What is Yoga? Although yoga is still considered by many as merely a popular physical practice that has some mental benefits it is actually the science of Self-realization. Yoga offers a practical philosophy of life which includes scientific techniques developed by the ancient yogis to help us discover our true nature.
Photo credit to Michael Pravin. Adapted.
What is yoga?
The Sanskrit word yoga means "to join" or "to unite". The yogis explain that yoga is the union of the self with the higher Self, union of the individual soul with the Supreme Soul, union of Atman with Brahman. In other words yoga is the realization that we are not mere human beings but actually one with the Supreme Consciousness or Soul. This is called Self-realization or samadhi.
The sage Patanjali defines yoga in his Yoga Sutras as "Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodah (Y.S. I.2.)" which can be translated as "Yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind".
In the eastern traditions the mind is usually compared to a lake. Only when the waves of the lake have become still we are able to see the bottom of the lake. Similarly when the waves (vrittis) or modifications of the mind (chitta) becomes still we are able to see the true Self. In that state the yogi realizes that there is no difference between the individual soul and the Supreme Soul, he has attained the state of samadhi. He is then able to remain perfectly balanced or equanimous under any circumstances unaffected by the pair of opposites like pleasure and pain, gain and loss and success and failure.
Yoga: Practical Philosophy of Life and Science of Self-realization
The yogis' gift to humanity was to develop or to discover a practical philosophy of life and the techniques to accomplish that stillness of the oscillations or modifications of the mind so we could clearly see our true nature and attain that state of unity.
The four main paths of yoga (Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga) give us the wisdom and a practical philosophy that we can apply in our daily lives to help us overcome any distress or painful situation reducing in this way the vrittis or modifications that obscures our true nature.
The Raya Yoga path also offers scientific techniques of meditation and techniques to purify the body and mind as an aid for the meditation practice which ultimately brings that same stillness of the modifications of the mind.
There is no place for superstition or blind faith in yoga. The yogis gave us the techniques and asked us to practice and test them by ourselves like scientists, using our own mind and bodies as our laboratories, so we could become our own therapists.
"The whole technique of yoga, its practice and restraint, is aimed at disassociating consciousness from its identification with the phenomenal world, at restraining the senses by which it is ensnared, and at cleansing and purifying the lens of citta, until it transmits wholly and only the light of the soul" B.K.S. Iyengar - Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The four main paths of yoga
The yogis understood that each one of us has a different temperament, different character and tendencies due to our past impressions or samskaras so they gave us four main paths to choose according to our own capacity and temperament. These four paths are described in the ancient and sacred Indian text, The Bhagavad Gita. Although apparently very different each of these paths lead to the same goal: Self-realization.
Jnana Yoga, the path of wisdom
For the philosophers, who naturally feel inclined to reflect on who the "I" is, where do we come from, where are we going to, the real nature of reality and so on, the path of wisdom or Jnana Yoga is the most suitable.
By using the intellect to contemplate on the nature of the Self the jnana yogi ultimately transcends the intellect developing the jnana or wisdom through intuition which destroys the veils of ignorance or avidya. The illusion of duality or the existence of subject and object disappears and the yogi become fully aware of the ultimate reality.
Suggested further reading:
Karma Yoga, the path of action
For those who are fully active in the world, involved in different kinds of works the path of action or Karma Yoga is the best. Karma yoga is a practical philosophy that we can all apply in our daily lives since we all have to inevitable perform actions or do some kind of work in this material world.
By working selflessly, with a sense of duty and without attachment to the fruits of work, constantly remembering that he is not the doer the karma yogi purifies his mind and becomes free from all bondage created by his actions until he attains the ultimate freedom of samadhi or Self-Realization.
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Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion and control of emotions
For those who are of emotional and devotional temperament, who prefer to see the Divinity outside of themselves to be able to adore and prostrate at Her/His feet the path of devotion or Bhakti Yoga is recommended.
By using the power of emotions and directing them towards the Lord the yogi purifies his mind and develops concentration. That concentration on the form of his Lord (or on the devotional feeling towards the Lord) leads to a state of meditation until ultimately the devotee fully identifies with his Lord. Then there is no difference anymore between the devotee, the act of devotion and the Lord, they become One.
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Raja Yoga, the Royal Path
And for those who are mystics, inclined to discover the potential of the mind and will power by practicing the scientific techniques of concentration and breath control the Royal Path or Raja Yoga is their preference.
The essence of the Raja Yoga psychology and its techniques are described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and its core teaching is summarized in the Eight Limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. The Eight Limbs describe the preliminary practices for mental and emotional purification and the step by step process of meditation that leads to samadhi or Self-realization.
