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What is Yoga?

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What is Yoga?

Essentially, Yoga is for everyone. There are many different types of Yoga class available (e.g. Hatha, Iyengar, Astenga, Dru, Bikram, Kundalini, Sivananda, Satyenanda, Integral), and sometimes it may take a while to find the form of Yoga which suits you personally, your physique and your mentality. It is not an easy task to define Yoga as a word, nor indeed as a system that has been practised for the last four thousand years.

Yoga has evolved hand in hand with the cultural changes experienced in India over such a long span of time. Contrary to common belief in the Western World, Yoga does not necessarily mean to tie oneself into knots. Gnana Yoga, or Yoga of Wisdom as practiced by the Rishis three thousand years ago, involved the study of the whole of creation and the universe through intuition and meditation. Wisdom was attained through self-awareness and awareness of one’s surroundings. Since then many different types of Yoga have evolved out of the original Gnana Yoga of which Hatha Yoga is the only one that involves posture work. As with many other ideas or systems Yoga has found its way out of Asia into the Western World where Yoga is now practised widely. Yoga is not a religion, it is a means of self development that incorporates the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual capacities. Vivian Worthington‘s definition of Yoga reads as follows:

“Yoga is a system of self-development that works on all levels, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Moreover, it is itself a growing developing system. Its Sanskrit root ‘Yog’ means to ‘unite. It can be taken to mean the uniting with all forms of life, and beyond that to the cause or mitiator of life, the universal energy, spirit or god”.

Yoga is therefore built on the worldview that there is a universal spirit or god. Every type of lief -form including humans has the essence of this universal spirit. This essence can be named the soul or the true self. The path of Yoga leads the yogi to uncover his or her true self to reunite it with the universal spirit. The path may differ but the goal is the same. Yoga is really a way of life if practised seriously.

My view on Yoga has changed considerably over the years. My first Yoga class was a revelation in terms of awareness. I found out very quickly that Asana practice requires a lot of strength and willpower. The frustration that I experienced at times when I just couldn’t reach that much further was a new emotion to me, but I always liked the challenge that was presented to me in different postures. When breathing was introduced Yoga changed into something so delicate and subtle that my old friend frustration became a constant companion. Instinctively, I wanted to be in control when it was really about letting go first and getting to know my own breath first. I realised then that Yoga is about myself and that it is vital that I listen to my body and all the emotions that come up in a practice. I have also learnt that Yoga doesn’t necessarily make you feel good and that anger, frustration, competitiveness – or whatever negative emotion emerges – is a part of myself that cannot be denied, but must be welcomed. This process is tough and naturally we are inclined to avoid it, because it is painful, but I believe that only through self-awareness can we progress on the journey to our true self. However, Yoga has given me great joy at times. There is this amazing feeling of lightness in the body and the flow of time seems to be suspended, the mind is calm and I feel centered. Yoga to me is a quest to discover my true self. One thing that I am sure of is that it will be a lifetime quest, but like an adventure one never knows what is going to happen next. I also know that everything that I need to know for this journey is inside myself.

Five different forms of Yoga

The idea that knowledge lies within each individual takes us right back to the Gnani yogis, also known as Rishis. These were men who had chosen to live in the forests as hermits, contemplating the nature of the universe and all its living creatures. The first records found are little figurines, sitting in the Lotus position. They can be dated as far back as 4000 B.C. and they are an indication that Gnana Yoga, was practised at the time. The Rishis sought answers to how the universe works through meditation and introspection which is a subjective method rather than a scientific one. They brought forward the idea that there is something limitless beyond space and time, that there is a universal spirit that is always in the now, not trapped in our concept of linear time. The Rishis concluded that there is only one God, Brahman, the universal spirit that is everything. They also came up with the idea that the soul is part of the whole of creation and so of Brahman. The soul they named Atman. Brahman and Atman are one and through this connection every individual can find knowledge within him or herself. All this happened a long time before Christ was born at a time where most cultures worshipped many gods. The Rishis also introduced the concepts of Reincarnation and Karma. The soul never dies, but goes through numerous cycles of lives in different bodies until one reaches enlightenment where the soul goes on to a higher level of existence. The speed of this process is governed by Karma, a concept based on cause and effect. Every action, thought and emotion a person has, has an effect on his environment, people and the universe as a whole. People are encouraged to live good moral lives in order that they might escape the cycle of Reincarnation eventually. These ideas were transferred on an oral basis from teacher to student until the Aryans invaded India. They brought the first written language to India and consequentally the teachings were written down as The Vedas, which became the basis of Hinduism. The Upanishads deal with metaphysical and mystical phenomenon and are a part of the Vedas. The Upanishads were written by several authors over a long period of time, but the centre piece of the teaching remained the unity of Brahman and Atman.

