The Origins of Yoga
Yoga is a lifestyle philosophy, whose origins stretch back at least five thousand years to a legend from Ancient India. Once upon a time one of the supreme Hindu gods Lord Shiva, who lived in a cave near where waves from the Indian Ocean crashed onto the shore, was teaching the mysterious techniques of Hatha Yoga to his wife, the charming and beautiful goddess Parvati. Hatha Yoga is a meditation discipline, whereby the mind withdraws its attention from external objects for long periods of time. Crucial to Hatha Yoga are Pranayama, the breathing technique and Asana, the body posture.
In the ocean a fish, enthralled by the voice of Lord Shiva, listened to his words and repeated their strange exercises. Shiva took pity on the fish and changed it to become a human being. The new creature was named Matsyendranaatha, which in Sanskrit means “fish made man.”
Matsyendranaatha practiced the techniques of yoga until he became a guru (an expert teacher). He passed his knowledge to his students, who in turn taught their students and so on down the centuries. In this way yoga as taught by Shiva to his wife was spread around the world through the actions of a fish turned into a man. This is especially true for Hatha Yoga – that is yoga of the body’s physical and mental health.
Yoga is a traditional physical and mental discipline that adopts meditation as the principal method for achieving liberation. In Sanskrit, yoga has three different basic meanings: connect, control and concentrate.
In short, yoga offers a philosophical methodology to “expand” consciousness and “connect” with a supreme intelligence. However, it should be noted that over time the word “yoga” has been inappropriately associated with at least forty different specialist techniques and regimes. Therefore, here are two of the best definitions of yoga.
Definitions of Yoga
The term Yoga is best defined by Shri Yogendraji, the late Director of the Yoga Research Institute in Mumbai. He said “Yoga means a lifestyle that makes it possible to achieve full physical, mental and moral health”. The rational nature of yoga is contrary to religious rites and dogmas. Actually yoga has nothing to do with religion and different beliefs. Yoga techniques are strictly scientific. Its applications lead to the desired results without the need to believe in the supernatural. Yoga is not limited by caste nor religion, nor faith, nor by race, national origin, age or sex. Those who think that practicing yoga is associated with a belief in God are wrong.”
Dhirendra Brahmachari, the famous 117 year old Director of the Vishwayatan Yogashram Research Institute in Delhi, said “Yoga means the discipline of mind and body. It is not designed for a narrow range of people. Practitioners can be anybody, from a hermit in the solitude of the mountains to the average person living a normal life. It is for everybody whatever his profession, class, religion, nationality or age. Yoga is not “mysterious”. It is not a set of religious beliefs or practices. Its purpose is to gradually develop such qualities of mind that can grasp reality, and to gain insights through the healthy functioning of the mind and senses. This can be achieved by following the Eightfold Path of Yoga.”
The Eightfold Path of Yoga
Within the overall philosophy of Yoga, there are various disciplines for practicing yoga. The main disciplines for practicing yoga are:
Jnana Yoga (Yoga of Knowledge)
Karma Yoga (Yoga of Action)
Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of Cosmic Love)
Raja Yoga (Classical Yoga)
Hatha Yoga (Yoga of the Body)
There are other disciplines that are not so popular, such as Sahaja Yoga, Vipassana Yoga, Atiyoga, Kriya Yoga and Tantra Yoga.
The Eightfold Path of Yoga was described in 200 AD by Patanjali, the “Father of Yoga”, in his text “The Yoga Sutras”, which relates the experiences of the ancient yogis (or practitioners of yoga). The core of Patanjali’s text is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. His terminology is entirely derived from the Vedas (the oldest revealed Hindu scriptures) and is consistent with their authority. Therefore, Yoga is considered to be one of the six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy, which are Nyaya, Vaisesika, Samkhya, Mimamsa, Vedanta and Yoga.