The raja yogi sits still in a stable and comfortable posture (asana) and by regulating his breath (pranayama), disconecting the mind from the senses (pratyahara) and focusing the mind on an object of concentration (dharana) enters into a state of meditation (dhyana) until ulimately he reaches the state where there is no more duality but only unity (samadhi). The meditator, the act of meditation and the object of meditation become One.
The Raja Yoga path is called the Royal Path because it includes all the other paths:
The raja yogi prays to The Lord of life (Bhakti Yoga) that resides within himself (Jnana Yoga) before his meditation practice (Raja Yoga) and without attachment offers the results of his mediation practice for the benefit of all beings (Karma Yoga).
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The four main paths complement each other
These four paths are not mutually exclusive, they actually complement each other. Without dharana or concentration the jnana yogi wouldn't be able to focus the mind on one subject to contemplate upon. Without jnana or wisdom the bhakta would become a fanatic. Without bhakti or devotion the meditations of the raja yogi would become dry and would strengthen the ego-consciousness.
One my choose to focus primarily in one of these four paths but ultimately all of them are applied in the path towards Self-realization.
Hatha Yoga: the physical yoga
And now we finally come to Hatha Yoga, the physical yoga practice best known by its asanas or yoga postures which are so popular nowadays in the western world and which most people know as yoga.
All forms or methods of physical yoga like Ashtanga yoga, Iyengar Yoga, and those forms developed in the west like Power Yoga, Vinyasa and so on are just different forms of Hatha Yoga.
The raja yogi realized that a sick, weak and impure body was an obstacle to any endeavor to sit still, become silent and focus the mind on one point for the practice of meditation. So in order to advance in the path of Raja Yoga, to prepare the body and mind for the practice of meditation the yogis developed a preparatory practice, a system which they called hatha yoga to help the sadhakas or spiritual aspirants achieve that stillness of the body and mind.
"Salutation to Adinatha (Siva) who expounded the knowledge of Hatha Yoga, which like a staircase leads the aspirant to the high pinnacled Raja Yoga." ( Hatha Yoga Pradipika I.1)
"Yogin Swatmarama, after saluting his Guru Srinatha explains Hatha Yoga for the attainment of Raja Yoga." (Hatha Yoga Pradipika I.2)
Ha-tha and the Yin-Yang
Ha-tha, similarly to the Yin-Yang from the Chinese tradition, represents the opposite but complementary forces present everywhere in nature.
"Ha" represents the yang, sun, male, extroverted, positive energies, pingala or right nostril breath flow and left brain hemisphere, and "tha" represents the yin, lunar, female, introverted, mental, negative, ida or left nostril breath flow and right brain hemisphere. The aim of Hatha Yoga is the balancing of these two seemingly opposing forces. When these two forces are balanced an awakening starts to take place.
What are the benefits of the asanas or physical yoga postures?
The asanas, or physical yoga postures which are the main characteristic of hatha yoga, work at different levels:
- At the physical body level they work by developing flexibility of the spine and the different muscles in the body. They tonify the internal organs by the gentle massage given by the postures which increases the blood flood to stimulate healing and recovery, and they also help to strengthen the muscles and develop stamina.
- At the energetic level they help to remove blockages in the flow of prana or vital energy which are stored in the different joints of the body.
- At the mental level they help to develop concentration, awareness and mental stillness.
The asanas are not the only component in hatha yoga. Pranayama (breath regulation exercises), shatkriyas (cleansing practices), mudras (energy seals) and bandhas (energy locks) are also important components of Hatha Yoga. All of these scientific techniques are used by the hatha yogi to help purify his body and mind to make them fit for the practice of meditation.
Anybody can practice yoga
But these four paths of yoga (including the wisdom, the philosophy and the physical practice) are not only for the Indian yogis or Hindus. Since yoga offers only scientific techniques and a practical philosophy of life which has been tested by the sages and which requires no blind faith but only a constant and regular practice it can be used by all regardless of their beliefs, cultural background or religions.
As a matter of fact these four paths are just labels that describe a specific way of living, a philosophy that one might be already applying in his/her life consciously or unconsciously, so even those who say that don't believe in yoga and don't want to have anything to do with it might actually be already practicing it without knowing it.
For instance, the Christian sings and dances with full devotion to glorify God the all mighty (Bhakti Yoga), studies and contemplate on God's words recorded in the Holy Bible (Jnana Yoga), sits in silence and prays to God until silence itself becomes the prayer (Raja Yoga) and serves the community by volunteering in his temple and by praying for others (Karma Yoga).
This is just a small introduction to yoga (although quite a long post) as a practical philosophy of life and science of Self-realization. There is so much to tell about the philosophy of yoga and it's scientific techniques and I'm very excited to continue learning and sharing more in the future, so excited that it is creating a vritti in my chitta. Lol. I guess I need to relax more, apply the Karma Yoga philosophy and take it one step at a time, or rather one post at a time.