Yoga (Sanskrit: योग, "union" or "yoke") is one of the six darshanas (schools) of Vedic or Hindu philosophy. Someone who has taken up successful practice of Yoga is called a Yogi (also spelled Yogin) and, for women, Yogini.
Yoga means "to yoke" or "unite." Its goal, which is projected as being the goal of all humanity, is to "yoke" the Atman, or spirit, to the eternal Divine Ground of Brahman. But more than joining, Yoga is about realization of one's true being through a variety of yogic margs (paths).
The history of yoga goes back at least five thousand years, evolving in the land of India. While it is supposed by some scholars that yogic practices were originally the domain of the indigenous, pre-Aryan (and thus pre-Vedic) peoples, it was first clearly expounded in the great Vedic shastras (religious texts).
Explicit examples of the concept and terminology of yoga appear all over the Puranas (collections of Hindu mythology), the Mahabharata ("Great India," a religious epic that contains the Bhagavad Gita), the Vedas and the Upanishads (primarily thirteen principal texts of the Vedanta, or the "End of the Vedas," that are the culmination of all Vedic philosophy).
As David Frawley, a Vedic scholar, writes: "Yoga can be traced back to the Rig Veda itself, the oldest Hindu text which speaks about yoking our mind and insight to the Sun of Truth. Great teachers of early Yoga include the names of many famous Vedic sages like Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, and Jaigishavya."
While protracted discussions of the ultimate, infinite Self, or Atman, and realization of Brahman, are the true legacy of the Upanishads, the first principal Yoga text was the Bhagavad Gita ("The Lord's Song"), also known as Gitopanishad.
The Bhagavad Gita
The Bhagavad Gita is the archetype of Yoga scripture. Capturing the essence and at the same time going into detail about the various Yogas and their philosophies, it was the groundstone to Yogic thought, and constantly refers to itself as such, the "Scripture of Yoga" (see the final verses of each chapter).
It is spoken in the format of Lord Krishna, self-identified as a manifestation of Brahman (the impersonal, supreme force of the cosmos, the Divine Ground), to Arjuna, a warrior and friend who is loathe to go to battle that would involve his killing his own gurus (teachers) and family members. The book is contained within the Mahabharata, and is thought to have been written some time between the 5th and the 2nd century BC.
Krishna summarizes the Yogas through eighteen chapters. Yoga can fundamentally be said to comprise four main streams: Raja Yoga (psycho-physical meditation), Bhakti Yoga (devotion and love), Karma Yoga (selfless action), and Jnana (pronounced gyaan in the Northern states and jnyaana in the South of India) Yoga (self-transcending knowledge). Other forms that exist today sprang up long after the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras (to be discussed below) and are all essentially forms of Raja Yoga.
While each path differs, their fundamental goal is one and the same: to realize Brahman (the Divine Ground), as being the only truth, that the body is temporal, but the soul (Atman) is infinite and one with Brahman. Yoga's aim (nirvana, moksha) is essentially to escape from the cycle of reincarnation through realization of oneness with the ultimate reality.
Here are some quotations from Lord Krishna that make up history's first real yoga text and give comprehensive definitions of the four principal Yogas:
On all Yoga in general
" When the mind comes to rest, restrained by the practice of yoga, and when beholding the Self, by the self, he is content in the Self." (B.G., Chapter 6, Verse 20) | " He who finds his happiness within, his delight within, and his light within, this yogi attains the bliss of Brahman, becoming Brahman."
