What is Yoga?
The Origins of Yoga
In order to understand what yoga is, one needs to understand where yoga comes from. Yoga tradition has a long history which goes back 5,000 years. Yoga is not a religion but a spiritual path and is the oldest spiritual tradition in the world. Hinduism and Buddhism are derived from yoga and developed later.
How do we know how old yoga is? In the 1920s, archaeologists in the Indus Valley of India discovered the remains of a hidden advanced civilization. These inhabitants were masters in the outer world and also the inner world of the self. Archeologists discovered statues and seals with motifs of people assuming yoga positions that were dated over 5,000 years ago. This indicates that yoga existed prior to the creation of these artifacts.
Rishis and other sages were yoga practitioners of ancient times who passed down their wisdom through generations in the lineage of yoga by means of an oral tradition. Practices included rituals, sacrifices to fire, and meditation for the purpose of spiritual unfolding. Passed down orally for hundreds of years, yogic tradition was not recorded until Patanjali in 200 BC. He codified the system of yoga in 196 succinct phrases or “sutras” that explained yoga. The Sutras of Patanjali offer moral principles for living life. A sutra means thread in Sanskrit, the original language of yoga; and Patanjali wove threads or sutras together in a tapestry of interconnected thought. Yoga, as described by Patanjali, gives one the means to stop the fluctuations of the mind. Living a life that follows the principles of The Sutras of Patanjali can lead to self-realization, the goal of yoga.
The Paths of Yoga
Yoga can be described in many different ways. Yoga originates from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which means to yoke, combine, or integrate. In yoga, one explores mental, physical, emotional and spiritual aspects of self. Exploring these aspects, you end up seeing and resolving problems that you had not come to terms with or acknowledged previously. Yoga deals with each area at the same time; integrating mind, body, and spirit. Yogic practices such as asanas (yoga positions) and pranayama (yogic breathing) purify the body temple, and unblock emotional and physical blockages. The human body is seen in a different way as containing subtle energetic elements, and as more than being merely physical. Yoga is a system of living, a scientific method learned experientially by different yogis over thousands of years.
The system of yoga ultimately seeks to free a person from their patterns of conditioning so that an internal well-being is created, which is not conditional to outside circumstances.
The paths to realizing the self are many and there is not one right way. Regardless of the path that is correct for you, true progress seems to only come to those who make a consistent disciplined effort to follow a path rather than wavering in their focus. Think of yoga as a large tree with many branches. Some seekers are drawn to practice selfless service by helping others as their spiritual path, and this branch is called Karma Yoga. Jnana Yoga is a path of yoga wisdom with an emphasis on philosophy. Others are drawn to Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion and love of the divine, or yoga of the heart. Hatha Yoga is the physical practice of yoga asanas (poses) and pranayama (yoga breathing). BKS Iyengar calls this path going from the known to the unknown. Practitioners start with the known aspects of the physical body muscles and bones and eventually become attuned to more subtle physical realms such as nerves and organs, which is a path of inner integrated awareness and fulfillment. All yoga is a spiritually inward directed path.
Yoga in Modern Times
Yoga asanas, part of hatha yoga, consist of yoga positions and sequences of positions that have been developed and refined over centuries to tone and bring awareness to each and every part of the body. Originally, asana meant “seat” and asanas were for the purpose of sitting comfortably for meditation. Ancient yogis are shown in statues as seated in Lotus Pose while meditating. Now asana has evolved to mean a yoga position, and the practice of asanas prepares the body for meditation by quieting the mind.
Yoga found in the modern world is focused on hatha yoga, which is a small branch of the larger tree. You can see yoga in the context of going back thousands of years in an unbroken stream of teachings from ancient India, with the past connected to the present. Yoga is for transformation of the self to unite with one’s divine essence. In doing any kind of modern yoga, you join a larger tradition.