Yoga is an ancient spiritual discipline from India which aims to transform the body and mind. Many think yoga is just another form of exercise, but the word comes from the Sanskrit yuj which means to join or unite. In Hindu philosophy the mind and body are seen as a single, unified entity. Imbalances in the body and mind can create suffering, stress, and physical ailments, so yoga is used to calm the mind and strengthen the body. This helps to eliminate impurities and blockages and allows the consciousness to move with freedom. The ultimate aim of yoga is to restore the mind to its original clarity and peace – free from illusion and the confusion of separation
The point of yoga is to attain union between the individual and the Universal Spirit, or between Atman and Brahman, or the small self and the Higher Self, or the Soul and God. The language doesn’t matter, the aim is the same in all mystical traditions and practices – to reach enlightenment. However, the union of yoga isn’t really attained because it already exists. The practice of yoga helps you to remember your original mind.
There are four major paths or schools of yoga. Each has a different approach but they all lead to samadhi, or Self-realisation:
Karma Yoga: karma means ‘action’ so this yoga is about what you do and the effect this has on others. The idea is to live in a way that dissolves old karma and prevents new karma from accumulating through the practice of selfless service to others.
Jnana Yoga: this is the path of wisdom and contemplation that involves the withdrawal of thoughts and emotions from attachment with the world. The idea is to turn inwards to discern the true nature of Reality within.
Bhakti Yoga: this involves devotional meditation practices and worship focused on the divine presence in all of life. The path of compassion and love for all beings, it includes pilgrimage and processes of inner development.
Raja Yoga: this is a system of yoga which focuses on meditation and the mastery of consciousness. It includes physical and breathing practices, moral guidelines and intensive meditation which works through the restraint of consciousness, or chitta.
Other types of yoga include:
Hatha Yoga: this type of yoga is most often practised for health reasons and is what people tend to think of when you speak of yoga. It involves exercising the body and freeing it from blockages so you can attain union. It helps to clear the mind and makes it easier to meditate. In contrast to Raja Yoga, Hatha focuses on the restraint of energy, or prana, by using the breath.
Kundalini Yoga: this is the ‘yoga of awareness’ and is designed to release the Kundalini energy at the base of the spine so it can rise to the crown chakra and trigger awakening. This is one of the oldest forms of yoga.
Tantra Yoga: this form of yoga is often misinterpreted to mean sexual practices, but it’s really about harmonising the male and female aspects within the self in order to realise unity with the Divine Mother. Tantra means ‘expansion’ so this yoga is about expanding your consciousness to realise unity with the dynamic aspect of divinity, or Shakti.
Mantra Yoga: this involves chanting mantras – words, phrases or syllables – using focused attention to achieve absorption states of awareness. More on mantras
Astanga Yoga: this is the yoga that many associate with the asanas, or physical postures of yogic practice, but it involves more than that. Astanga is Raja Yoga and is made up of eight practices or stages called the Eight Limbs of Yoga as detailed in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
These are divided into three disciplines, each with a different focus and intent.
The first discipline is bahiranga-sadhana – ‘external quest’ – which includes moral guidelines, changes to behaviour, and physical exercises:
1. Yama: You can’t realise oneness with all of life if you abuse your social responsibilities, so yama sets out some moral guidelines. These are the five ethical disciplines of non-violence, truthfulness, freedom from desire, chastity, and freedom from greed.
2. Niyama: Yoga requires discipline so niyama sets out codes of conduct to help you move past resistance and inertia. These are the five ethical observances of cleanliness, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, and surrender to God.
3. Asana: these are the physical exercises to align body, mind and spirit. They strengthen the body and preserve your energy.
The second discipline is antaranga-sadhana – ‘internal quest’ – which includes emotional and mental discipline with breathing exercises:
4. Pranayama: this is control of the breath to bring about an expansion of the vital energy or life force (prana). It controls the mind and lower instincts.
5. Pratyahara: this is the withdrawal of the senses into the mind and detachment from the external world and its pleasures. It evolves from the practice of pranayama.
The third discipline is antaratma-sadhana – ‘innermost quest’ – which is the quest of the soul towards liberation or enlightenment, and includes three types of meditation:
6. Dharana: this is deep concentration which guides your consciousness to focus the attention on one point without wavering.
7. Dhyana: this is meditation and contemplation where consciousness saturates the mind and dissolves all barriers to unity with the source of life.
8. Samadhi: this means ‘putting together’ and is profound meditation where you lose your sense of separation from life. More on samadhi
The Results of Yoga
Patanjali mentions powers or spiritual gifts (siddhi) that arise as a result of samadhi. These aren’t the goal of yoga but more of a side-effect and not to be indulged. The real goal of yoga is to achieve freedom, absolute liberation, and moksha.
“Evolution takes place in a moment. Moment implies instant while movement implies time. When change comes, it arrives at once in a moment, only after a series of efforts involving movements of time. Transformation does not come without effort. As change is noticeable to an average individual, so the end transformation is distinguishable to a yogi by virtue of his pure wisdom. He is free from time, place and space while others remain trapped in this net. He is neither attracted towards nature nor disturbed by it. He is now a divine yogi.” – B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
More on Yoga:
- Transform yourself with Yoga from Find Your Middle Ground
- Read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali online
- Excellent commentary on the sutras by Swami Krishnananda