On Raja Yoga
" Establishing a firm seat for himself in a clean place... having directed his mind to a single object, with his thought and the activity of the senses controlled, he should practice yoga for the purpose of self-realization. Holding the body, head and neck erect, motionless and steady, gazing at the tip of his own nose and not looking in any direction, with quieted mind, banishing fear, established in the brahmacharin vow of celibacy, controlling the mind, with thoughts fixed on Me, he should sit, concentrated, devoted to Me. Thus, continually disciplining himself, the yogin whose mind is subdued goes to nirvana, to supreme peace, to union with Me." (B.G., Chapter 6, Verses 11-15)
On Bhakti Yoga
".... those who, renouncing all actions in Me, and regarding Me as the Supreme, worship me... of those whose thoughts have entered into Me, I am soon the deliverer from the ocean of death and transmigration, Arjuna. Keep your mind on Me alone, your intellect on Me. Thus you shall dwell in me hereafter." (B.G., Chapter 12, Verses 6-8) " And he who serves me with the yoga of unswerving devotion, transcending these qualities [binary opposites, like good and evil, pain and pleasure] is ready for absorption in Brahman." (B.G. Chapter 14, Verse 26)
On Karma Yoga
" With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, the yogins perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace..." (B.G. Chapter 5, Verses 11-12)
On Jnana Yoga
" When he perceives the various states of being as resting in the One, and from That alone spreading out, then he attains Brahman. / They who know, through the eye of knowledge, the distinction between the field and the knower of the field, as well as the liberation of beings from material nature, go to the Supreme." (B.G. Chapter 15, Verse 31 / Verse 35)
Raja Yoga is, in general, stilling of the mind and body through meditative techniques, geared at realizing one's true nature. Bhakti Yoga is simply love and devotion, epitomized today in such practices as worship of various Hindu deities, finding salvation in love of Christ, etc. Karma Yoga is essentially acting, or doing one's duties in life, without desire or expectation of reward, a sort of constant sacrifice of action to the Supreme. It includes, but is not limited to, dedication to one's chosen profession and its perfection to God and all sorts of community service, since they are inherently done without thought of personal gain. Jnana Yoga is a process of learning to discriminate between what is real and what is not, what is eternal and what is not eternal.
The Yoga Sutras
After the Bhagavad Gita, the next seminal work on Yoga is Patanjali's "Yoga Sutra." A compilation of Yogic thought that is largely Raja Yogic in nature, it was codified some time between the 2nd century BC and the 3rd century by Patanjali, and prescribes adherence to "eight limbs" (the sum of which constitute "Ashtanga Yoga") to quiet one's mind and merge with the infinite. These eight limbs not only systematized conventional moral principles espoused by the Gita, but elucidated the practice of Raja Yoga in a more detailed manner. Indeed, his "eight-limbed" path has formed the foundation for Raja Yoga and much of Tantra Yoga (a Hindu deific, Shiva-Shakti yoga system) and Vajrayana Buddhism (Buddhist Tantra Yoga) that came after. It goes as follows:
Patanjali, whose own life is virtually unknown, had the impact of further spreading in compact form the essence of Raja Yoga. Some legends speak of his being Adinaga, the first snake, the lower half of his body being that of a snake, upon which the great Hindu God Vishnu reclines. Many say that he was the same Patanjali who wrote commentaries on Panini's singular masterwork on Sanskrit grammar. Others speak of the legends of his birth. A few even dispute his existence and attribute the Yoga Sutras to many authors, but this is highly unlikely due to the structural, linguistic and stylistic uniformity of the short work. His base is Hindu Samkhya philosophy and shows itself to have been highly influenced by the Upanishads.
His Yoga Sutras espouse a trifold system for attainment of samadhi through tapas (austerities; discipline; literally "heat"), swadhyaya (self-study) and ishwar-pranidhana (contemplation of God).
While Patanjali accepts the idea of what he terms "ishta-devata" (worship of deities as manifestations of the single Brahman), his overall "ishwar" is not a conventional God with personal form and speaks more to a universal, attributeless Brahman, an impersonal, unknowable, infinite force that is all and transcends all.
Together, the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras form the theoretical and philosophical base of all yoga. However, as far as Raja Yoga (meditational yoga) goes, it is most precisely captured by Patanjali's Yoga-Sutras.
The Yoga Sutra and its followers
While meditative practices like asanas (postures) and pranayama (breath control) existed long before Patanjali, his brilliant eight-limbed system was what became the standard for almost all yoga schools that followed. Raja Yoga, being difficult to achieve (one must be focused on the Supreme), several Guru (teacher) lines came to make firm methodologies of realizing it.
A sidenote on the Guru: Emphasized by all schools of yoga as indispensable, the Guru takes on quasi-divine proportions. Acknowledged as a siddha (adept) who has attained the eight siddhis (powers) afforded by yoga (they range from transportation of the mind to anywhere into the universe to the only truly desirable power, samadhi), the Guru guides the shisya (student) through yogic discipline from the beginning. When doing yoga, the student is urged to look long and hard for a sadguru (True Teacher) and then devote himself from imbibing that Guru's learning.
The most famous of the traditional Hindu schools of yoga, and the basis for nearly all modern systems, is Hatha Yoga. It is representative of all non-Bhakti-Karma-Jnana Yoga that has become so popular in the west today.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika
In the West, outside of Hindu culture, "yoga" is usually understood to refer to "hatha yoga." Hatha Yoga is, however, a particular system propagated by Swami Swatamarama, a yogic sage of the 15th century in India.
