Origins of Yoga
Yoga is an ancient science of living, believed to have originated from the Indian subcontinent thousands of years ago. Although yoga has greatly evolved since its beginnings, at its heart is still the fundamental purpose of developing enquiry.
Humankind has been enquiring into the true nature of the self since the dawn of civilisation. In ancient India the sages developed a system of living in order to set their minds to focus on answering this question. This system evolved into what is now known as yoga, meaning ‘union’.
Although yoga in itself is not a religion, it has a deep spiritual element and shares some philosophies with religions rooted in South Asia such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism where it is believed that the true nature of divinity can be revealed not by seeking answers from the heavens, but by focusing the mind inwards - allowing one to reach a state of silence in which the life-force within can be understood.
Traditionally yoga was practiced by the sages, who renounced a worldly life to live in seclusion and turn their attention to the pursuit of divine knowledge. Even in the ancient world this must have been viewed by the general public as a lifestyle relegated to practice by ascetics, oddballs and hermits! Gradually perceptions changed as the principals of yoga became accepted into the mainstream culture and there is evidence of forms of yoga being practiced throughout society from the ruling class right through to the main working population. However, in the more recent past, yoga once again became obscured to the fringes. It wasn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries when spiritual leaders began highlighting the benefits of yoga to wider audiences that yoga was once more embraced in Asia and also gradually spread throughout the world.
The Four Paths of Yoga
In recent times the physical aspect of yoga has become very popular and is most commonly portrayed in the media - images of bendy people twisting their bodies into strange poses on a mat come to mind! The postures we typically associate with yoga are in fact a subset of a much wider practice. Yoga was originally developed to reach an understanding of our true selves, and there are actually many different ways to reach this end goal. Broadly, yoga can be divided into four paths…
Raja Yoga – finding union through control of the senses. Raja yoga is suitable for those who wish to experience oneness through direct experience and meditation. This path of yoga is ideal for those who are inquisitive or scientifically minded. Raja yoga includes the practice of hatha yoga (the physical aspect of yoga that most of us are familiar with).
Karma Yoga – finding union through selfless actions. Karma literally translates as action. This action could be in the form of service to our family, friends, neighbours. It could mean volunteering our time towards helping others, or being respectful and caring towards animals and our surrounding environment. Practicing karma yoga helps to break down the ego and the veil of ‘self’ allowing the yogi to become humble and develop love and compassion for all.
Jnana Yoga – finding union through study of the scriptures. This path of yoga is particularly suitable for those who seek knowledge and are driven by logic. The scriptures include the Patanjali Yoga sutras, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the Bhaghavad Gita. Through study of these texts and also following the teachings of great masters, yogis are able to cast light on the meaning of yoga for themselves, learning from the thousands of yogis who went before them.
Bhakti Yoga – finding union through devotional practice. This path of yoga is suitable for religious or spiritually minded individuals, and those who are emotionally driven. By adding structure to how we incorporate our own beliefs into our daily lives, for example by regularly visiting our place of worship, devotional songs, chanting, or simply connecting in our own way each day, we can channel the mind to focus on the divine.
The above four paths are not mutually exclusive, but rather aspects of each of the paths can be incorporated into the daily life of the yogi.
The eight limbs of Raja Yoga
The eight limbs of Raja Yoga are also known as ‘Ashtanga Yoga’. Ashtanga translates as ‘eight parts’, or ‘division into eight’.
Yamas – restraints (these are non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence, and non-acceptance of bribes).
Niyamas – observances (these are purity, contentment, austerity, study of the yoga scriptures, and surrender of the ego).
Asanas – Steady posture
Pranayama – Control of prana through breath
Pratyahara –Withdrawal of senses from external objects
Dharana – Concentration
Dhyana – Meditation
Samadhi – Reaching absolute consciousness (union with the divine)
While the yogi can work on developing each of the above steps together, they also form a logical sequence. The first two, Yamas and Niyamas, are the code of conduct through which the yogi lives his/her life and form the foundation of the other practices. Asanas and Pranayama are practiced to help the yogi still their mind through control over the body and vital energy (prana). Once the mind can be calmed, only then can a yogi attain focus and concentration, known as Dharana. Dharana in turn is a prerequisite for meditation (Dhyana). When all other steps are mastered the yogi is able to reach Samadhi.
In recent times, it is the Raja yoga, and in particular the physical element of asanas (yoga postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques) that have become increasingly popular with growing numbers of people. This physical aspect of yoga is now a mainstream form of exercise, being offered in gyms and leisure centres across the country.
The popularity of yoga in the west (and its revival in eastern cultures) has come at a relevant time. Many of us are looking for ways to cope with the stresses of modern life. Common complaints associated with office jobs and increasingly sedentary lifestyles include poor posture, stiffness in the shoulders, neck, and back, and also a lack of energy. Yoga acts to counteract these problems by increasing the flow of energy around the body.
Although physical asanas and pranayama are but one aspect of yoga, they are an excellent way to begin. Asanas were developed by the ancient sages to help keep the body in optimal condition - a yogi must keep his or her body healthy so that they can focus on self-enquiry. Gradually there’s been a shift in focus towards the importance of asanas, especially as yoga began to gain popularity in modern societies. For many practitioners, the health and wellbeing promise of yoga has become the end goal. It is certainly true that yoga practice brings many great health benefits. The ancient knowledge of the healing properties of yoga is now recognised by modern science. From lowering stress levels, improving blood circulation, relieving pains, to improving flexibility. Yoga is becoming increasingly sought after as an exercise program. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these physical benefits are merely ‘side-effects’ of yoga practice. Whatever the reason that first drew individuals to begin yoga, a common theme is the realisation that yoga is far more than just another exercise class at the gym. Many have described a deep sense of calmness and balance that yoga brings to their lives.