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.
The goal of yoga is “to join together” – it is the practice of silencing the mind and thus unifying the individual consciousness or inner Self (jivatman) with the Hindu concept of Universal consciousness or Brhmn.
Studies have shown that a week of meditation and yoga practice led to an increase in expression of genes that support rejuvenation of the body , a reduction in expression of genes associated with the stress response, and a large increase in telomerase levels (an enzyme that helps maintain structural identity of genes).
Rishis Kapila, Yaagnyavalkya, Patanjali and Svatmaram codified the formal Yoga philosophy, called the ashtanga Yoga, the 8 limbs of yoga also called Rajayoga, whose ultimate aim is to lead to the awakened state of bliss:
- Yama (abstentions): Ahimsa (qualified non-violence), Satya (Truth, non-lying), Asteya (non-covetousness), Brahmacharya (non-sensuality, celibacy), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
- Niyama (observances): 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’, and in Patanjali’s Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
- Pranayama (regulating breath): Also interpreted as control of the life force.
- Pratyahara: Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
- Dharana (concentration): Fixing the attention on a single object on the body.
- Dhyana (meditation): Intense contemplation on the image of God.
- Samadhi (extended meditation): merging the consciousness with the object of meditation.
In our normal state of consciousness, we identify ourselves through our ego, which focuses our identity onto our physical body, our thoughts, our feelings, our status and our possessions, and hence fear of loss or death too. But these external states or objects that the ego identifies with are inherently unstable and must change, making us feel contracted and insecure.
The ego tries to overcome the fear of death by increasing it’s power and status in the outside world. But the more it gathers power, status and material property the more it feels insecure. This occurs because the more we have the more there is too loose.
Yoga is the scientific practice of expansion – of shifting our identity from the limited, time bound, separate and externally focused ego to an identity with the unlimited, timeless, all encompassing and totally connecting Universal consciousness which is who we truly are. This requires a fundamental shift of focus from the outside world to the inside world. We accomplish this by learning to control that part of our mind which focuses on the outside world and by strengthening, refocusing and 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.
The inner journey
In the state of ignorance of real truth, Our mind (manas) – emotional outer mind, connects us to the outside world through our senses and controls our activity in the outside world through the organs of action. It collects our experience but cannot digest it, interpret it, or place a value on it. This keeps us focused on the future and in the world of imagination, ‘doing’ and trying to become.
Our buddhi (Intelligence) digests the input received from the outer mind and places a sense of value on it. It is also that part of the mind which can shed light on our deep held beliefs, feelings, habits and fears which are stored in our inner mind. It’s functions include perception, discrimination and reason. Buddhi focuses the outside world of form as intellect or outer knowledge and on the inside world as intelligence or inner knowledge. It brings us into an awakened state of the present where we can access true knowledge and wisdom (as opposed to being in the past and future).
Yoga realizes that the Universe is based on the principal of energy. This energy is called prana or Shakti. Prana underlies all life and movement in the Universe. It is the driving force behind our minds, our bodies and the operation of the whole Universe. It leaves our physical bodies when we die. Because prana controls the mind and Yoga is a process of mind control, it follows that regulating prana is a very important aspect of Yoga.
Yoga also 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 foundation is the key to spiritual growth – our capacity to expand upwards is dependent on the strength and integrity of our roots.
The commonly known forms of Yoga are Bhakti Yoga, Karma Yoga and Gnyana Yoga.