Today, yoga needs no introduction. Moreover, its benefits, ranging from physical and mental strength to even the cure of several chronic illnesses, need no explanation too. However, it’s time to understand yoga more deeply — beyond just the practice — as a path to explore life and existence, to achieve inner calm and bliss, and to dive within. To do the same, here we explore why and how yoga originated, its core purpose, and how to immerse ourselves in its power.
The origin and purpose of yoga
The history of yoga dates back thousands of years ago in India. But what was the need for it to be discovered?
In simple words: The human mind! The mind comes with so many thoughts, conceptions, misconceptions, doubts, prejudices, anxieties, and stresses. Moreover, it brings a hoard of negative emotions like anger, hate, fear, greed, jealousy, and attachments – which make life full of misery. Thus, to bring an end to the sufferings in life made up by the mind and to attain the ability to be blissful and equanimous in any situation, yoga was developed and has been practiced for millennia. The Patanjali Yoga Sutras (one of the foremost ancient aphorisms on yoga) defines the purpose of yoga as “Heyam Dukham Anagatam”, that is, to stop the misery in life before it comes. Yoga is the secret to turning this state of mind and empowering you to feel the way you want to feel at any time, instead of being a victim of your own feelings.
At the same time, stress relief, intuition, innovation, better communication, confidence, and much more are by-products of yoga.
What is yoga?
Yoga is neither just the Asanas (postures) nor just Pranayama (breathing techniques) or meditation. Let’s look at some of the definitions of yoga according to the masters and saints who lived it:
“Yogas chitta vritti nirodha”: Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
“Manah prasamanopayah yoga ityabhidhiyate”: Yoga is a means for quieting the mind.
“Samatvam Yoga Uchyate”: Even when everything is falling apart, being equanimous is yoga.
“Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam”: Skill and awareness in action without attachment is yoga.
“Tam yogamiti manyate sthiramindriyadharanam”: having control of the senses is yoga.
“Samyoga yoga ityukto jivatmana parmatmanoh”: Yoga is the unification of the individual self with the higher self.
Yoga = the blossoming of one’s potential, via expansion of your limited identity of a person/job/title/your role/responsibilities in your house/office, to seeing oneness in everyone and everything. Modern scientists say that everything in the universe is just a manifestation of the same quantum firmament. One who experiences this oneness of existence is said to be in Yoga and has attained a state of freedom referred to as Mukti, Nirvana, Kaivalya, or Moksha. Yoga is a way of life. Living with freedom in all walks of life: Yoga is essentially a spiritual discipline based on an extremely subtle science, which focuses on bringing harmony between mind, body, and the self.
There are techniques and practices to achieve this state and make yoga a way of life. If included in our daily lives, these can bring us closer to experiencing joy and bliss beyond our senses.
The Eight limbs of yoga
These practices and techniques can be divided into ‘eight limbs of yoga’: (PS: ‘limbs’ as per Maharishi Patanjali, and not steps, i.e., they all go hand-in-hand, not necessarily step-by-step).
1. Yama: refers to ethical principles and moral restraints, including five aspects of Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (control of sensory pleasure), and Aparigraha (non-greediness).
2. Niyama: refers to self-discipline and spiritual observances. It includes five aspects: Saucha (cleanliness: both physical and mental), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (self-study), and Ishvara pranidhana (devotion).
3. Asana: refers to the practice of physical postures. The purpose of asanas is to prepare the body for meditation and to develop physical and mental strength, flexibility, and balance. As we see here, Asana (physical postures) is just one of the eight limbs of yoga. Unfortunately, yoga is often considered a method for promoting only physical health and fitness. However, its ultimate objective extends beyond these benefits. The true aim of yoga is aligning personal geometry with the cosmic to attain the highest level of bliss and oneness, and Asanas serve as just the foundational steps to get you ready for that journey.
4. Pranayama: refers to the practice of breathing techniques. The purpose of Pranayama is to regulate and control the flow of prana (life force energy) in the body, which helps to calm the mind.
5. Pratyahara: refers to the withdrawal of the senses. It involves turning the attention inward and becoming aware of the sensations in the body without being distracted by external stimuli.
6. Dharana: refers to concentration. It involves focusing the mind on a single object or point of awareness.
7. Dhyana: refers to meditation. It involves the continuous flow of awareness toward the object
of meditation without distraction. Often people make the mistake of understanding it as concentration or even imagination.
8. Samadhi: is not contemplation but a state of meditative absorption where the individual experiences a profound sense of unity with the object of meditation or the divine. During Samadhi, the individual’s sense of separate self dissolves, and they experience a state of pure awareness. This state is beyond thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences and is characterized by complete stillness, peace, and bliss. There are different levels and types of Samadhi, ranging from initial experiences of serenity and tranquility to more advanced states of ecstatic bliss and enlightenment.
Learning the Eight limbs above is not an easy task; for most people, it is an unknown terrain. Thus, the need for someone experienced with this path to guide you through. Furthermore, yoga works on the level of one’s body, mind, emotion, and energy and is an entirely experiential process – unlike an information transfer in an ordinary school. When we talk about working on the body, mind, emotions, and more, four broad classifications can be made based on the practices taught in yoga:
Karma yoga: where we refine our actions to minimize their impressions on our mind and enjoy every act of our life.
Bhakti yoga: where we utilize emotions to reach the ultimate.
Gyana yoga: refining the intellect and perception;
Kriya yoga: where we purify our body-mind complex via techniques and practices and experience inner peace and bliss.
All types of yoga followed by practitioners can be categorized into these four paths, and each individual is a distinct blend of these factors. All the ancient commentaries on yoga have stressed that it is crucial to learn under the guidance of an experienced guru (teacher) because only they can determine the right combination of the four essential paths required for each seeker.
Embracing the benefits
As we celebrate this special day, International Day of Yoga, on 21 June this year, I hope we appreciate even more the gift of yoga we have and utilize it to make the most of our human life! Yoga is not associated with any specific religious doctrine, belief structure, or social group; rather, it is regarded as a method for promoting personal well-being. The benefits of yoga can be experienced by individuals of all backgrounds, regardless of their faith, ethnic origin, or cultural upbringing, provided they approach the practice with sincerity and dedication. So, starting from this International Day of Yoga, let’s not miss the opportunity to dive into yoga – dive within!