What is Yoga?
The word yoga means 'to join' in Sanskrit, the ancient language of india. Practically speaking, it refers to a group of teachings on practical methods to attain perfect physical and mental health and skilfulness in action, underpinned by an enlightened philosophy, which have been handed down from teacher (guru) to student (disciple) for hundreds of generations in the South asian area.
Over the centuries there have been many great enlightened yoga gurus (yogis) teaching different methods or 'paths' of yoga. Patanjali is one of the most important to yoga practitioners (sadhakas) of today. He described a path of yoga made up of seven areas of effort or skills which the sadhaka should endeavour to master. His path of yoga is referred to as raja or ashtanga yoga. The 7 skills to be perfected are:
1. Right-action (yama)
2. Right-mentality (niyama)
3. A posture which one can meditate in for long periods of time (asana)
4. Control of the vital energy (pranayam)
5. Withdrawal of the senses (pratyhara)
6. Concentration (dharana)
7. Meditation (dhyana)
More information about Patanjali's teaching can be found in the section 'Patanjali's Yoga Sutra'.
The third skill described by Patanjali, mastery of posture or asana, is the aspect of yoga famous today. Although Patanjali did not teach much on asana (physical postures), only describing asana as a comfortable position one could sit in for a long time to meditate, other teachers since through experimentation with different physical exercises have discovered how we can use the physical body as a tool to prepare the mind for meditation. Stretches and breathing exercises purify and optimise the flow of 'prana' or energy around the body. This is known as the Hatha Yoga method, discussed in the section 'The Hatha method.'
So yoga refers to a group of methods and techniques which are practiced in order to create the necessary physical and mental conditions for 'union' which originated in ancient india thousands of years ago. There have been many teachers of yoga and there are many paths of yoga, each leading to the same goal, 'union'.
The concept of 'union' is difficult to describe. It is considered by some as the union of the individual soul, energy or conciousness (jivatma) with the universal, soul, energy, or conciousness (paramatma, Brahma, God, Ishvara). For others, the eradication of all mental impurities and unhelpful conditionings allows one to connect with oneself, one's true nature, and that is inherently blissful, peaceful and perfect. 'Union' is also equatable to 'enlightenment' (moksha, liberation), the perfect realisation of the laws of nature or the true nature of reality (dhamma). When one realises dhamma, they always react with perfect equanimity and exist in a permanent state of peaceful bliss. The yogic tradition has many similarities with the Buddhist tradition (see Yoga and Buddhism).
Perfect understanding the philosophy of yoga is not necessary to reap the benefits of practice. We begin to feel stronger, calmer, happier and more full of energy as soon as we begin. Through practice we learn about our bodies, minds and true nature and begin to lead happier healthier and more helpful lives.