What is Yoga- A Complete Introduction
Youtube video version- https://youtu.be/atowsknyCV8 There are two main ways to answer this question. One is to describe the actual practice of yoga. The other is to describe its history, its story. Since this is a handbook and not a history book, the history section will be brief. Nonetheless, it is vital to get at least a little context, so we have bearings on where we came from and where we are heading in the future.
The History of Yoga
Yoga emerged from the Ancient Indian Hindu traditions over 5000 years ago, making it some of the oldest knowledge known to man. The ancient Yogis were far ahead of their time, sharing advanced knowledge of the worlds within and without. One example of this was in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1500 AD, when Swatmarama Suri calculated that there are over 8.4 million yoga postures. This was calculated by identifying each joint in the body, multiplying it by the number of degrees it could move, then multiplying that by the number of other joints in the body and the degrees that they could move. The total is 8.4 million postures that are possible for the human body. Can you imagine figuring that out without a calculator? This is but one example of the advanced knowledge held by the yogis. Another case is in the Vedic tradition, where they chant a given mantra 108 times. This number is seen as a symbol of wholeness. As it turns out, the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Earth, and the distance from Earth to the Sun is 108 times the diameter of the Sun. Furthermore, there are 108 major nadis (energy channels) emerging from the heart chakra, the centre of our being. This shows that there is something special about the yogis. They are tapped into something.
The Yogis had thorough systems of knowledge, ranging from bodily cleansing techniques, breath and movement techniques, the keys to mental and physical health, plus metaphysical insights. If they compiled this without the use of psychedelics, I would be OVERLY impressed. One of my teachers in India once said, “They either had advanced scientific methods, or they were aliens.” I say, why not both? Let us take a walk through history and look at some of the most famous classical yogic texts. We are only scratching the surface of each, so I invite you to explore them more in depth in your own time.
The Vedas and Upanishads
These are mostly a collection of hymns, dated between 5000 and 10,000 years ago, making them the oldest collection of yogic texts. They contain less instruction on physical practice and include a series of hymns which praise to the divine. Here is an excerpt of the Gayatri Mantra from the Rig Veda, English translation.
“Through the coming, going, and the balance of life. The essential nature illuminating existence is the adorable one. May all perceive through subtle intellect, the brilliance of enlightenment.”
The Bhagavat Gita
Written in 200 BCE, this book is a dialogue between Pandava prince Arjuna and his guide and charioteer Krishna. The warrior general Arjuna is facing a moral dilemma as he prepares to go into battle against his uncles, cousins, and friends in a nearby region. The book comprises of conversations between Arjuna and the divinely inspired Krishna. They unpack this dilemma using many ideas in Hindu and Vedic philosophy. In the end he goes and fights, to fulfil his dharma as a warrior. He must play his role in the natural order.
The Yoga Sutrus of Patanjali
Written around 400 AD, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali can be considered the first “technical yoga manual”. Patanjali was a monumental Sage, who performed the critical role of bringing a systematised, step-by- step approach to the art of yoga. He introduced “The Eight Limbs of Yoga”, which describe the system of Yoga as a set of techniques involving lifestyle choices, postures, breathwork, and meditative practices. We will unpack the Eight Limbs of Yoga later in this chapter.
The Hatha Yoga Papridika
Written in the 15th century AD by Svātmārāma, this book is a synthesis of older Hatha Yoga concepts distilled into a pragmatic guide. The work consists of four chapters that include information about purification (Skt. ṣaṭkarma), posture (āsana), breath control (prāṇāyāma), spiritual centres in the body (chakra), coiled power (kuṇḍalinī), force postures (bandha), (kriyā), energy (śakti), subtle/gross bodily connections (nāḍī), and symbolic gestures (mudrā), among other topics.
How Is Yoga Different to Other Religions and Philosophies?
Yoga shares multiple traits with other mainstream religions and philosophies. What it shares is the general intention to understand reality, God, the human condition, and the good life.
What sets yoga apart from most schools of thought is the degree of pragmatism. Yoga is highly pragmatic, because it delves into four very important yet separate categories: living a good life, physical health and cleanliness, mental health and cleanliness, and God. In this way it is a very complete system when striving to achieve optimal health, spiritual attainment, peace and enlightenment.
A Definition of Yoga
Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yog, which means to yolk, bind, or unite. The word Union is commonly used to describe yoga. BKS Iyenga famously said in his classic book “Light on Yoga”, that it is the unification of our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual faculties with our personal Will and the Will of God. In other words, every element of us moves in one direction, aligned with the best interest of our Selves and the All. This is achieved through purification of the body, mind, and spirit.
The Eight Limbs
The eight limbs of yoga is the essential blueprint of the whole yogic system. It is a set of practices relating to lifestyle, physical movement, breath, and meditation. The goal is to remove all blockages, helping us to reach our highest energy level and to live in alignment with nature and God.
These are the eight limbs of yoga. I recommend you memorize them.
1: Yamas: Ethical Disciplines
- Ahimsa (non-harming)
- Satya (truthfulness)
- Asteya (non-stealing)
- Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
- Brahmacharya (moderation)
2: Niyamas: Self Disciplines - Tapas (Fiery ambition to be our best)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Saucha (cleanliness)
- Svadhyaya (self-study)
- Ishvara Pranidhana (Study/reflection of the divine)
3: Asana: Posture.
4: Pranayama: Breath.
5: Pratyahara: Turning the awareness within.
6: Dharana: Concentration on a single point.
7: Dhyana: Meditation, or sustained concentration and focus.
8: Samadhi: The peak of yoga. Absorption within one’s meditation. Union. Merging. A oneness with nature. The foundation for mystical states. Completeness, happiness, joy, and peace. Harmony with nature.
Let us encapsulate the eight limbs of yoga in a paragraph rather than bullet points. Imagine the yogi has been living an ethical life, staying active, clean, disciplined, and well-studied. He then takes his seat for meditation. His posture is cross legged with spine erect, balanced and comfortable. The energy is flowing freely. He closes his eyes and notices his breath, which is slow, deep, and energising. It fills his pelvis and lifts his spine, raising energy up through the head and beyond. His senses are turned within, as he maintains focus on the movement of breath and body. In this void of stillness, he introduces a mantra. Sat Nam: Truth is My Name. He repeats the mantra with sound and visual imagery. Sat Nam. Sat Nam. He becomes absorbed in the meditation, until his personal “problems” disappear. He vanishes and becomes one with the object of meditation. In this case, Sat Nam. Later he emerges with a deep inhale and an opening of the eyes. His energy is blissful, serene, centred, and awake. His perception is so pure that he can sense the miracle of existence throughout his field. He is being rather doing. Awake, relaxed, energised and clear. This is the path of yoga. Thank you for reading :). Here are some useful links you may want to check out :). - To purchase my book and support the crowdfunding campaign: gf.me/u/zbnqxk - My facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/trent.odonnell.52