What is Yoga?

Yoga is a classical science and philosophy that involves every aspect of an individual’s being.  It is a way of life that focuses on self-development and encompasses precise physical, emotional, mental and spiritual teachings and disciplines. 

It originated about 6,000 years ago in India and is outlined in several  classical works, one of the principal texts being Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (circa 300 BC) in which he  defines yoga as “the control of thought-waves in the mind”.  Classical yoga is an eight stage process of physical, mental and spiritual awareness comprising ethical disciplines (Yamas and Nyamas), postures (Asanas), yoga breathing (Pranayama), control of the senses (Prathyara), concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana) and enlightenment (Samadhi).

The eventual aim of yoga is to achieve union with the Atman, the true Self that we can only understand when we get there.  In simpler terms, yoga is a training to develop our intuitive understanding and physical and emotional well-being.

Hatha yoga is a complete system of yoga for physical and mental well-being. It is from Hatha yoga that the various other types of yoga in the world today originate.

There are many different types of yoga, each with its own philosophies and practices. Some forms of yoga are more meditative and spiritual, while others are more focused on the physical aspect, or asanas.

Hatha yoga involves the following aspects:

Asanas are precise yoga postures which correspond to the full potential of human movement.  Asana means ‘seat’ or ‘steady pose’ and all the postures require a steadiness of mind and body.  They are more than just physical exercise as they also help to train the mind and prepare it for meditation.  The classical work on Hatha Yoga, The Hathayogapradipika, lists fifteen asanas, the Geranda Samita lists thirty-two, the Shiva Samhita lists eighty-four and, in our own time, B.K.S. Iyengar lists over two- hundred in his work Light on Yoga. Mere perfection of the body is not the aim of the asanas.  They stretch both body and mind beyond everyday limits.  At a philosophical level, asanas make the body a fit, strong vehicle for the spirit and for the powers that will be released at later stages of training.  And at a physical level, asanas help the whole body to function better physiologically and have a beneficial effect on every cell and tissue.  There are standing poses for vitality, sitting poses for calm, twists for cleansing and so on.  Regular and determined practice help oxygenate the blood, improve muscle tone and circulation and keep the body healthy.

Pranayama is the science of breath control, the word ‘prana’ meaning breath and ‘yama’meaning control.  Prana is described in yoga texts as the life-force or energy pervading the universe.  There are three types of control of the breath:  inhalation (Puraka), exhalation (Recaka) and retention (Kumbhaka).  Through the regulation and control of the breath, you learn to still the mind and prepare it for concentration.  Deep and rhythmic yoga breathing also helps to strengthen the respiratory system and soothe the nervous system.  It is essential for physical and mental well-being and helps to calm the mind and channel thoughts inward. The regular practice of various types of pranayama can help us to learn how to breathe properly using the whole body and correct problems such as hyperventilation and stress and the physical manifestations of these.

Kriyas are a series of internal cleansing processes that purify the material body.  They are a unique feature of Hatha Yoga and there are six main ones: Nauli (stomach pumping); Neti (cleaning nasal passages); Vasti (colon cleansing); Tratakum (candle gazing); Kapalabhati (breathing technique)and Dhauti (cleansing stomach, throat, teeth and rectum).  Kriyas were traditionally used to detoxify the body and cleanse the respiratory and digestive systems.  Traditionally they remained a secret and were used to balance out the three humours of wind, bile and phlegm.  Many of them are still highly regarded today as an excellent preventative health measure when combined with a healthy diet and regular asana and pranayama practice.

Bandhas are a series of internal energy gates or ‘locks’ which assist in the regulation of pranic energy through the subtle body.  An individual engages the locks through gentle and powerful contractions of various body parts.  There are three bandhas – Mula Bandha (‘root lock’), Uddiyana Bandha (‘abdominal lock’) and Jalandhara Bandha (‘neck lock’).  The muscular contractions produced by bandhas have a distinct physiological effect on the circulation of the blood, the nervous system and the endocrine glands.  They can be performed on their own or in conjunction with pranayama, mudras and asanas. 

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