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Is Yoga only physical postures or something more?

Confused about what Yoga actually is? The word Yoga has many different connotations in the ancient Indian tradition. To understand what Yoga truly means, here is a quick primer on how the phrase (& the underlying ideas) evolved over time

The earliest visual reference to a yogic posture is seen in a seal produced in the Indus valley civilisation which is at least 5000 years old. So, it is likely that Yoga as a discipline was known for a long time before that, maybe even 1000s of years before that

The earliest textual reference to Yoga (as a word and as an idea) is found in ancient texts like the Upanishads & the Bhagavad Gita, which many experts estimate to be at least 3000 years old. In these texts, Yoga is proposed as a single-pointed way of living that brings together all aspects of the person - body, mind, spirit - in one coherent union. In this context, Yoga literally means "to yoke" together all these various aspects of man. According to these texts, the four types of yoga are:

  • Bhakti yoga : the yoga of surrender
  • Karma yoga : the yoga of life-action
  • Jnana yoga : the yoga of knowledge
  • Raja Yoga : the yoga of meditation

The next seminal reference to Yoga is about 2000 years ago in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. In this text, Rishi (sage) Patanjali goes deeper into the exploration of one of these four types of yoga - Raja Yoga : the yoga of meditation - by outlining an eight-fold path that covers:

  1. Yama : restraint in one's interaction with other people & society
  2. Niyama : inward-looking practices that help improve oneself
  3. Asana : physical postures that help condition one's body & mind
  4. Pranayama : practices to manage breath
  5. Pratyahara : practices to withdraw our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell & taste
  6. Dharana : concentration
  7. Dhyana : meditation
  8. Samadhi : deep contemplation & awareness of total reality

Patanjali referred to these paths as the 8 limbs of Yoga - in Sanskrit, Ashtanga yoga.

(Incidentally, much of what we call Yoga today is Asana, one of the 8 limbs of Raja Yoga as proposed by Patanjali)

Fast forward to about 700 years ago & we now reach Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an important yoga text composed by Swami Swatmarama, a yogi of the Nath tradition. While Patanjali's Yoga Sutras cover the 8-fold conceptual approach to Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga Pradipika has a more detailed focus on techniques that are necessary for practicing Raja Yoga

Drawing deep upon Tantric practices that have existed in India from time immemorial, Hatha Yoga Pradipika delves into the following techniques to achieve Samadhi:

  • Asana : physical postures that open energy channels & psychic centres
  • Shatkarma : practices such as Dhauti, Basti, Neti etc to clean the impurities of the body
  • Pranayama : practices such as Trataka, Kapalbhati and many others to manage the breath
  • Mudra : body positions that channel energy produced by Asana & Pranayama to specific centres of the body
  • Bandha : contraction of muscles & organs in order to bind together opposite poles of energy
  • Samadhi : awareness of the ultimate reality, going beyond the limitations of the senses & the mind

There it is : a snapshot view of what Yoga is & how it has evolved in the Indian tradition. So the next time you hear the word Yoga, you can be certain of what it means & in what it context it is being used