Yoga is very, very much more than just postures and breathing, although these are what most people think of as yoga. It has been described as a practical science, one which provides us with an extraordinarily versatile 'tool for living', which can help us achieve whatever we want. It enables us to gain control over our body, emotions, thoughts, behaviour and actions, brings greater awareness and self-confidence, teaches us how to maintain a healthy perspective on the ups and downs of life and ultimately how to find true inner happiness.
The word yoga means union in Sanskrit and refers to the realisation of the unity or oneness behind the apparent separation of the individual from other beings and the rest of creation. Thus the practice of yoga, in it's various forms, is aimed at achieving the state of physical, mental, emotional balance where the sense of separateness and individual striving disappear, the mind is no longer driven by desire and fear, craving and aversion and we can know the unchanging, limitless, unresisting, non-judgmental awareness at the core of our being.
When the restlessness of the mind, intellect and self is stilled through the practice of Yoga, the yogi, by the grace of the Spirit within himself finds fulfillment. Then he knows the joy eternal, which is beyond the pale of the senses, which his reason cannot grasp.
~ From the Bagavadgita ~
Traditional Paths Of Yoga
Hatha Yoga - Mastery of the body and breath through rigorous physical discipline
Raja Yoga - 'The royal path' is meditation
Jnana Yoga - Direct realisation of the true nature of being through self-enquiry, also known as advaita / non-duality
Karma Yoga - Action as selfless service in the realisation that we are not separate beings
Bhakti Yoga - Devotion, surrender to divine will
There are many more types of yoga, including nadi yoga, swara yoga, japa yoga, but in fact, yoga is anything that enables us to realise the truth of our being.
'Truth is one, paths are many.'
Hatha Yoga is all physical forms of yoga, although the term is now often used to denote a classical style of yoga, which does not carry a trademarked name (see Styles of Yoga). It is what is currently most popular in the west and what most people think of as yoga.
It consists of postures (asanas) and breathing exercises (pranayama), which relax, strengthen and energize the body and calm and focus the mind. The purpose is to promote free circulation of energy (prana) throughout the whole body-mind system and to create a state of both stability and ease. Traditionally it was to enable the yogi to achieve the long periods of stillness necessary for deep meditation.
Stiram sukham asanam - The posture should be steady and comfortable
~ Patanjali (The Yoga Sutras) ~
Personal growth and the path to self-knowledge are greatly enhanced when we understand that the body is not merely a bag of organs and bones, but a finely balanced system of energies. Freeing the physical structure enables the energy (which includes blood supply, lymph, nerve impulses) to flow and circulate freely. This keeps both the structure and the internal organ system functioning optimally, helps protect from injury and disease and maintains a youthful body and mind.
The obvious benefits, in all areas of life, of having a strong, flexible body and calm, steady mind are what have made hatha yoga so enormously popular in the West today. Yoga is also enjoyable and imparts an immediate feeling of well-being.
Yoga is best used as preventive medicine, but many of the practices also have great therapeutic value and this forms the basis of yoga therapy. It can help alleviate symptoms of a wide range of difficult physical conditions, including musculo-skeletal problems, arthritis, degenerative diseases, internal organ dysfunction, mental/emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks and painful issues from both past and present.
Physiological principles of the yoga postures.
Rhythmic movement stimulates the heart and lungs and circulation of blood and body fluids.
The different positions of the body in the asanas exert a ‘squeeze and soak’ action, by which the organs and tissues are alternately compressed, squeezing blood out and then released, so fresh blood flows in.
The action of gravity drains the blood and fluids from particular areas of the body and increases the flow to others. Inverted poses, for example help drain and relax the legs and enhance circulation in the upper body. They also stimulate the stretch receptors in the carotid arteries thus lowering blood pressure. We often hear people being told to 'put their feet up', to relax and refresh the body and mind.
This releases energy held in the muscles as excess tone or tension, relaxes them, increases their range of movement and overall flexibility and helps reduce the occurrence of injuries.
Moving slowly and consciously into and out of postures, while taking care to keep the joints correctly positioned and working within a comfortable range helps correct muscular and skeletal imbalances. This improves posture, improves joint stability and reduces age related 'wear and tear'.
Entering and exiting postures on the breath and holding them with slow, deep breathing improves efficiency of breathing, blood circulation, energy (prana) levels and helps calm and focus the mind. We can immediately feel the beneficial effects of even a simple practice such as doing breathing with arm movements 5-10x.
Mindful attention to the breath and to specific body areas engages the mind and increases the blood flow and prana supply to the target area. This also develops interoception (internal awareness), improves mastery and control of the body and mental focus and lays the groundwork for meditation, leading to higher states of consciousness.
In the conscious deep relaxation of 'savasana' (corpse pose) one systematically relaxes each part of the body releasing all the muscles and allowing the joints to open up. This thoroughly replenishes the body and calms the mind and the nervous system.
