The History, Practice, Benefits and Types of Yoga


by Jayaram V

The word yoga comes to us from the Sanskrit root word "yuz", It means to yoke, to unite. In the most ordinary sense yoga means uniting the body and the mind with the soul. In a dualistic sense it also means uniting the soul with the supreme self. In yoga, through a step by step process we try to dissolve the ego consciousness in the soul consciousness.

We practice yoga by withdrawing the mind and the senses from the myriad distractions of the world in order to obliterate the boundaries of identity and form we create for ourselves. In a true sense, yoga is the means to reverse the process of creation and our bondage to the cycle of births and deaths. In the Bhagavadgita we see a much broader approach to the concept of yoga.

According to the scripture, yoga means not just doing some mental or physical exercises, but uniting your actions, your thoughts, your life and yourself with the divine or a divine purpose. In other words you use your very life as the means to salvation, living every moment of it not for your selfish or egoistic goals and desires but as an offering to God and for the sake of God.

History of yoga

Our knowledge of yoga comes to us mostly from the Yogasutras of Patanjali, who lived some time during the early Christian era. The Yogasutras is the most authoritative ancient scripture on yoga. However Patanjali did not invent the system of yoga. It was practiced in the Indian subcontinent much before Patanjali by the followers of Jainism, Saivism, Buddhism and many ascetic traditions some of which were later integrated into the vedic religion.

The Indus people were probably familiar with some aspects of yoga. Followers of the Samkhya school used yoga as the means to liberate themselves from the hold of Prakriti. The Samkhya philosophy was probably the oldest of the Indian traditions to use yoga for spiritual liberation. The Jain yoga is also considered to be one of the most ancient yoga systems practiced in the Indian subcontinent.

It focused more on self-denial and restraint to the extent of self-mortification as the means to liberation. The Buddha was against hurting the body for spiritual aims. He advocated a softer approach or the the middle path in which the emphasis was more on using right means to achieve right ends. The ancient Buddhist yoga consisted of the practice of dhyana or meditation and becoming aware of breath and body sensations to cultivate mindfulness.

Yoga in the Vedic world

The Rigvedic people had some vague notions of yoga. They were familiar with Munis, the hermits, Vratyas, the austere ones and Kesins, the long haired ones, who practiced different ancient forms of Yoga. The Kesins had the ability to hold breath and levitate in the air. The Upanishadic seers or Rishis practiced yoga and used it as the means to practice equanimity and overcome death. One of the earliest references to meditation is found in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad.

The practice of yoga in the vedic tradition was as a result of the internalization of the vedic ritual and its elevation symbolically from the material plane into the mental plane. This is evident in the Katha Upanishad, where outward and insincere ritual of Vajasravasas is discounted by the more honest and austere approach of Nachiketa towards the subject of liberation. The Katha Upanishad is the first vedic scripture to use the word "yoga" and define it as the control of senses to achieve the supreme state.

When young Nachiketa went, according to his father's wishes, to the world of Yama, the lord of death, Yama taught him the fire meditation and the contemplation of self (adhyatma yoga). The Svetasvatara Upanishad is more graphic in its details on how to practice yoga. It suggests how a yogi should hold his body erect, fix his mind and senses in his heart and practice breath control. The Upanishad lists some of the images a yogi may see in his meditation and the experiences he may undergo as he practices yoga.

Yoga is described in this Upanishad as the best means to overcome sickness, old age and death. The Maitri Upanishad speaks of six fold yoga, which is probably a variation of the eightfold yoga elucidated in the Yogasutras. Some of the Upanishads can be best described as yoga Upanishads because they deal with the subject of yoga exclusively. The Yoga Chudamani, Yogasikha and the Yoga Tattva upanishads are good examples of yoga Upanishads. They list the techniques and practices associated with various types of yoga and their relative importance in achieving liberation from the cycle of births and deaths.

Types of Yoga

The Yoga Upanishads identify four types of yoga. They are mantra yoga, laya yoga, raja yoga and hatha yoga. In the Bhagavadgita we find karma yoga, jnana yoga, karma sanyasa yoga, buddhi yoga and bhakti yoga. Mantra yoga involves continuous mental repetition of a mantra or some sacred syllable till the mind become completely absorbed in it. Japa yoga is a variation of mantra yoga. Sabda yoga is its opposite in which a yogi attempts to listen to an internal universal current of sound passively by withdrawing into himself. Laya yoga involves the dissolution of the lower self and the mental activity and the rising of the kundalini energy from the base of the spine to the tip of the head. Its more extreme version is Hatha yoga practiced by some schools of Saivism such as the Nath yogis and the Kalamukhas. It involves the practice of some extremely difficult bodily postures, breathing practices and use of certain chemicals to gain complete mastery over the body and the mind. Similar to Hatha yoga is the Siddha yoga made popular in recent times by Swami Muktananda. Raja yoga or the king of the yogas is the most standard form of yoga, described by Patanjali in his Yogasutras. It involves the practice of eight fold yoga which is described below. Karma yoga means performing desire less actions as an offering to god. Jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, buddhi yoga involve the use of knowledge, devotion, intelligence in a divine centric life as the means for the highest purpose of achieving liberation. They do not focus on the techniques but suggest a way of life in which the sole purpose is liberation from the cycle of births and deaths, by developing equanimity, detachment, purification of the mind and the body and increasing the quality of sattva or purity. Some of the yoga systems that became popular in modern times are Kriya yoga of Paramahansa Yogananda, integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo, Siddha yoga of Swami Muktananda, Sabda yoga of Radhasoami Satsang and Sahaja yoga of Mata Nirmala Devi.

