What is Yoga?
The word Yoga means “union”. The practice of yoga is much grander than a form of exercise or being flexible.It is a method that unifies body, mind, spirit, with the universe. It is a technology that teaches us that we are much larger than what they normally consider ourselves. Using it, we may discover a feeling of connection to the entire universe as well as the force of creation that brought its existence and ours.
“Yoga has been called a living fossil. It belongs to the earliest manifestations of India’s cultural heritage. Thanks to the missionary efforts of hindu swamis, it has entered a new phase of flowering in our century, both in India and in other parts of the world. Today, millions of westerners are actively practicing some form of Yoga, though they do not have an understanding of its traditional goals and purposes.” (Feuerstein, 2013)
The Introduction of Yoga to the West
Many decades ago, great yoga teachers began introducing yoga to the western world. B.K.S Iyengar who created his own form of yoga called Iyengar, K. Pattabi Jois who taught Ashtanga, and Indra Devi who taught classical Indian yoga of Patanjali, to name a few. One of my personal yoga teachers once told me that “yoga meets the student where they are”. Which is to say, if someone is looking at yoga as a form of exercise, they will begin there and slowly learn the breadth of its teachings. Collectively, this is exactly what happened as yoga became popularized in the west. To this day, most still see yoga as a form of exercise, but really, it is much greater than that. It is a path toward the ultimate life goal: enlightenment.
6 Branches of Yoga
The are 6 primary branches of yoga under which many sub-branches have been created. Though all yoga stems from these 6, it is said that today there are as many branches of yoga as there are yoga teachers. All of them evolve and modify the practice based on their own knowledge, experience, and perception of yogic texts. However, the originally 6 branches are:
1. Jnana Yoga or the yoga of wisdom and intellect.
2. Tantra yoga or the yoga of expansion (contrary to popular belief this is not a form of spiritualized sex).
3. Bhakti yoga or the yoga of love and devotion.
4. Karma yoga or the yoga of action.
5. Hatha yoga or the yoga of balancing physical forces.
6. Raja yoga or the yoga of kings, seen as the highest form of yoga by many yogis in the east and west.
All branches are interesting areas of study if you’re serious about your yoga practice. The point here, is to stress that yoga has a an ancient history, extremely deep roots, and many branches that focus on much more than just the body, but also the various aspects of mind and spirit. Today, the teachings and values of each branch tend to get blended together, in what many call Modern Integral Yoga. Understanding the core values and practices of each branch may help an aspiring yogi understand if one may be suited better for them than others.
Hatha and Ashtanga: The Branches Popularized in the West
As mentioned previously, yoga meets the student where they are. As logical, materialistic people (not in a superficial sense, but in the sense of how we see the world) the physical aspects of yoga tend to resonate with Westerners more than others. B.K.S. Iyengar and K. Pattabi Jois taught smaller branches of the root; Raja Yoga. Though what was remembered from their teachings was primarily the physical practices. This is why when you see a modern yogi in the west, they’re likely practicing Hatha yoga, Ashtanga physical postures, or an even smaller branch of Raja/Ashtanga called Vinyasa which places an even heavier focus on physicality and movement.
Hatha yoga, one the forms of yoga that I trained in when I visited India, means Sun (Ha) and Moon (Tha). Much like Yin and Yang in Zen culture, Ha and Tha represent the complimentary opposite forces of the universe, the body, and the mind. The Ha force represents the sun, the left brain (which controls the right side of the body), masculinity, analytical thinking, physicality, etc. While the Tha force represents the moon, the right brain (which controls the left side of the body), femininity, creative thinking, mentality, etc. The focus of Hatha yoga is to balance and amplify these energies, first through physical practices, then mental, and finally spiritual. When these forces are balanced they give rise to the evolutionary energy that lays dormant within the body, called kundalini, awakening the spirit, and giving one full control over the body and mind.
The other form of yoga I trained in was Ashtanga Yoga, a smaller branch of Raja Yoga or Royal Yoga. It requires a significant amount of discipline and is driven first by physical, then by contemplative and meditative practices that aim to reveal the pure consciousness and universally true Self (You can read more about the concept of the universal Self in my previous post Self and Non-self). This form of yoga is documented in great detail through the yoga sutras written by Pattanjali. The yoga sutras are a must-read for any serious yogi. Collectively they are considered to be the “bible” of yoga, outlining the purpose, practice, accomplishments, and absoluteness of yoga through a 4 part series of statements that string together the entirety of yoga.
Ashtanga: The 8 Limbs of Yoga
In these sutras, Patanjali outlines the 8 limbs (main practices) of yoga, which gave rise to K. Patabi Jois’ teachings and the branches of Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga:
1. Yama (5 Social Disciplines)
- Ahimsa (Non-violence)
- Satya (Truthfulness)
- Asteya (Non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (Willingness)
- Aparigraha (Non-greed)
2. Niyama (5 Self Discplines)
- Saucha (Cleanliness)
- Santosha (Contentment)
- Tapas (Control of desire)
- Svadhyaya (Self awareness)
- Isvarapranidaha (Surrender to a higher power)
3. Asana (Physical Postures)
4. Pranayama (Control of Energy/Breath)
5. Pratyahara (Sense Withdrawal)
6. Dharana (Concentration)
7. Dhyana (Meditation)
7. Samadhi (Enlightenment)
These 8 limbs form a sequential path, beginning with Yama and ending in Samadhi. There are some differences in opinion between even the great yoga teachers, but generally speaking, the limbs lead from one to the next (ie. you should become proficient in Asana [Physical Postures] before practicing breath control [pranayama]).