After the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Sutras, the most fundamental text of Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Swatamarama, that in great detail lists all the main asanas, pranayama, mudra and bandha that are familiar to today's yoga student. It runs in the line of Hindu yoga (to distinguish from Buddhist and Jain yoga) and is dedicated to Lord Adinath, a name for Lord Shiva (the Hindu god of destruction), who is alleged to have imparted the secret of Hatha Yoga to his divine consort Parvati. It is common for yogins and tantriks of several disciplines to dedicate their practices to a deity under the Hindu ishta-devata concept (see Patanjali's Yoga Sutras) while always striving to achieve beyond that: Brahman. Hindu philosophy in the Vedanta and Yoga streams, as the reader will remember, views only one thing as being ultimately real: Satchidananda Atman, the Existence-Consciousness-Blissful Self. Very Upanishadic in its notions, worship of Gods is a secondary means of focus on the higher being, a conduit to realization of the Divine Ground. Hatha Yoga follows in that vein and thus successfully transcends being particularly grounded in any one religion.
Hatha is a Sanskrit word meaning 'sun' (ha) and 'moon' (tha), representing opposing energies: hot and cold, male and female, positive and negative, similar but not completely analogous to yin and yang. Hatha yoga attempts to balance mind and body via physical exercises, or "asanas", controlled breathing, and the calming of the mind through relaxation and meditation. Asanas teach teach poise, balance & strength and were originally (and still) practiced to improve the body's physical health and clear the mind in preparation for meditation in the pursuit of enlightenment.
By balancing two streams, often known as ida (mental) and pingala (bodily) currents, the sushumna nadi (current of the Self) is said to rise, opening various chakras (cosmic powerpoints within the body, starting from the base of the spine and ending right above the head) until samadhi is attained.
By forging a powerful depth of concentration and mastery of the body and mind, Hatha Yoga practices seek to still the mental waters and allow for apprehension of oneself as that which one always was, Brahman. Hatha Yoga is essentially a manual for scientifically taking one's body through stages of control to a point at which one-pointed focus on the unmanifested brahman is possible: it is said to take its practicer to the peaks of Raja Yoga.
In The West, hatha yoga has become wildly popular as a purely physical exercise regimen divorced of its original purpose. Currently, it is estimated that about 30 million Americans practice hatha yoga. But it is still followed in a manner consistent with tradition throughout the Indian subcontinent. The traditional guru-student relationship that exists without sanction from organized institutions, and which gave rise to all the great yogins who made way into international consciousness in the 20th century, has been maintained in Indian, Nepalese and some Tibetan circles.
In India, whose Hindu population combines to a staggering 800 million, Yoga is a daily part of life. It is common to see people performing Surya Namaskar (a yogic set of asanas and pranayam dedicated to Surya, the Hindu God of the Sun) in the morning or speaking about food diets and body therapy entirely based on Yoga or the Hindu healing system of Ayurveda. The age-old tradition of Yoga has continued uninterrupted by the its popularity in the west (although more established schools like the Bihar School of Yoga work from within India to produce Yoga texts to send abroad).
In addition, hundreds and thousands sanyasins (renunciates) and sadhus (Hindu sages) wander in and out of city temples, village country sides and are to be found smattered all across the Himalayan and Vindhya (in Central/South India) foothills. For India's holy-men, Yoga is as fundamental as lifeblood. To see a man meditating at the steps of a temple, or even wondering contemplatively on the roadside, is not uncommon even to the more Westernized crowds. It is the same in Tibet, where the Buddhist establishment's lifestyle is permeated with the Yoga, which is ultimately not a once-a-day routine, but a constant immersion in self-discovery.
The Great Modern Yogins
First brought into America as early as the 1890s by the great yogin and disciple of Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu representative in the Chicago Parliament of World Religions, Yoga has also been transported in the arms of many other great yogins and formed into stratified schools seeking to propagate Yoga in its great spiritual context. But these teachers have made their imprint in both India and America, and continue to serve as modern embodiments of Yoga.
Swami Rama Tirtha, who came from a deep yoga tradition in the Himalayas of India, was the founding spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. He was the first yogin to come to America and be subjected to the scrutiny of modern science. Among other things, he stunned doctors by stopping the beat of his heart completely for several minutes.
