Yoga is a system of physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation exercises that promote bodily health and mental control and well-being.
Yoga is an an ancient spiritual path, originating in India but also practiced and refined in many places in Asia, including Tibet, that aims to achieve the union of the individual with the Supreme Consciousness that lies at the very heart of reality itself. A practitioner of Yoga is called a Yogi (male) or Yogini (female). Outside India, yoga is mostly associated with the practice of asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga or as a form of exercise.
The majority of practitioners of yoga outside India are primarily interested in improving physical health and flexibility. The ultimate goals of Yoga for the spiritual inclined range from reaching liberation from all suffering to extended longevity.
In Indian philosophy, Yoga is the name of one of the six orthodox philosophical schools. The Yoga philosophical system is closely allied with the Samkhya school. Unlike Buddhism, classical Yoga is theistic and realist in its metaphysics. Many Hindu texts discuss aspects of yoga, including the Vedas, Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and various Tantras.
Classified by the type of practices, the major branches of yoga include: Hatha Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga. Raja Yoga, established by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and known simply as yoga in the context of Hindu philosophy, is one of the six orthodox (astika) schools of Indian thought.
The Sanskrit term yoga has many meanings. It is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, “to control”, “to yoke”, or “to unite”. Common meanings include “joining” or “uniting”, and related ideas such as “union” and “conjunction.” Another conceptual definition is that of “mode, manner, means” or “expedient, means in general”.
The Indian sage Patanjali is widely regarded as the founder of the formal Yoga philosophy. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are ascribed to Patanjali, who, as Max Müller explains, may have been “the author or representative of the Yoga-philosophy without being necessarily the author of the Sutras.”
Patanjali’s yoga is known as Raja yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. Patanjali’s writing also became the basis for a system referred to it as “Ashtanga Yoga” (“Eight-Limbed Yoga”). This eight-limbed concept derived from the 29th Sutra of the 2nd book became a feature of Raja yoga, and is a core characteristic of practically every Raja yoga variation taught today.The Eight Limbs of yoga practice are:
(1) Yama (The five “abstentions”): nonviolence, truth, non-covetousness, chastity, and abstain from attachment to possessions.
(2) Niyama (The five “observances”): purity, contentment, austerities, study, and surrender to god
(3) Asana: Literally means “seat”, and in Patanjali’s Sutras refers to seated positions used for meditation. Later, with the rise of Hatha yoga, asana came to refer to all the “postures”
(4) Pranayama (“Lengthening Pr?na”): Pr?na, life force, or vital energy, particularly, the breath, “ayama”, to lengthen or extend
(5) Pratyahara (“Abstraction”): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
(6) Dharana (“Concentration”): Fixing the attention on a single object
(7) Dhyana (“Meditation”): Intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation
(8) Samadhi (“Liberation”): merging consciousness with the object of meditation
They are sometimes divided into the lower and the upper four limbs, the lower ones being parallel to the lower limbs of Hatha Yoga, while the upper ones being specific for the Raja yoga. The upper three limbs practiced simultaneously constitute the Samyama.
In the west, the type of yoga best known and most widely practiced is hatha yoga, a system of physical exercises, stretches and postures. Hatha Yoga is a particular system of Yoga described by Yogi Swatmarama, a yogic sage of the 15th century in India, and compiler of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (a “bible,” of sorts, of hatha yoga). Hatha Yoga is a development of — but also differs substantially from — the Raja Yoga of Patanjali, in that it focuses on shatkarma, the purification of the physical as leading to the purification of the mind (ha), and prana, or vital energy (tha). In contrast, the Raja Yoga posited by Patanjali begins with a purification of the mind (yamas) and spirit (niyamas), then comes to the body via asana (body postures) and pranayama (breath). Hatha yoga was greatly influenced by the esoteric system of thought known as Tantra and marks the first point at which the concepts of energy centers (chakras) and a mysterious evolutionary bodily energy known as kundalini were introduced into the yogic canon. Compared to the seated asanas of Patanjali’s Raja, yoga which were seen largely as a means of preparing for meditation, hatha yoga also marks the development of asanas as full body ‘postures’ in the modern sense.
Hatha Yoga in its many modern variations is the style that most people actually associate with the word “Yoga” today. Because its emphasis is on the body through asana and pranayama practice, many western students are satisfied with the physical health and vitality it develops and are not interested in the other six limbs of the complete Hatha yoga teaching, or with the even older Raja Yoga tradition it is based on.