Yoga is the great Hindu practice of physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, originating in ancient India. Yoga is India’s greatest spiritual gifts to mankind. The Vedic Samhitas contain references to ascetics, while ascetic practices (“tapas”) are referenced in the Brahmanas (900 to 500 BCE), the early commentaries on the Vedas.
The goal of yoga is “to join together” – it is the practice of silencing the mind and thus unifying the individual consciousness or inner Self (jivatman) with the Hindu concept of Universal consciousness or Brahman.
Studies have shown that a week of meditation and yoga practice led to an increase in expression of genes that support rejuvenation of the body , a reduction in expression of genes associated with the stress response, and a large increase in telomerase levels (an enzyme that helps maintain structural identity of genes).
Patanjali codified the formal Yoga philosophy, called the Yoga sutras, whose ultimate aim is to lead to the awakened state of bliss. Patanjali divided his Yoga Sutras into 4 chapters (Sanskrit pada), divided as follows:
- Samadhi Pada (51 sutras) – Samadhi refers to a blissful state where the yogi is absorbed into the One. This chapter contains the famous definitional verse: “Yogas citta-vritti-nirodha” (“Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications”).
- Sadhana Pada (55 sutras) – Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for “practice”. Here two forms of Yoga are outlined: Kriya Yoga (Action or Karma Yoga, as described in the Gita) and Ashtanga Yoga (Eight limbed Yoga).
- Vibhuti Pada (56 sutras) – Vibhuti is the Sanskrit word for “power” or “manifestation”. ‘Supra-normal powers’ (Sanskrit: siddhi) are acquired by the practice of yoga. The temptation of these powers should be avoided and the attention should be fixed only on liberation.
- Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras) – Kaivalya literally means “isolation”, but as used in the Sutras stands for moksha (liberation), which is the goal of Yoga. The Kaivalya Pada describes the process of liberation and the reality of the transcendental ego.
Patanjali’s “Ashtanga Yoga” deals with the 8 limbs of yoga, which constitute Rajyog:
- Yama (The five “abstentions”): Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (Truth, non-lying), Asteya (non-covetousness), Brahmacharya (non-sensuality, celibacy), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
- Niyama (The five “observances”): Shaucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul), and Ishvara-Pranidhana (surrender to God).
- Asana: Literally means “seat”, and in Patanjali’s Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
- Pranayama (“Suspending Breath”): Prana, breath, “ayama”, to restrain or stop. Also interpreted as control of the life force.
- Pratyahara (“Abstraction”): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
- Dharana (“Concentration”): Fixing the attention on a single object.
- Dhyana (“Meditation”): Intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation.
- Samadhi (“Liberation”): merging consciousness with the object of meditation.
In our normal state of consciousness, we identify ourselves through our ego, which focuses our identity onto our physical body, our thoughts, our feelings, our status and our possessions, and hence fear of loss or death too. But these external states or objects that the ego identifies with are inherently unstable and must change, making us feel contracted and insecure.
The ego tries to overcome the fear of death by increasing it’s power and status in the outside world. But the more it gathers power, status and material property the more it feels insecure. This occurs because the more we have the more there is too loose.
Yoga is the scientific practice of expansion – of shifting our identity from the limited, time bound, separate and externally focused ego to an identity with the unlimited, timeless, all encompassing and totally connecting Universal consciousness which is who we truly are. This requires a fundamental shift of focus from the outside world to the inside world. We accomplish this by learning to control that part of our mind which focuses on the outside world and by strengthening, refocusing and sharpening that part of our mind which can focus inside. Yoga has identified and codified a set of practices which teach us how to do this.
The inner journey
In the ego state we are ignorant of real truth and our real Selves. This “deep sleep” state is called TAMASIC.
Mind – manas – emotional outer mind, connects us to the outside world through our senses and controls our activity in the outside world through the organs of action. It collects our experience but cannot digest it, interpret it, or place a value on it. This keeps us focused on the future and in the world of imagination, “doing” and trying to become which is a “dream” state. This state is called RAJASIC Intelligence – buddhi.
Our Intelligence digests the input received from the outer mind and places a sense of value on it. It is also that part of the mind which can shed light on our deep held beliefs, feelings, habits and fears which are stored in our inner mind. It’s functions include perception, discrimination and reason. Buddhi focuses the outside world of form as intellect or outer knowledge and On the inside world as intelligence or inner knowledge. It brings us into an awakened state of the present where we can access true knowledge and wisdom (as opposed to being in the past and future). This state is called SATTVIC Consciousness – chitta – inner mind.
Yoga realizes that the Universe is based on the principal of energy. This energy is called prana or Shakti. Prana underlies all life and movement in the Universe. It is the driving force behind our minds, our bodies and the operation of the whole Universe. It leaves our physical bodies when we die. Because prana controls the mind and Yoga is a process of mind control, it follows that building and controlling prana is a very important aspect of Yoga.
Yoga also focuses strongly on the physical body. We need a pure healthy body to live fully and practice yoga. When we are weak and sick our minds become unfocussed and scattered. A strong foundation is the key to spiritual growth – our capacity to expand upwards is dependant on the strength and integrity of our roots.
Yoga Vasistha, considered one of the most important scriptures of the Vedantic philosophy, is a syncretic work, containing elements of Vedanta, Jainism, Yoga, Samkhya, Saiva Siddhanta and Mahayana Buddhism, thus making it, in the opinion of one writer, “a Hindu text par excellence, including, as does Hinduism, a mosaic-style amalgam of diverse and sometimes opposing traditions”, providing an example of Hinduism’s ability to integrate seemingly opposite schools of thought.
According to Yoga Vasistha, a spiritual text of the Advaita school of Hindu religion, the values of the liberated, self-actualized human being, may be summarized as follows: “Pleasures do not delight him; pains do not distress. Although engaged in worldly actions, he has no attachment to any object. He is busy outwardly, yet calm inwardly. He feels free from restrictions of scriptures, customs, age, caste or creed. He is happy, but his happiness does not depend on anything else. He does not feel needy, proud, agitated, troubled, depressed or elated. He is full of compassion and forgiveness even to those who mean him harm. He does the right thing, regardless of the pressures. He is patient, perseverant, and without any impurity in his heart. He is free of delusions, he does not crave for anything. His sense of freedom comes from his spirit of inquiry. The fruits of his inquiry are his strength, intellect, efficiency and punctuality. He keeps company of wise and enlightened persons. He is content.”
“Moment to moment, engage the out-going mind to live in the present. Reject the past completely. Renounce the future totally. Sweep the agitated mind clean completely of all rising thoughts, leading to a state of thoughtlessnes. Then, in such a bosom, you shall arrive at the Holy of holies.”
Other forms of Yoga are Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Gyan Yoga. Tantric yoga is a kind of Kundalini Yoga, seeks to use the mind to balance the demands of body and spirit.