Ashtanga yoga

The Yogasutras of Patanjali describes the ashtanga yoga or the eight limbed yoga. It is also popularly known as Raja yoga or the king of yoga. As the name implies it involves eight different practices, which are considered as the eight limbs of the body of yoga. The eight aspects of ashtanga yoga are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

Yama means practice of restraints or precepts. Some call them abstentions. The five restraints suggested by Patanjali are: not to be violent, not to lie, not to steal, not to indulge in sex and not to be greedy. One can see some parallels among the five restraints of the yoga system, the four noble truths of the Buddha and five great vows or maha vratas of Jainism.

Niyama means rule or observance or discipline or practice. Patanjali suggested five rules or observances for the practitioners of yoga. They are practice of purity, (saucha), happiness or contentment (santosha), austerities or asceticism (tapas), study of the scriptures (svadhyaya) and surrender to God (Iswara Pranidhana).

Asana means method of seating. It involves assuming various bodily postures as the means to make the body supple and fit enough to receive higher energies and sustain higher consciousness

Pranayama means control of prana. It is done by regulating the in breathing, out breathing and holding the breath in between for certain periods of time to calm the mind and relax the body to experience higher states of consciousness.

Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses from the sense objects. This is usually done by closing eyes, looking inwards and by focusing the attention on the area between the eye brows or on the thoughts and feelings that arise in the consciousness. Practice of pranayama also leads to withdrawal of the mind from the sense objects.

Dharana involves concentrating the mind on a single point or object such the image of a deity so as to overcome the sense of duality to which we are usually subject. In the final stages of dharana a practitioner experiences oneness with the object of his meditation by losing the distinction between the knower and the known or himself and the object of his meditation.

Dhyana means meditation, which can be either passive or active. Constant practice of dhyana leads to equanimity, tranquility and inner happiness

Samadhi is a state of self absorption in which the movements of the senses and the mind cease and all distinctions between the knower and the known disappear. It is a state of unity and subjectivity in which mind comes to a complete rest while the practitioner remains conscious but absorbed in himself. Samadhi is further categorized into savikalpa samadhi and nirvikalpa samadhi. In savikalpa samadhi the state of self-absorption is not complete and some activities of the mind are still going on, where as in nirvikalpa samadhi the mind is completely and utterly at rest and one has lost all notions of distinction or differentiation. Each of these states are further divided into different categories.

Benefits of Yoga

Constant practice of yoga leads to several benefits and many transcendental states of consciousness and experiences. These benefits and states of consciousness are enumerated in the third chapter of the Yogasutras. The highest and ultimate result of yoga is samadhi or the state of unity. leading to God realization and liberation. Some of the immediate benefits of yoga are increased health, body vigor, longevity, youthfulness, intelligence, inner peace, relaxation, self-control and mindfulness. Claims are made now a days that mass yoga practices will lead to world peace, reduce crime rate and contribute to the overall welfare of the mankind. Yoga which was originally meant for the liberation of individual souls is now presented as a solution for our global problems. While there is always an element of skepticism associated with such claims, there is no harm in practicing yoga for the welfare of the world or for the welfare of society. By thinking good about others no harm will ever come. Even if we assume that they do not do any real good, at least they will make people who participate in them feel better about themselves.

The yoga tradition recognizes several benefits of practicing yoga of which eight are considered to be the most important. One of the most important outcomes of practicing yoga is the attainment of supernatural powers or siddhis, which are listed below.

  • Ability to become extremely small
  • Ability to become extremely light
  • Ability to become heavy
  • Ability to move freely every where
  • Irresistible will power
  • Complete mastery over the body and the mind
  • Control over the elements
  • Ability to fulfill all desires

Other benefits mentioned in the Yoga sutras are knowledge of the past and future, intuition or pratibha, ability to read other people's minds and thoughts, knowledge of past lives, knowledge of the time of death, friendship, elephant strength, knowledge of the sun and the planets, knowledge of the body, steadiness of mind, extra sensory perception, ability to enter other bodies and body luster.

Yoga In the Modern World

The purpose of yoga is inner transformation leading to the liberation of individual souls. In the modern world it is increasingly used for physical and mental purposes rather than spiritual. Some practice yoga under the delusional belief that they can gain magical powers to attract wealth and other benefits. If one is merely interested in physical relaxation, better health and inner peace, there is no harm in practicing yoga purely for material reasons.

One can remain contended practicing simple yoga postures, breathing exercises and meditation techniques after learning them from a qualified teacher and enjoy whatever good that may come out of them. However, those who take to yoga for spiritual reasons, should always keep its ultimate purpose in their minds. They should be careful about their attitude towards siddhis or the magical powers because they are a trap and a great hindrance, which can reverse their spiritual evolution and throw them into great confusion.

The yamas and the niyamas of the ashtanga yoga are more important than the exercises themselves because they build the character and integrity which come handy when the siddis or the spiritual powers begin to manifest themselves. Yoga is therefore a serious discipline and should be practiced with equal seriousness.

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