Patanjali, a scholar, who lived around 300 B.C., wrote ‘The Yoga Sutras’, which gives us an idea of the way in which Yoga was practiced at the time. He listed eight stages of Yoga to reach the union with the universal spirit. Yamas, the first one deals with universal moral commandments. Niyamas are about self-purification through discipline. Yamas and Niyamas are about control over desires and emotions, human drives. The third stage is Asanas, posture work that keeps the body healthy and strong. Pranayama is the control of the breath. Since the yogis see a direct link between the breath and the mind, Pranayama is the control of the mind through working with the breath. Only a calm mind is freed of desires, which are the cause of all suffering. Pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses, again to free oneself from desires. Pranayama and Pratyahara are the inner quest whereas Yamas, Niyamas and Asanas are the outer quest which deals with moral living and maintaining a healthy body. Dharana, (concentration), Dhyana, (meditation) and Samadhi, (the union with the universal spirit), are the quest of the soul. It is believed that Patanjalis Yoga Sutras deal predominantly with Raja Yoga, the Yoga of the Mind. Through meditation the ever flighty mind is slowly controlled and the union with the universal spirit may be achieved. Panajali does mention the importance of correct posture for meditation, but he mainly deals with the subject of the mind and the concentration of thoughts. Some people believe that Hatha Yoga must be mastered before one can begin with Raja Yoga. Raja means king, and he who is king of the mind is worthy to find unison with the universal.

Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of devotion. The principles of Bhakti are incorporated in the Bhagavad Gita, which is a small piece of The Mahabharata, a large Indian Epic. The Bhagavad Gita is the dialogue between Krishna, who personifies god and Arjuna, a man who faces a battle against his own relatives. Krishna demands devotion from Arjuna, he wants him to fight the battle, even if it means killing members of his own family. The Bhakti principle demonstrated here, shows that Krishna alone knows what the purpose of this battle is. True Bhakti is to serve god in everything. Bhakti Yoga couldn’t be more different from Raja Yoga. Whereas Raja Yoga is intellectual and works with the mind to find illumination, Bhakti Yoga is very emotional, as it is the devotion to a deity, the celebration of the love of god. Bhakti was the first type of Yoga that was practiced not only by men, but also by women and children. The foundation of Bhakti is the believe that god is in everything, in nature and in all living creatures. Bhakti is the true love of god, where a person surrenders his/her will to God. Prayers are not said for oneself personally but for the whole of creation. When the term ‘I’ and ‘me’ are not used anymore the soul has reached full growth. The realisation that everything one sees, hears and experiences is divine, encourages one to act according to the divine will, and therefore the divine within oneself is reflected in everyday life. The union with the universal spirit is sought through devotion.

Karma Yoga is yet another path to find enlightenment. There is a great emphasis on Karma Yoga in The Bhagavad Gita:

Do thy work in the peace of Yoga and, free from selfish desires, be not moved in success or in failure. Yoga is evenness of mind – a peace that is ever the same.

Karma Yoga is about action and work. The work is done to one’s best ability as service to mankind and the love of God only. For example, a teacher does his best to teach his students; if some of them go on to be very successful the teacher can take no credit for that. Equally if the students don’t learn anything the teacher is not to blame if he has done his best. The action is in the work itself, independent of the outcome. Karma Yoga can be practiced in anything; whether parenting or sweeping the roads, no action is superior to another, the path is the action, free from individual goals and desires.

Hatha Yoga appears much later in Indian history. The founder of the Hatha Yoga system is said to be Goraksanatha, when he lived is unknown. The Hathayogapradipika was the first text that dealt with Hatha Yoga. It was written in the fifteenth century by Divatma Ram and was based on Goraksanatha’s work. The Hathayogapradipika lists fifteen postures, whereas B.K.S. Iyengar’s present ‘Light on Yoga’ lists over two hundred. Geranda Samita’s work of the sixteenth century is also of importance. It lists thirty-two postures and in the seventheenth century the ‘Shiva Samhita’ appeared with eighty-four postures described. ‘The word Hatha means force and Hatha Yoga is so called because it prescribes rigorous discipline, in order to find unison with the Supreme’

Five aspects of Hatha Yoga

There are five aspects to Hatha Yoga: asana, pranayama, kryias, mudras and bhandas.

