Many people think of yoga primarily in terms of physical postures and exercises. While others think that it is a religion. However, this is not the case.
Yoga is an ancient art based on a harmonizing system of development for the body, mind, and spirit. It refers to a comprehensive system of meditation and balanced spiritual living whose ultimate aim is the union of the individual soul (jiva) with the infinite spirit (atman). It is to make us realize our identity with the greater Self, to make us know and tune in with our existing inner nature.
However, we can say that yoga is not really a union. It is in fact realization of the union that already exists. This is the culmination of yoga.
The above definition is purely a spiritual one. There are many other definitions which apply to all the levels of existence and awareness.
Let’s have a look, for example, at the physical level. We all have a body that is continually in a state of disruption. The functions of the different organs, muscles and nerves no longer harmonize and assist each other. Instead, they often hamper and act in opposition. This leads to irregularity in the endocrine system. The nervous system loses its efficiency which results in the manifestation of several diseases.
Thus, yoga aims at bringing all these different functions into perfect coordination. This allows the body to function properly. So, another definition is physical harmony and health.Many people suffer mental disturbances in the form of conflicts, neuroses, phobias and so on. This makes them unhappy and depressed in life. Yoga aims to smooth out and eliminate all mental problems. From here comes another definition: mental balance and mental peace.
Yet, we can also define it as coordination and harmony between mind and body. This is due as our body responds perfectly to our mental commands, conscious and subconscious.
There are many other definitions of yoga. Here is a list below which we have selected from the sacred classical text, the Bhagavad Gita:
- Equanimity in success and failure;
- Skill and efficiency in action;
- Supreme secret of life;
- Giver of untold happiness;
- Destroyer of pain.
Maharishi Patanjali, the writer of the classical yogic text, the Yoga Sutras, gave another definition:
“.. complete control over the different patterns or modifications of consciousness.”
In other words, yoga implies control over the conscious, unconscious and superconscious realms of our being.
Modern civilization has interpreted its own definitions. Here they are:
- science for developing creativity;
- science for unfolding the deeper aspects of the personality;
- the science of being;
- the science of consciousness.
Origin and development
The first books to mention yoga were the ancient Vedas. The Vedas are a large body of texts originating from ancient India written some five thousand years ago. The texts are composed in Sanskrit and constitute the oldest scriptures of Hinduism.
We can trace back the origin of the Vedas back to prehistoric times. The ancient sages of India slowly evolved and developed the texts so that they can be accessible not only in India but all over the world.
Generally, the techniques were passed on from teacher or guru to their disciples by word of mouth. In this way, there was a clear understanding of the meaning of the techniques and aims of this system. The guru, through his personal experience, could guide the students along the right path and away from any confusion and misunderstanding. In fact, it was only when the various systems of yoga were written down that people began to see contradictions in the teachings.
The yoga that we now know was developed in India more than five thousand years ago. In archaeological excavations made in the Indus Valley at Harappa and Mohenjodaro (now Pakistan), archaeologists unearthed various statues depicting people in meditation postures. They show Lord Shiva (the mythological originator of yoga) and his wife Parvati sitting in various asanas and practising meditation. These ruins were once the dwelling places of people who lived in the so-called prevedic age. These discoveries prove that ancient people were practising yoga in India even before the Aryan civilization.
The spiritual dictionary, the Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is a yogic scripture par excellence and is applicable to people throughout the world and in every walk of life. It maps out in a concise, but specific manner the yogic paths of:
- karma (the path of action),
- jnana (the path of intuition),
- bhakti (the path of devotion),
- dhyana (the path of meditation).
It is in the Bhagavad Gita where we really see that yoga is for everyone and not for the recluse. Before the writing of this text, there was a tendency to regard yoga as unworldly and unconnected with daily life. It is the Bhagavad Gita that urges everyone to start practising yoga here and now, and not to consider it something to be practised on retirement from one’s responsibilities or sometime in the future when the opportunity presents itself. We must practise yoga now as an integral part of our life.
Another important aspect of the Bhagavad Gita is that it blends all the different aspects of yoga into a comprehensive whole. With its practice, there should not be any confinement to one path. In fact, this is impossible. Integration of all the different paths is necessary. Though a person might follow one path, in particular, it is advisable to practise the other paths also.
The authoritative Yoga Sutras
Before the birth of Christ, Maharishi Patanjali wrote the text called the Yoga Sutras. Many scholars regard the Yoga Sutras as the classical and authoritative book on raja yoga.
Patanjali took all the important existing practices which were used for many centuries up until his time and united them into one comprehensive and harmonious system.
He certainly did not invent the path of raja yoga for its constituents were known in essence since the beginning of the Vedic period thousands of years before. Some of Patanjali’s brief and concise comments on the mind are far ahead even of modern-day psychological ideas.
“Yoga is the cessation of the movements of the mind. Then there is abiding in the Seer’s own form.”
~ Maharishi Patanjali ~