Ashtanga Yoga is a modern-day form of Patanjali’s classical Indian yoga. In Sanskrit Ashtanga means “eight-limbed”. Ashtanga Yoga consists of a series of eight successive levels. Each level represents the optimum basis for learning and achieving the next level. Ashtanga Yoga comprises the following eight levels:
- Yama (moral codes towards others)
- Niyama (self-purification and personal conduct)
- Asana (body posture and positions)
- Pranayama (conscious control over the rhythm of breathing)
- Pratyahara (withdrawing of the mind from the senses)
- Dharana (concentration of thought, focus on meditation)
- Dhyana (deep meditation, focus on being)
- Samadhi (self-realization, enlightenment)
These eight levels can be conveniently arranged in three groups:
– Moral discipline (Yama and Niyama)
– Bodily discipline (Asana, Pranayama and Pratyahara)
– Mental discipline (Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi)
Ashtanga Yoga puts into practice the objectives of Sankhya philosophy (one of those six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy) in order to achieve moksha (i.e liberation from the world). It is based on classical yoga as explained by Patanjali in his text “The Yoga Sutras”. Sankhya philosophy is concerned with the dualism between self and matter. It tries to explain the nature of mind and the means of achieving the extreme, high goal of life which is Kaivalya. Kaivalya is the release of the self or spirit (Purusha) from the constraints of matter or body (Prakriti).
Kaivalya is also known as Nirvana, which roughly translates as “not by material”, and is interpreted as a higher state of being which is free of the shackles of the material body. You could say the main goal of yoga is the fusion of man’s inner self with the ethereal cosmic nature.
Practising Yoga Today
Outside India, yoga is mostly associated with Asana (physical postures) and Pranayama (conscious control of breathing) as practiced in Hatha Yoga. In the modern-day Western world, yoga is taught as having five pillars:
Proper exercise (Asana) – our bodies are meant to move and exercise. If our lifestyle does not provide sufficient movement of the muscles and joints, then over time we will become ill and suffer discomfort. Proper exercises should be pleasant for those who perform them, being good for the body, mind and spirit.
Proper breathing (Pranayama) – yoga teaches us how to make the most of our lungs and breathing control. Proper breathing should be deep, slow and rhythmical. This improves vitality and cleanses the mind.
Proper relaxation – with full relaxation of the muscles our nervous systems can be rejuvenated and we achieve inner peace.
Proper diet – the food we eat affects our minds. Yoga is best complimented by a vegetarian diet.
Positive thinking and meditation – this is the most important part. We are what we think. We should try to think positively and creatively, which will help us achieve good health and peace of mind. A positive outlook on life can be developed by studying and practicing the techniques of the Vedanta philosophy (another one of those six schools of orthodox Hindu philosophy).
Today, practicing yoga usually means Hatha Yoga as in physical yoga or yoga of the body. This is an excellent path to good health. The yogis believe our bodies are animated by positive and negative energies. When these energies are in equilibrium, we enjoy good health.
In Sanskrit “Ha” means the Sun and is used to indicate the positive energy. The negative energy is called “Tha” (the Moon). Hatha (as in Hatha Yoga) is the merger of these two words and it represents the attainment of a harmonious balance.
“Ha” also means an individual soul, while “Tha” is another name for Lord Shiva. Therefore, in a higher sense, Hatha can be interpreted as meaning that fusion of man’s inner self with the ethereal cosmic nature.
Food and Diet in Yoga
It is far more difficult to practice Hatha Yoga on the wrong diet. Therefore practicing yogis adhere to a strict diet which includes all essential nutrients, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and trace elements.
A yogic diet must satisfy the following requirements:
The food should consist of fresh raw (uncooked) plant food. Yogis believe such food contains large amounts of prana or solar vitality.
The absorption of food by the digestive system should not produce poisons that reduce flexibility and thus hinder the mastery of Asana. Such poisonous foods include meat and eggs.
Food should not contain irritants that prevent concentration, e.g. spicy, sour, bitter, strong spices, alcohol.
The most appropriate foods are walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, grains (especially sprouted grains), wheat, oatmeal, rice, chickpeas, lentils, fresh fruit, dried fruit, vegetables, dairy products, honey and vegetable oils. This is a lacto-vegetarian diet that fully satisfies the body’s nutritional requirements.