WHAT IS YOGA?
Over the past few years the word Yoga, or the practice of Yoga, has become hugely expressed and mentioned all over the place. What I hear the most from my students is that they want to 'do' Yoga, attend Yoga classes, to improve flexibility and strength and to relax.
When you practise Yoga you will become stronger and start to feel more freedom of movement in the body. By focusing your attention in the here and now, connecting with the sound of your own breath, you will feel calmer as the speed of your thoughts slows down. These are just but a few of the benefits that Yoga can bring into your life.
Yoga is much more than a physical exercise and to avoid any misconceptions, let's get clear about the fact that Yoga is not a fitness exercise and it is not a religion. It is in fact a profound practise that permeates into your whole being, the way you live your life and how you perceive yourself in the world. It opens endless opportunities to find connections within yourself and the world around you. The practise of Yoga is open to all faiths and beliefs,
“Yoga is a friend to those who embrace it sincerely and totally. It lifts its practitioners from the clutches of pain and sorrow, and enables them to live fully, taking a delight in life. The practice of yoga helps the lazy body to become active and vibrant. It transforms the mind, making it harmonious. Yoga helps to keep one’s body and mind in tune with the essence, the soul, so that all three are blended into one.”
B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The origins of Yoga date back over 5,000 years ago in India. The Sanskrit word Yoga (union) was first mentioned in The Vedas, a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by the Brahmas, the Vedic priests who documented their practices and beliefs in the Upanishads. The most renowned of the Yogic scriptures of this time is the Bhagavad-Gita, composed around 500 B.C.E. Like the Vedas and the Upanishads, the authorship of the Bhagavad Gita is unclear. Gita is one of the most influential work in eastern philosophy. The Bhagavad-Gita is the eternal message of spiritual wisdom from ancient India. The word Gita means song and the word Bhagavad means God, often the Bhagavad-Gita is called the Song of God.
The first systematic presentation of yoga - The Yoga Sutras, written by Patanjali only appears much later, around the second century. This text describes the path of Raja Yoga, often called "classical yoga". The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-steps path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice towards obtaining Samadhi or enlightenment. Patanjali is often considered the father of yoga and his Yoga Sutras are considered to be the bible of Yoga.
“There are eight components of Yoga. These are: yama, our attitudes toward our environment, niyama, our attitudes toward ourselves, asana, the practice of body exercises. pranayama, the practice of breathing exercises, pratyahara, the restraint of our senses, dharana, the ability to direct our minds, dhyana, the ability to develop interactions with what we seek to understand, samadhi, complete integration with the object to be understood."
T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice
It seems that Yoga arrived to the West in 1893 at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago with Swami Vivekananda representing India and Hinduism. His speech at the Parliament was a great success emphasising the principles of universality acceptance and religious tolerance.His success led to the establishment of Vedanta centres in the West, where he introduced Yoga as a practical means to adapt traditional Hindu ideas and religiosity to suit the needs and understandings of his western audiences who were attracted to this kind of 'practical spirituality'.
In the 1920s and 30s, Hatha Yoga - the physical practice of yoga which focuses first on the asana practice and is part of the integral system of Raja yoga - was strongly promoted in India mainly with the work of Swami Sivananda and T. Krishnamacharya.
In 1936 Sivananda founded the Divine Life Society on the banks of the holy Ganges River. Sivananda was a prolific author, writing over 200 books on yoga, and established nine ashrams and numerous yoga centres located around the world.
Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore, India in 1924. Krishnamacharya produced three students that would continue his legacy and increase the popularity of Hatha Yoga: B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar and Pattabhi Jois who all became world famous Yoga teachers and developed their own schools and styles of Yoga . There is a wonderful film/documentary - Breath of the Gods - that I strongly recommend if you are interested to know more about the origins of modern yoga and understand the many different aspects of the practice.