When the word yoga is mentioned, most of us in the West think of a physical and mental exercise wherein the practitioner places his or her body in a series of poses (asana) while controlling the breath and focusing the mind. This type of yoga is known as hatha yoga (properly pronounced as haata). Studios that teach various forms of hatha yoga are everywhere and we have all either tried it or know someone who has. However, hatha yoga is but a small component of the rich and ancient practices of yoga.
So what exactly is yoga and where did it come from? What is its aim? In this article I’ll attempt to answer these questions by providing a brief history of yogic philosophy and descriptions of some of the various forms of yoga.
Yoga is one of the world’s oldest spiritual traditions. This family of practices was born in India but the precise date of their origination is unclear. According to traditional yoga philosophy, the entire cosmos consists of a state of duality between the eternal and abiding purusha and prakriti. Purusha is the formless, pure realm of spirit (for lack of a better term) and consciousness. Prakriti is the realm of nature and physical materiality. As humans, we simultaneously inhabit both of these dichotomies. Our body’s essence is that of prakriti and our soul (jiva) is purusha. Traditional schools of yoga hold that because our purusha, our true self, is part of prakriti, it becomes so caught up in the physical nature of reality that it forgets its true being — that of pure, formless essence.
This is where yogic practice comes into play. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to yoke. Early yogic applications focused on restraining and controlling the senses in order to realize separateness from one’s purusha and prakriti. Ultimately one would experience nirvikalpa samadhi where the purusha no longer has any ties whatsoever to the prakriti. In this state the purusha is free, completely liberated.
As I stated before, it is unclear when yoga first began. There are seals from the Indus Valley civilization (c. 3600–1900 B.C.E) that clearly depict beings in various asanas. It is highly probable that early forms of yoga, like tantra, were developed by the Dravidians (the indigenous people of India) long before the Aryans came into India and brought with them the Vedas (holy books of ancient Hindus dating to at least 1500 B.C.E.) and what we call Hinduism. However, these forms of yoga probably would not be very recognizable to us today. There is no mention of yoga in Hindu scripture until it is passively alluded to in the Upanishads (c. 900–300 B.C.E.) and clearly described in the Bhagavad Gita (c. 200 B.C.E.). This suggests that by 200 B.C.E. Hinduism, like it did with so many ancient Dravidian beliefs, practices, and philosophies, had married and adopted yoga.
According to Encyclopedia of Hinduism, the earliest structured form of yoga was likely practiced by the Jains (c. 900 B.C.E) and involved severe worldly denial and physical restraint. “The early Jain monks and Thirthankaras (perfected beings) would train themselves to ignore the body completely and train the mind to ignore even the strongest positive and negative stimuli” (511). Renunciation and worldly denial is still quite prevalent in many forms of yoga today. “Yoga of this sort is ultimately about controlling all bodily functions, so that even the autonomic nervous system can be under the adept’s control. When Swami Rama first traveled to the United States in the 1970s, he demonstrated such control by stopping his heart completely for more than a minute while being attached to a heart monitor” (511).
This is a very extreme path of yogic practice and not all schools are quite so severe. When Buddhism was founded (c. 600 B.C.E.) it promulgated another view that did not advocate bodily denial. Its focus was that of mental control where the practitioner focused on the breath and physical sensation in the body.
After Buddhism, other forms of yoga began to develop in Hinduism. In the Bhagavad Gita there is a lot of emphasis on devotional yoga or bhakti yoga. Here primary mental focus on the deity is the goal. There is also karma yoga where one’s attention is ideally placed solely on good worldly conduct. Astanga yoga, the eight-limbed yoga of Patanjali, where we get the Yoga Sutras, “…involved a sitting yoga, sometimes called raja yoga, which focused on breathing. As one observed the breath, one developed ways of concentrating the mind and eventually controlling the mind” (511).
Next we come to the ever popular hatha yoga that “…is an amalgam of practices that may have emerged separately and were later combined” (512). The primary progenitors of hatha yoga were the Nath Yogis, a group who sought physical immortality through alchemy, the ingestion of mercury, and asana. Hatha yoga today does not involve alchemy or mercurial ingestion, but combines the teachings found in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, such as breath control with asana. Hatha yoga is, essentially, an active meditation and within its scope there are various schools with differing postures, techniques, and philosophies. Examples of these are Iyengar, Vinyassa, and Yin. Kundalini yoga is another popular school of hatha yoga that focuses on awakening the serpent Goddess-energy at the base of the spine (kundalini) and moving this force through the energy centers along the spine, or chakras (pronounced chaakras as opposed to shockras).
Breath control is the foundation of hatha yoga. This, coupled with asana practice, produces such an amazing feeling of peace and compassion. It also develops concentration, ease in the body, relieves tension, and makes overall spiritual practice easier.
The beauty of hatha yoga is its adaptability. In yoga, there is no place to go, except for where we already are. The point is to strive to improve ourselves bit by bit, moment to moment. The postures have ideal forms, but these forms are only pointers. In practice, we simply try to get as close to these forms as we can. It is a continuous push to better ourselves, our bodies, and our minds. It doesn’t matter how physically flexible we are, insofar as we engage the body while focusing the mind and the breath.
Essentially all yogas are ancient Indian sciences that we can use to invoke our own inner power, to better ourselves as human beings, and to realize the divinity of ourselves and the world. These are practices that we can harness to live deeper, more meaningful, and more compassionate lives infused with zest and vitality.
The Alchemical Body, by David Gordon White
Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, by Mircea Elliade
The Encyclopedia of Hinduism, by Constance A. Jones and James D. Ryan
The Shape of Ancient Thought, by McEvilley
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by B.K.S. Iyengar
Originally published at www.scottgoolsby.com.
Originally published at medium.com