Yoga is the great Hindu practice of physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, originating in ancient India. Yoga is India’s greatest spiritual gifts to mankind. Ascetics and their practices (‘tapasya’) are referenced in the Vedic scriptures.
Yoga includes physical, mental and spiritual discipline. Yoga helps us make a fundamental shift from the outside world to a focus on the inside world i.e. our mind. The goal of yoga is “to join together” the individual consciousness with the Universal consciousness. Or yoga can also be called the unification process of the inner soul (jeevatman) with Supreme Soul (Paramatma or Brhmn).
Many studies have shown that regular practice of Yoga reduces mental stress, rejuvenates the body, and a large increase in telomerase enzymes that maintain the genetic structural identity.
Rishi Kapila’s Saankhya, Yoga Yagnyavalkya and Patanjali Sutra-s codified ashtanga Yoga, the 8 arms of Raja-yoga. The ultimate aim of these 8 limbs of yoga is to lead to the awakened state of bliss:
- Yama (avoiding immoral practices): ahimsa (qualified non-violence), satya (Truth, non-lying), asteya (non-covetousness), Brahmacharya (non-sensuality, celibacy), and aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
- Niyama (good karma): shaucha (purity), santosha (contentment), tapas (austerity), svadhyaya (study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul), and Ishvara-Pranidhana (surrender to God)
- Asana: literally means ‘seat’, but Yogic physical postures in a general sense
- Pranayama (regulating breath): also interpreted as control of the life force.
- Pratyahara: withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects, and sequentially focussing on different parts of the body
- Dharana; concentration on Aum or a single part of the body)
- Dhyana: meditation or intense contemplation on the image of God
- Samadhi: extended meditation by merging the consciousness with the object of meditation
The inner journey
Yoga focuses strongly on the physical body. We need a pure healthy body to live fully and practice yoga. When we are weak and sick our minds become unfocussed and scattered. A strong physical foundation is the key to spiritual growth.
Our emotional outer mind (manas) connects us to the outside world through our senses, and controls our activity through the organs of action. This keeps us focused on ‘doing’, and trying to become something in the future. Buddhi (Intelligence) focuses the outside world of form as outer knowledge and on the inside world as intelligence.
In our normal state of consciousness, we identify ourselves through our ahamkara (ego). Our ego focuses our identity onto our physical body, our feelings, and our possessions, and hence fear of loss or death too. The ego tries to overcome these fears by increasing it’s power and status in the outside world. But it ends up feeling more insecure. This is because the more we have the more there is too loose.
Yoga is the scientific practice of shifting our consciousness (awareness) from the limited temporary material world to the unlimited timeless Universal consciousness which is who we truly are. We achieve this by learning to regulate our mind towards the outside world, and by sharpening that part of our mind which can focus inside. Yoga has identified and codified a set of practices which teach us how to do this.
Yoga realizes that the Universe is based on the principal of energy. This energy is called prana-shakti. Prana (breath) underlies all life. It is the driving force behind our bodies, our minds, and even the operation of the whole Universe. It leaves our physical bodies when we die. Regulating prana is a very important aspect of Yoga because prana controls the mind and Yoga is a process of mind control. Pranayama brings us into an awakened state of the present where we can access true wisdom (as opposed to being in the past and future). Once the foundation of pranayama is strong, the practioner can advance on the other stages.
The spiritual forms of Yoga are Gnyana Yoga, Karma Yoga and Bhakti Yoga. Bhakti leads to the gnyana (knowledge) that we need to offer the fruits of all our karma (actions) to God.