Asana means steady pose or seat. Asana practice is very beneficial to the physical body. It keeps the joints flexible, brings fresh supply of oxygen to the inner organs, the endocrine system is kept in balance, the body grows strong and is prepared for meditation, to mention only some of the benefits. In order to truly appreciate the full range of benefits to Asana practice we have to look at the Koshas. Yogis believe that a person is made of five layers; or Koshas that encapsulate the soul. Annamayi Kosha is the first layer, the physical body consisting of bones, cells and muscles. Pranamayi Kosha is the sheet of energy, the life force. It effects all systems in the body. Manomayi Kosha is the sheet of mind and emotions; it is a person’s psychology. Vijnanamayi Kosha is the sheet of knowledge and intellect. Anandavnayi Kosha is the sheet of bliss, the soul and spiritual body. In the middle of Anandavnayi Kosho lies the True Self. All these layers are interconnected and through Asana practice not only the physical body is affected but also all the other layers, or to put it in other words, through Asana practice one can access deeper aspects of oneself. Every experience in our lives is recorded in our cells. Through stretching, and working on the body we touch on these memories, spontaneously emotions can come up that were connected to an event in the past, the body is talking to us. Any imbalances in the deeper layers of a person that have been left unattended can eventually surface in the first layer, the physical body, as a pain.

Pranayama is the rhythmic control of the breath. To really appreciate the technique, we have to look at what Prana is. Prana is the universal energy that is behind every movement, no matter how subtle. Every thought is a manifestation of Prana, gravity is moved by Prana, it is in food, water – it is the vital life force. Pranayama is not just about the manipulation of the breath, slowing it down, speeding it up, it is about learning to collect and store this vital life force in the body. This technique goes as far as consciously controlling the pranic energy, as in slowing down the heartbeat or even stopping it at will. Prana manifests itself through the nervous system and is stored in the Solar Plexus. According to the yogic tradition Prana flows through the body, in channels called Nadis, of which there are 72000. Since the mind is so intrinsically linked to the breath, Panayama helps to calm and focus the mind and therefore induces a state of well-being.

Traditionally, there are six Kryias or cleansing practices, in Hatha Yoga. In the context of Hatha Yoga philosophy it is of importance to keep the body clean, as it is the vehicle for the soul. We must remember the concept of the Koshas, which tells us that through the physical body we can gain access to the deeper layers of ourselves.

Nauli is the churning, or shaking of the belly. It is performed with hands on the thighs, shoulders bend forward. Nauli is great for the digestive system and for elimination of waste. It also stimulates peristalsis. Massage is a good western equivalent to Nauli. Through massaging the abdomen, the muscles are strengthened which assists peristalsis and prevents constipation.
Neti is the cleansing of the nasal passages. There are two ways to do so. One is to insert a smooth thread into the nostril and draw it out through the mouth. In Jalaneti, one nostril is filled with salted water and is let to flow out the other. Since the nasal passages are the first line of defence against bacteria, Neti is a good way to remove potential diseases. The nasal passages are also the site where Prana is absorbed and therefore must be kept clean. In western society an equivalent could be the inhalation of steam. Boiling water with a few drops of Tea tree oil, which is an antiseptic agent, works as a cleanser.
Vasti is the cleansing of the colon. Traditionally, the yogi would insert a thin bamboo tube into his anus. Seated in water, he would then contract the anus, so as to draw water up, shake it and then expel. It is said to destroy all disorders in the constitution. Colonic irrigation has certainly become known in the western world recently. It is offered in health spa’s as a cleanser, but also as a means of losing weight quickly.
Tratakum is a cleansing practice for the eyes and the emotions. One sits with the spine erect and gazes, not stares, at the flame of a candle for a minute, without blinking, then with the eyes closed one tries to visualise the flame. This is repeated several times. At some point the eyes begin to water and the cleansing effect takes place. To have a good cry, has the same effect as Tratakum. We might watch a soppy movie, or read a sad book to induce the effect.
Kapalabhati is a breathing practice that cleanses the respiratory system and charges you with pranic energy. The exhalation in this practice is very rapid, the air is forced out of the lungs with force, in order to expel toxins out of the lungs. The inhalation is not forced, so that the throat is not constricted.
Dhauti is the cleansing of the oesophagus and the stomach. A wet piece of cloth is swallowed and then slowly pulled back up. Diseases brought on through phlegm are cured that way. To make yourself sick has a similar effect, but western people in general don’t like to vomit voluntarily!

