WHAT IS YOGA?
For those who are not familiar with yoga, they may think of it as a series of physical exercises which involves twisting the body in different positions in order to stimulate the muscles and joints. Although not entirely overruling that conclusion, it would interest you to know that yoga is far in-depth than that.
The main aim of yoga is to synchronize the body with the mind in order to tap into a deeper and more subtle level of awareness. It is simply a process of reversing the general outward flow of energy and consciousness, whereby the mind becomes a universal center of direct perception, independent of other bodily senses but capable of actually experiencing truth.
Yoga is derived from the Sankrit word “yuj” which means “to join” or “to unite”, and that involves harmonizing the individual consciousness or soul with the universal consciousness or spirit, through the means of various breathing techniques, yoga postures or asanas and meditation.
It has been in existence for over 5000 years and originated from India, and has gained widespread popularity around the world today. Its whole structure revolves around three main areas, which are, exercise, breathing and meditation. The exercises are designed to put pressure on the glandular systems of the body, resulting in the increase in its efficiency and overall health.
The breathing techniques, otherwise known as Pranayama, is based on the concept that breath is the source of life in the body. Practicing effective breath control is believed to help bring more oxygen to the blood and brain, eventually helping control prana or the vital life energy. It goes hand in hand with the various yoga postures or asanas and helps prepare the body for meditation.
Meditation, otherwise called Dhyaan, which is the final part of the yoga exercise involves quieting the mind to allow for silence and healing from everyday stress. The yoga student or yogi (which is sometimes spelled jogi) practices all three parts of this area of Yoga to produce a clear, bright mind and a strong, capable body.
There are various paths or types of Yoga that lead toward this goal, each of which is a specialized branch of one comprehensive system:
- Hatha Yoga —this is a system of physical postures, or asanas, whose higher purpose is to purify the body, giving one awareness and control over its internal states and rendering it fit for meditation.
- Karma Yoga —this is selfless service to others as part of one’s larger Self, without attachment to the results; and the performance of all actions with the consciousness of God as the Doer.
- Mantra Yoga —this path involves centering the consciousness within through japa, or the repetition of certain universal root-word sounds representing a particular aspect of Spirit.
- Bhakti Yoga —this is the all-surrendering devotion through which one strives to see and love the divinity in every creature and in everything, thus maintaining an unceasing worship.
- Jnana (Gyana) Yoga —this is the path of wisdom, which emphasizes the application of discriminative intelligence to achieve spiritual liberation.
- Raja Yoga —this is the royal or highest path of Yoga, immortalized by Bhagavan Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and formally systematized in the second century B.C. by the Indian sage Patanjali, which combines the essence of all the other paths.
The core significance of the Raja Yoga system, balancing and unifying these various approaches, is the practice of definite, scientific methods of meditation which enables one to perceive, from the very beginning of one’s efforts, glimpses of the ultimate goal — conscious union with the inexhaustibly blissful Spirit.
The quickest and most effective approach to the goal of Yoga employs those methods of meditation which deals directly with energy and consciousness. It is this direct approach that characterizes Kriya Yoga, the particular form of Raja Yoga meditation taught by Paramahansa Yogananda.
Patanjali, an Indian scholar and sage also conceived the most widely known Yoga theories and practices of his time in a book he named Yoga Sutras (“Yoga Aphorisms”) sometime between the 1st or 2nd century B.C. or during the 5th century A.D. He wrote about the eight limbs of Yoga or “Ashtanga Yoga,” generally referred to as Classical Yoga today.
These eight steps of Classical Yoga include:
- Yama: meaning “restraint” or “moral conduct” — refraining from violence, lying, stealing, casual sex, and hoarding;
- Niyama: meaning “observance” or “religious observance” — purity, contentment, tolerance, study and remembrance;
- Asana: physical exercises or right posture;
- Pranayama: breathing techniques or the control of prana, the subtle life currents in the body;
- Pratyahara: preparation for meditation, described as “withdrawal of the mind from the senses”;
- Dharana: focused concentration, being able to hold the mind on one object for a specified time;
- Dhyana: meditation, the ability to focus on one thing (or nothing) indefinitely;
- Samadhi: absorption, or realization of the essential nature of the self.
Yoga is highly beneficial to the wellbeing of both the body and the mind. Practicing it regularly helps yogis to better control their bodies, fight off ailments and increase health and body awareness. Some noteworthy benefits include:
To the body: increased flexibility, increased strength, improved balance, increased stamina, improved body alignment (reduces joint pain)
To the mind: stress reduction, body awareness, better sleep, improved self-confidence and relaxation.
There are several other physical and mental benefits of Yoga, but these are the major ones and it applies to men and women of all ages. However, children under the age of 16 are not encouraged to try yoga exercises because their bodies’ nervous and glandular systems are still developing, and the effect of yoga exercises may interfere with their natural growth.
Pregnant women also, or women who are planning on getting pregnant can benefit greatly from yoga. It is however strongly discouraged for them to try certain Yoga poses which may harm them or cause injury to the unborn child. Simple daily breathing and meditation techniques are the most ideal and is guaranteed to ensure an easier delivery and a healthy baby and mother.