Applying the 8 Limbs
The greatest teaching I took from my training as a Hatha and Ashtanga Yoga teacher was that any activity can be turned into a meditative practice when approached with the right mindset. Before learning about yoga philosophy, It was unclear to me that my physical and mental practices (calisthenics/weight lifting and breath awareness meditation to name a couple) had a deep connection. The way I did one thing affected the way I did the other. In fact, the way you do any one thing, is the same way you do any other thing. It’s all dependent on the mentality you approach the thing with.
For example. When you hit the gym, how focused are you on your workout really? How often does your mind drift to something irrelevant to your exercise? What mindset are you in when you’re working out?
1. Do you treat the others around you with respect and clean up your equipment after using it (Yama)?
2. Do you treat yourself with kindness, not pushing yourself so far that you get injured or become overly sore the next day, but still push yourself enough that you are actually surpassing your limits slightly everyday (Niyama)?
3. Do you spend the entire session focused solely on your body and the quality of your movements (Asana)?
4. Are you aware of your breathing and coordinate your breath with your movements (Pranayama)?
5. Are you able to direct your sensorial awareness toward yourself and your exercise or are you consumed by the music you play, people chattering, or loud noises around you (Pratyahara)?
6. Are you fully concentrated on what you are doing or do you pull out your phone between sets or talk with others (Dharana)?
7. Do you become immersed in your activity and maintain a steady stream of focus on that thing (Dhyana)?
8. Do you feel blissful when you exercise (Samadhi)?
This is a heavily simplified example. Of course, doing all these things requires an incredible amount of attention and practice. It may not be practical to expect your average gym goer to do all of these things, but a great yogi certainly does all that and more during their yoga practice. The real realization for me, was that the 8 limbs can be applied in any situation, while at work, while reading a book, while having a conversation etc. Though, in order to become proficient in each of the 8 limbs, they must be practiced separately and sequentially. Yoga is not only what happens on the mat, it’s how you carry these attitudes into every aspect of life.
Why Meditation Doesn’t Work for Everyone (At First)
It also taught me why I saw so little progress in my meditation practice in the early days. If I couldn’t stay focused on something as stimulating and interesting as exercise, then how could I possibly stay focused on something as relaxing and uninteresting as breathing or passing thoughts? Yoga asana looks the way it does because it is intended to be done with a meditative mindset. If you can perform your movements with this meditative mindset, then you’re more likely to be able to apply the same mindset to something which is less interesting, and therefore harder to focus on, like breathing, a mantra, or contemplating the nature of Self. As you journey through the 8 limbs, the practice becomes less about the physical and more about the mental and the spiritual, which require greater amounts of attention, observation, and awareness. Put simply, if meditation is a serious challenge to you or you have not found much impact from practicing it, you may need to focus more or other things before it will work for you.
Caring for others (yama), taking care of yourself (niyama), maintaining a healthy body (asana), creating a steady breathing pattern (pranayama), being able to turn your senses inward (pratyahara), and practicing simple concentration techniques (dharana), will all do wonders for your meditation practice (dhyana). It’s no wonder meditation is so challenging for newbies. Its like expecting your baby to run a marathon before they’ve even learned to walk.
Its important to understand that yoga is not a religion. It provides a set of guidelines, but does not expect that the practitioner is perfectly obedient to any laws. It also does not suggest specific negative consequences (other than the possibility of poor health or greater suffering) like going to an afterlife in hell or heaven based on your actions. Though, it does suggest that the possibility of a hellish or heavenly life on earth is quite real, and that the 8 limbs represent a pathway from the latter to the former.
Yoga is also open to discussion, interpretation, and evolution. Personally, I believe that the practice of yoga and the methods it teaches evolve with the teachers that share the practice. Not every aspect of traditional yoga is graspable or understandable for westerners, which is why it looks different today than it did hundreds of years ago. Modern technology, social media, exercise sciences, meditation techniques, cultural shifts, psychology, and physics have all had a great impact on the way we understand, practice, and value yoga. Its branches will continue to grow and evolve, but we must remember its roots.
I hope that this post provides yogis and non-yogis alike a solid foundation from which to continue studying the philosophy behind the practice. It’s worth noting that the great Ashtanga teacher K. Pattabi Jois once said that “yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory”. The effects must be felt, explored, and lived. The mere understanding of its teachings will not take us far, it is the practice of its methods that guide us to enlightenment. So keep reading and stay curious about the theories, but be sure you put them to practice. Forever learning, forever practicing, and forever evolving.
Thanks for reading. Wishing you well,
References and Recommended Readings:
Feuerstein, Georg. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy, and Practice. Hohm Press, 2013.
Satchidananda, and Patañjali . The Yoga sūtras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, 2012.
Saraswati, Satyananda. Asana, Pranayama, Mudra Bandha. Yoga Publications Trust, 2013.