In this process, we can learn to observe the physical sensations, thoughts and emotions as ever changing currents of energy, which flow through us, but are not the essence of who / what we are. Thus Yoga teaches us that consciousness and thoughts are not the same thing and helps to set us on the path to realising the true nature of being.
The postures can be done in different ways in different styles of yoga and for different effects; Static / Dynamic /Restorative (see also Styles of Yoga).
Static holding of the poses builds strength and stability as well as flexibility and allows time to focus on details of alignment and mindfulness in the poses (e.g. Iyengar and non-trademarked hatha yoga styles).
Dynamic fast moving sequences linked by 'vinyasas' build aerobic fitness, stimulate sweating, which softens the muscles and is cleansing and they induce the release of endorphins, making it easier to perform more difficult poses (e.g. Astanga Vinyasa Yoga), but there can be a risk of injury.
Slow moving dynamic sequences are more universally accessible and can be modified to be varied and creative and to suit different ages and abilities (vinyasa flow). The dynamic styles are not suitable for people with depleted energy (chronic fatigue), recovering from illness or injury, at risk of fractures, suffering from anxiety or insomnia.
Restorative poses are generally passive, involve the use of supporting props and are held for long periods. They enable relaxation of the deep as well as surface muscles, which releases chronic tension in the body and can induce release of long held emotions (e.g. supported savasana above). Restorative yoga is useful for preparing for pranayama and meditation and is especially useful in yoga therapy.
You can view/ download some guidelines for establishing a yoga asana practice
Pranayama / Breathing Practices
Prana = vital energy, Yama = control.
Breath is our primary source of energy. Although basic breathing is an involuntary reflex, we can modify the way we breathe, both consciously and unconsciously. Many people tense up when anxious or stressed and their breath becomes shallow and rapid. This is very inefficient in terms of the amount of energy it takes to breathe compared with the amount derived from it. Under sustained stress such breathing patterns often become chronic. Vitality and mood drop and a vicious cycle develops.
The beginning pranayama practices teach how to use the whole breathing mechanism more efficiently and to experience how the breath helps relax the body, calm the mind, improve energy and well-being.
Other practices cleanse the respiratory tract, heat / cool the body, energise particular body areas and internal organ systems, balance the nervous system, focus and calm the mind in preparation for meditation.
After much training (and purification through study, lifestyle and diet), the advanced pranayama practices help attain altered states of consciousness and prolong absorption in meditation.
Raja Yoga usually refers to the system of yoga that is described in the Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali more than 400 years BCE. He outlines in these terse aphorisms, a comprehensive, practical yoga system called Astanga Yoga (not to be confused with the currently popular dynamic hatha yoga style), which consists of eight (astha) progressive stages or 'limbs' (anga) of yoga, leading to meditation and the state of absorption in pure divine awareness, known as Samadhi (or Nirvana).
The core practice of Raja Yoga is meditation and all the other limbs are stages of purification and preparation to enable the body to be at ease sitting still for prolonged periods, maximise vitality and to tame and train the mind.
- YAMA: Abstentions
- NIYAMA: Observances
1 & 2 are basic codes of conduct of daily life (very similar to the Ten Commandments!) and include truthfulness, non-violence, non-stealing, sexual continence, non-covetousness, cleanliness, contentment, self development, spiritual study and surrender to divine will.
- ASANA: Physical postures for strength and flexibility (see above)
- PRANAYAMA: Breath control for enhancing vitality and calming the mind
- PRATYAHARA: Controlling emotions by withdrawing attention from the pull and push of ephemeral sensory pleasure and pain
- DHARANA: Concentration, training the mind to remain still and focused
- DHYANA: Meditation, absorption in a state of relaxed, alert awareness
- SAMADHI: Bliss, resting in pure consciousness
In the second sutra Patanjali states his definition of yoga: "Yogas chitta vritti nirodha", translated as, "Yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind".
All the eight limbs are practical methods to help this come about.
Jnana Yoga literally means 'knowledge'. It is not, however intellectual reasoning, but a process of direct insight, through contemplative enquiry, into the nature of being, which leads to Self realisation, spiritual awakening or Enlightenment.
The most well known approach in the west is Advaita / Non-duality.
Karma Yoga is the path of service through action and work. One looses a sense of personal [ego] identity while working for others, only selfless service, love and compassion remain. This state is very difficult to achieve. Generally some desire for reward, recognition, incentives or end gain follows the work and one is attached to this outcome, but this is not Karma Yoga. The ultimate aim of Karma Yoga is complete non-attachment to the work and becoming a perfect instrument of the higher consciousness. The Bhagvad Gita says: "The world is confined in its own activity except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore one must perform every action sacramentally and be free of your attachments to the results."
Mother Teresa is often cited as a modern example of a karma yogi.
Bhakti Yoga means love and devotion to the divine. The devotee looses the personal ego identity and becomes one with the object of faith, this is the state of Realisation of the one true, universal Self, which encompasses all beings and all of creation.