delivers – relaxation in place of stress, insight in place of negativity, and courage in the face of conflict.”
WHEN DID YOGA EMERGE?
The exact era in which yoga was born has caused much debate among academics - archaeologists and palaeontologists in particular. It is believed that forms of yoga developed separately in certain ancient cultures. Archaeologists have discovered evidence of yoga in the ancient Chinese and Mayan cultures, as well as in Tibet and India. The controversy continues to rage with some archaeologists claiming a form of yoga may date back over 40,000 years. However, yoga blossomed into the form we know it today in India. The ancient Indus-Saraswati civilisation existed in today’s north eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and north west India in the Bronze Age. The Indus Valley Civilisation was at its peak from 2600 – 1900 BCE and probably had a population of five million people. These people planned their towns and paved their roads in geometric patterns. They built multi storey houses of baked bricks and had advanced water and sewage systems. They built large communal baths for their people and all this was up to two thousand years before the Greek and Roman civilisations. This is the highly advanced civilisation which is responsible for developing the science of yoga. There are references to yoga in the Rig-Veda. This ancient script is a collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns and is the oldest to be found in any Indo-European language, dating to the third or possibly the fourth century BC. Stone statues have been discovered at various sites in the Indus Valley which depict various yoga poses. One thing one must remember is that yoga was passed on visually and orally from teacher to pupil over thousands of years, so the yoga we practise today is a culmination of all those experiences.
The sacred texts of the Rig-Veda were used by the Brahmans who were Vedic priests which in turn created the oldest form of known yoga – the Vedic yoga. The Brahmans, together with Rishis (mystic priests), gradually developed the science of yoga over the centuries. The Brahmans recorded their beliefs and ideals in the monumental works of the Upanishads which was a series of question and answer sessions between priests and their students. Yoga plays an important part of this amazing work, although mainly from the angle of the healing power of meditation. The most important writing on yoga in this period is the Bhagavad-Gitâ which is thought to have been written around 500 BC. However, at this time, there were many different approaches to the practice of yoga and many of these ideas conflicted with each other.
It was Patanjali who wrote the first definitive guide to yoga during the second century AD – Yoga Sûtras. Patanjali has been described as a physician and sage and his writings divide the science of yoga into an ‘eight limbed path’(Ashtanga) which finally leads to enlightenment. Patanjali is considered to be the father of yoga and his writings influence all forms of yoga today. The premise behind this form of yoga is that if all the paths are followed, an individual will achieve inner harmony and peace and be able to connect with a higher being.
PATANJALI’S EIGHT YOGA LIMBS
Patanjali’s eight limbs or basic beliefs can be divided into two sections, the first being related to the way we live our lives: Yama – refers to honesty, integrity and truth. Nijama – the second limb is all about self discipline and taking time out to explore our inner selves and our spirituality. Asana – the third limb is concerned with keeping our bodies healthy and our minds calm. Pranayama – the fourth limb focuses on linking mind, body and soul through mindful breathing. The second four of Patanjali’s eight yoga limbs concentrates on meditation and mastering the art of quieting our minds and moving to a higher plane. Pratayahara - the fifth limb helps us to control our thought patterns by pulling us away from our five senses and stepping back and looking at ourselves from the outside. Dharana - once we are able to shut ourselves off from our senses, we then move on to concentrating and removing all thoughts. Dhyana - the seventh stage is being able to focus or concentrate without any thoughts in our head and achieve a state of complete stillness. Samadhi - the last stage or limb is being in a state of ecstasy. Shakta Kaur Khalsa describes it thus, “this is the ecstatic state of being in which the mediator becomes one with the object of meditation. Here, one is spiritually awake and absorbed in the infinite.”
Post-classical yoga began several centuries after Patanjali, as yoga practitioners started to concentrate on using the physical body to rejuvenate and help prolong life. The melding of the spiritual and physical connection was the beginning of the form of yoga which is mainly practiced in the West – Hatha Yoga.