Many modern schools of Hatha Yoga derive from the school of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught in Mysore, India from 1931 until his death in 1993. Among his students prominent in popularising Yoga in the West were Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi and Krishnamacharya's son T.K.V. Desikachar. Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Madras (now Chennai), with the aim of making available the heritage of yoga as taught by Krishnamacharya.
Other great yogins are Paramahansa Yogananda, who arrived in America as a powerful example of the universality of Yoga. Sporting a cross, he came to the U.S. with the Hindu Bhagavad Gita in one hand and the Christian New Testament in the other, speaking to his disciples in pluralist ideology with Yoga as the binding force.
Aurobindo Ghosh was an intellectual heavyweight from West Bengal. His masterful translations and interpretations of Hindu and Yogic scriptures are authoratative, among which his translations/commentaries on the Hindu texts of the Upanishads and Gita are masterful and his epic Hindu/Yoga poem Savitri is a treasure of Hindu Yogic literature. Beyond this, his personal life, which included over two decades of isolation in the Himalayas practicing yoga, is a fascinating testimony of the life of a true yogin. Besides his influence and scholarly writing on Yoga, he also left his Pondicherry school (not far from Chennai), that continues to investigate and propagate the practice of Yoga.
Gopi Krishna was a Kashmiri office worker and spiritual seeker who was born in 1903, and wrote autobiographical accounts of his spiritual experiences with Yoga. His most famous one is "Kundalini: Path to Higher Consciousness." Gopi Krishna's graphic accounts of his experiences stand out as among the clearest journals documenting a spiritual transformation. They are highly recommended as reading for anyone interested in Yogic phenomena.
Yoga, while its roots are certainly based largely in Hindu philosophy, influenced a good deal by Buddhism as well, is a universal practice. It enjoins the practicer to pursue his or own path to enlightenment, depending on personality and inclination. For this reason, it is easy for the Christian, as a good example, to see Jesus Christ as his or her own ishwar-devata. "Christ the Yogi" is not an uncommon concept in the world Yoga today, and most religions, when viewed through their ethical and spiritual standpoints without the trappings of dogma, are easily reconcilable with Yoga as philosophy in general. Besides this, Yoga can be readily approached without the influence of religion, due to its transcendental message. Yoga has become something that, for the West, captures the essence of "spirituality" and continues to inspire and help many today.
While these and other teachers' influences are deeply inscribed into the surface of the modern yogic ethos, both in India and America, a proliferation of 'yoga clinics' and non-spiritual yoga systems has been seen in the West, especially in the United States. While many Americans view it as an excercise system that simply enhances one's health, a much greater number in India (and a minority in America) still see it as it has been for over 5,000 years, whether in the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the writings of the Dalai Lama, or the "Yoga Boom" of the twentieth century, a system of spirituality universal in its application.
Some modern styles of Yoga popular in America:
While the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika are clearly founded on Upanishadic and Brahmanical thought, much of Yoga has been influenced by and expanded into Tantra. Tantra is more ritual based, having its roots in the first millennium CE, and incorporates much more of a deist base. Almost entirely founded on Shiva and Shakti worship, Tantra visualizes the ultimate Brahman as Param Shiva, manifested through Shiva (the passive, masculine force of Lord Shiva) and Shakti (the active, creative feminine force of his consort, variously known as Ma Kali, Durga, Shakti, Parvati and others). It focuses on the kundalini, a three and a half-coiled 'snake' of spiritual energy at the base of the spine that rises through the chakras until union between Shiva and Shakti (aka samadhi) is achieved.
It views the body as means, rather than as obstruction, to understanding, and as such incorporates mantra (Sanskrit prayers, often to gods, that are repeated), yantra (complex symbols representing Shakti in her various forms through intricate geometric figures) and rituals that range from simple murti (statue representations of deities) or image worship to meditation on a corpse! While much tantra certainly, through its many texts (see kaularvatantra, mahanirvana tantra) and teachers (e.g. Abhinava Gupta, Ramakrishna [a saint who practiced tatnra], etc.) seems odd and highly arcane at times, it is transparent as being completely yogic. Also, injunctions are made that most people are not suitable for Tantra, especially those of pashu-bhava (animal disposition). This implies that anyone who has not observed celibacy, honesty, respect of elders, bodily cleansing, ritual cleansing through prayer, and various other processes for up to twelve years at a time, and still retains base desires, greed, sexual motivations, etc. one is not fit to practice Tantra. For this reason, even more stringently than other Yogas, Tantra, both Hindu and Buddhist, remains a strictly Guru-initiated system that as yet finds few true adepts outside of India.