What Is Yoga?
Many people look at Yoga, show an interest in it, and then shy away when it seems to get too complicated. There seems to be so many branches, limbs, postures, devotions, spin-offs and many other different, difficult names. Confusing, isn't it? The image that first comes to mind when you hear the word yoga is of a group of people in skimpy clothing performing difficult or even seemingly impossible poses. This is true to a certain extent, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.
Yoga is an ancient body of knowledge, stemming back for more than 5000 years, and is an all-encompassing term for a discipline (physical, mental and spiritual) which originated in Ancient India. It is located in Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and is one of six orthodox schools in Hindu Philosophy and its Vedic Scriptures. Its core is founded on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is an eight-limbed path (or steps) forming a basic structure (and framework) for practicing this holistic discipline, with no hierarchical order - one is not elevated above another. The actual word 'Yoga' literally means 'yoke' in Sanskrit, the root implying 'join, unite, integrate or attach'. Ancient Yogis believed that for humans to be in harmony with themselves, and their surrounding environment, a balanced integration of body, mind and spirit was essential. Yoga deals with this by using a combination of Meditation, Breathing Techniques and Yoga Exercises, with the aims of attaining tranquility, spiritual insight and enlightenment. A student who practices the Yoga philosophy with dedicated commitment is referred to as a Yogi.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)
Patanjali is widely recognized as the formal compiler of Yoga philosophy, utilizing his system (Patanjali's Yoga or Raja Yoga) for controlling the mind and the never-ending thoughts flooding through it. His writings formed the foundation for Ashtanga Yoga which is also known as Eight-Limbed Yoga, and this eight-limbed concept is a prevalent core characteristic in basically every Raja Yoga variation which is practiced today. The eight limbs are as follows:
1. Yama - Universal Morality or Ethics (the five 'abstentions') - non-violence, no lying (truthfulness), no covetousness (or stealing), sexual restraint (celibacy) and no possessiveness (acquisitions).
2. Niyama - Personal Observances and Self-conduct (the five 'observances') - purity, contentment, austerity, study of scriptures and self-surrender to the Divine.
3. Asana - Literally means 'seat' and refers to practice of body postures and the seated position which is so prevalent in Yoga.
4. Pranayama - 'Suspending Breath' or Breath control, breathing exercises, and control of the life force known as Prana (breath).
5. Pratyahara - 'Abstraction', withdrawal, and control of the senses, from external objects.
6. Dharana - 'Concentration', focusing attention (on an object) and channeling inner awareness.
7. Dhyana - 'Meditation', intense contemplation on the nature of the object / devotion to the Divine.
8. Samadhi - 'Liberation', merging consciousness with the object / union with the Divine.
So those are the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Have we confused you so far? We hope not.
There are also Six Branches of Yoga which you can take a look at:
1. - Hatha Yoga (Yoga of Postures)
This branch you will probably recognize, and is the most popular Western form of Yoga. Hatha Yoga focuses on physical postures (Asana), breathing techniques (Pranayama) and meditation (Dhyana).
2. - Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Devotion)
Bhakti Yoga is the most popular form of Yoga practiced in India, and is the path of heart and devotion, with Bhakti Yogis seeing the Divine in everything, and everyone, around them.
3. - Raja Yoga (Yoga of Self-Control)
Raja literally means 'Royal', and is founded on the teachings of the Eight Limbs of Yoga discussed above.
4. - Jnana Yoga (Yoga of the Mind)
This path of Yoga focuses primarily on the mind, intellect, wisdom and intelligence. There is a difference between intellect and wisdom, and the purpose of Jnana Yogis is to unite the two.
5. - Karma Yoga (Yoga of Service)
Karma Yogis believe that your current situation is based on previous actions from your past, and they practice a selfless path in order to secure a future which will be free from selfishness and negativity.
6. - Tantra Yoga (Yoga of Rituals)
This is a very misunderstood path of Yoga, with many people assuming it is focused solely on the sexual aspects. While this does form a part of Tantra Yoga, it is definitely not the whole aspect of it.
To sum up, Tantra Yogis use rituals to experience overall sacredness, and must possess qualities such as purity, cosmic love, devotion and truthfulness.
Did any of those Yoga Branches, or Limbs stand out, or appeal to you? Your individual experience with Yoga will evolve over time as you practice and go to your classes. And while Yoga may be looked upon as a Spiritual Quest, along the way you will gain much health, knowledge, tranquility and happiness.
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