In 1893 Swami Vivekananda travelled to the USA to speak on Hinduism at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, this sparked an interest in eastern philosophy and yoga among the intellectuals in the States. Different groups started to show an interest in Indian philosophy and religion and one such group was particularly powerful in spreading the word – the Theosophical Society. The Theosophical Society had some powerful members, such as Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Frank Lloyd Wright and W. B. Yeats. Praise for the benefits of yoga on mental health came in 1935 from psychologist Carl Jung, who said that yoga “was one of the greatest things the human mind has ever created.” One of the most important proponents in the spread of eastern philosophy and its teachings was J. Krishnamurti. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s that yoga started to become popular in the western world. Doctors slowly came to realise the benefits of yoga to health – both physical and mental – and now many doctors recommend yoga to their patients as part of a holistic healing process. During the 1970s and 1980s yoga gained more followers but it wasn’t until the 1990s, when gym junkies decided there must be more to life than the old adage ‘no pain, no gain’, that yoga really took off in the western world.
THE SEVEN MAIN BRANCHES OF YOGA
Hatha yoga is the most popular form of yoga, especially in the western world. Hatha comes from two Sanskrit words, ‘Ha’ meaning ‘sun’ and ‘tha’ meaning ‘moon’. This signifies the attempt to unify or balance opposites. Hatha can also mean ‘effort’, suggesting transformation through exercise (effort) of the physical body. Hatha uses postures (called asanas) and conscious breathing (Pranayama) coupled with concentration to achieve a sense of balance, peace of mind, relaxation, strength and flexibility and a general feeling of well being.
Raja yoga is classic yoga. “Raja” comes from the Sanskrit word for “royal”. The eight yoga limbs of Patanjali are contained in Raja yoga. When practicing Raja yoga, you always begin with a session of Hatha yoga as way of preparing the body and mind for meditation. The ethos behind Raja yoga is that it is our mind that creates our reality. Whatever we experience in life, pain or pleasure, it is created by our own mind. If our mind isn’t focused then we will be thrown at every turn. The Advaito Yoga Ashram compares the mind to a lake. They say that “owing to the wind and the undercurrents, the lake gets agitated and some waves are created. These winds are modifications of the state of the lake. The wind is an external factor and the undercurrents are internal factors.” Our external factors are picked up by our senses and our internal factors are produced by our memories and it is these which interfere with our attempts to achieve perfect peace and happiness.
Karma means ‘right’ action. Practicing Karma yoga means being entirely selfless and devoting your life to the good of others or a higher being, with no thought of receiving anything in return. Mother Theresa was most certainly a Karma yogina who called her work “love in action”.
‘Bhakti’ comes from the Sanskrit word ‘bjah’ which means to ‘adore and worship God’. Bhakti yoga is considered one of the easiest forms of yoga to master. It requires selfless love and devotion to a higher being. We often feel that we need to help someone for no apparent reason and for no reward, that is Bhakti yoga. When we give love, we receive it.
Jnana yoga leads us down the path to wisdom and self realisation. It helps us to discern the difference between what is genuine and what is not. Shakta Kaur Khalsa says “through this path of wisdom comes the inspiration to view life from the perspective of humans as spiritual beings. The writings of the great sage Jiddu Krishnamurti are a good example of Jnana yoga.
The definition of Tantra yoga is ‘where opposites meet and become one’. Tantra yoga teaches that there is no difference between opposites such as the Divine and the divinity of ordinary life. It is a very complex and powerful form of yoga and should always be taught by a master.
Mantra means ‘mind projection’ and refers to sound. It is used through chanting or reciting as a means to quiet the mind and block out all thoughts.
The Benefits of Yoga
The physical and mental benefits of yoga are enormous. As mentioned earlier, it is of no consequence what age you are or if you are glowing with health, you can start at your own level and you will find that you slowly become more flexible, more relaxed and more centred. Practising yoga on a regular basis creates a toned and flexible body, which is less prone to sports injuries. It also helps to stabilise your metabolism which can aid in weight loss. The improved flexibility of the spine means the blood and oxygen flow to the organs is greatly increased, thus giving a work out to the whole body. In times of stress, people will say to you ‘take a deep breath’. Yoga teaches the art of breathing to release stress and energise the body. You will begin to experience a greater awareness of the environment around and start to appreciate life and people more. If you pursue yoga to its final conclusion, you could be one of the exception lucky people who are able to achieve Samahdi – the stage of ecstasy.