Mudras are energy seals. Yogis believe that mudras stimulate the flow of prana through the body and seal it in, so that the precious life force is not lost. Some mudras are similar to asanas and, others are hand gestures that may be used during pranayama or meditation. Mudras influence the subtle bodies and increase receptiveness to the higher state of consciousness. I have chosen here to only mention the mudras that we have discussed in the course, because there are just too many. We looked at the mudras in connection with the breath. Different mudras direct the breath to different areas in the lungs. In Chin Mudra the tip of the index finger and thumb touch each other lightly, the other fingers are straight, palm down. Chin Mudra directs the breath to the lower lungs. In Chin Maya Mudra index finger and thumb are the same as in Chin Mudra, but the other fingers are curled into the palm.

The breath is directed to the middle of the lungs. In Addi Mudra the fingers are curled into a fist with the thumb inside. This mudra directs the breath to the upper lungs. In Brama Mudra the hands are the same as in Addi Mudra, but the knuckles are touching and the fists are placed on the solar plexus. In this mudra we experience the full breath, air goes to all parts of the lungs. These Mudras have a powerful healing potential, as a fresh supply of oxygen and prana can be directed to parts of the lungs that might be affected by a disease, without using too much effort.

Whereas mudras are energy seals, Bandhas are powerful energy locks. Bandhas involves the contraction of certain muscles to unlock the descending pranic energy, in order to direct it upwards. In Pada Bandha the feet are firmly planted down on the ground. There are three arches in the foot that build a triangle to stand on. In Pada Bandha one draws up energy up from the earth and locks it in the feet, which support the whole body. The Mula Bandha is located at the perineum – the area between the anus and the vagina/scrotum. To practice Mula Bandha one sits erect and,on an inhalation, the perineum is drawn up and into the body. In Uddhyana Bandha the energy drawn up from the feet through the perineum is now drawn up into the abdomen. In this practice all the abdominal organs and muscles are drawn up and into the spine. During the exhalation the diaphragm moves up, and there is more space in the abdomen to perform Uddhyana Bandha. In Jalandhara Bandha the chest is lifted so high, that the chin can be put on it without a strain. The energy that has been drawn up into the abdomen is now drawn up into the chest and locked there, to be spread all around the body. On a physical level the Bandhas have a massaging effect on the inner organs and muscles. They also have a beneficial effect on the endocrine and nervous system. As one holds the breath and spreads the energy all around the body, the consciousness is held and one is locked into the now.

My personal experience of Kryias, Mudras and Bandhas is somewhat limited, as some of these practices are really for the more advanced pupil of Yoga. I have done Tratakum several times in my Yoga class over the years, and I always liked it a lot. If practiced in a dark room, it really has a strong effect, and my eyes would almost instantly start to water. I have also noticed, that the watering eyes become sometimes actual weeping, accompanied by a strong emotion, that is unexplained. I didn’t know at the time that I was doing a cleansing practice for the eyes, as well as for the emotions. This proves to me that sometimes it is good to just experience Yoga, without knowing or expecting a certain result, because the experience is true to oneself. I have done Kapalabhati before, but not often enough to really get past the stage to where all the effort goes into trying to do it right, and the effect goes unnoticed. I have done some Mudras in meditation, but never in connection with the breath. This has been a bit of a revelation to me and I’m looking forward to do more work on that. Pada Bandha certainly makes a difference in the standing postures. It keeps the feet firmly rooted on the ground, so that the body can stretch out and balance can be maintained. I have some experience of Mula Bandha, but it is not easy to work just the perineum as the anus muscles seem to contract as well and it will take some practice to get that subtle movement

Whilst it is clearly not an exhaustive study, in this essay I have attempted to highlight some important notions in Yoga.

Sylvia Albicker. IYA Teacher Trainee.

Vivian Worthington,’History of Yoga’ in British Wheel of Yoga Study Series, published by BWY.

The Bhagavad Gita’ p.13, 48 Penguin Classics 1962 ISBN 0140449183

B.K.S. Iyengar, ‘Light on Yoga’, Glossary p.520