What is Yoga ?

Yoga is one of the six main systems of Indian philosophy called Shad-Darshanas. Yoga is a philosophy as a well as a practical science. The Yoga system of philosophy has been existing from ancient times, but it was  codified by Maharishi Patanjali in his classical treatise, today known as Patanjali Yoga Sutras.

Today the system of yoga has been recognised worldwide as a way of life to maintain optimum health and fitness of body and mind. The United Nations has declared 21st June as the International Yoga Day. In spite of the wide spread recognition of yoga, there may arise confusions in the mind of practitioners about what is true yoga – what is yoga and what it is not. Yoga is not about twisting the body and doing gymnastic feats. Neither has it to do with psychic powers and its display. Many uninformed people get deluded when they see tricks, magic and various siddhis (or supernatural powers) and associate it with yoga. This is wrong understanding of yoga. Yoga has nothing to do with these tricks, magic, psychic powers or gymnastics. Instead, Yoga is a systematic method to achieve harmony of body, breath, mind and soul.

International Day of Yoga

Meaning of  Yoga

The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word Yuj which means to join. “Yujyate anena iti yogah” – which means, “That which joins is Yoga”. Yoga is joining of the individual consciousness (or Jivatma) to the Universal Consciousness (Paramatma).

The subject of Yoga has been dealt extensively in many ancient Indian scriptures like – Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Bhagvat Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Vasishta, Hatha Yoga Pradeepika, Gheranda Samhita, Siva Samhita, Puranas, etc. Also in recent times, eminent spiritual leaders like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo has further clarified the concept and purpose of Yoga philosophy.

Swami Vivekananda emphasised the role of yoga as a means to accelerate the rate of evolution of an individual soul. Evolution is a natural process. All beings including humans are evolving constantly. But through Yoga, one can make a conscious effort to speed up this process of evolution. One can get liberated from the cycle of birth and death in single birth itself.

Sri Aurobindo emphasised that Yoga is a conscious method towards self-development to bring out the inherent potential of the individual. He focused on all-round personality development at physical, emotional, mental, intellectual and spiritual levels.

Thus Yoga is a systematic process to accelerate the evolution of the individual by culturing the mind and bringing out an all-round personality development culminating in experience of higher states of consciousness.

Yoga according to Scriptures

Various scriptures have given different definitions of yoga. Few of them are listed below:

1.  Patanjali Yoga Sutra defines Yoga in verse 2 of the first chapter. According to it, Yoga is – “Yogah Chitta vritti Nirodhah”, which means that Yoga is control of the fluctuations of Chitta or it is the control of the mind.

The next verse, deals with the result of achieving such a control. It says – “Tada dhristuh svarupe avasthanam”, which means that – Then the Seer is established in the Self or the causal state. In other words, the practitioner get established in the inherent natural state of the self.

The first aspect is pertaining to control of the mind and the next aspect is regarding the calmness and awareness of the mind, which is the state reached through the first aspect. The second aspect is more important and is the goal of Yoga while the first aspect is the means.

2.  The Yoga-Vasishta says “Manah prashamanah Upayah yoga ityabhidhiyate” which means that Yoga is a skilful method to calm the mind. Yogic methods are subtle and skilful and does not use brutal force. Knowledge of the mind is the key to subduing it in a skilful way.

3.  In the Bhagvat Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 50) it is said that “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam”, which means that Yoga is dexterity in action. This perfection in action is a result of calmness and awareness of mind. Dexterity also means that the action is done with maximum efficiency. This perfection is also result of performing actions in a detached way, without overly being anxious about the outcome of the action.

Yoga as a state of mind

In the scriptures, Yoga is also mentioned as a state of mind. In the process of evolution, man has the ability to act from various higher levels of consciousness. Yoga can also refer to those subtle layers of causal states of the mind. A few such references are listed below:

1.  In the Bhagvat Gita (Chapter 2, Verse 48), yoga is defined as equanimity of mind or the balance of mind in all situations. It says:

Yogasthah kuru karmani sangam tyaktva dhananjaya
Siddhyassiddhyoh samo bhutva samatvam yoga uchyate

It means – O Arjuna, perform actions, being established in Yoga, free from attachments and being even minded in success and failure. Evenness is verily Yoga.

2.  In the Kathopanisad (2.6.11) it is said:

Tam yogamiti manyante sthiramindriyadharanam

It means that Yoga is a state where the indriyas (or the senses) are held steadily. In other words it is the mastery of senses and mind.

3.  In the Bhagvat Gita (Chapter 2, verse 53), Sri Krishna explains the state of Sthitaprajna , where he says:

Srutivipratipanna te yada sthasyati nischala
Samadhavacala buddhistada yogamavapsyasi

It means – when your mind remains steady and unperturbed even on hearing conflicting statements, then you will attain the state of Yoga. This stable state of mind is called Sthitaprajna.

Thus, Yoga provides the means as well as describes the state of higher levels of consciousness on the path of evolution. As per Maharishi Patanjali, this journey in human evolution can be achieved through several steps. He classified the methods into 8 broad steps or limbs, which is today known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga or the Eight Limbs of Yoga

Man is a social being. He has to effectively interact with the external world. Yet he has an internal life where he can think, reflect and conceptualize about the purpose of life. Ashtanga Yoga or the eight limbs of Yoga addresses both these aspects and is aimed at creating harmony in the external as well the internal world. The eight limbs of Yoga are Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.

  1. Yama has do more with the social mode of conduct. It helps to harmonize our interactions with the society or the external world.
  2. Niyama has to do with personal mode of conduct. It helps to maintain self-discipline. It disciplines our internal world.
  3. Asana or yogic poses are designed for maintaining optimum health of the body and preparing the body for higher practices. It improves strength, flexibility, stability and balance of the body.
  4. Pranayama deals with control of the breath, which can improve our physical as well as mental health.
  5. Pratyahara involves methods to withdraw the senses from the external world to prepare it for meditation or internalization of the mind. Pratyahara is the point where the inner journey begins.
  6. Dharana deals with concentration of the mind on an internal object. It is the beginning state of all internal visualization techniques.
  7. Dhyana or meditation follows Dharana. When the mind can be absorbed in the object of meditation for a prolonged period of time, it becomes Dhyana.
  8. Samadhi or the superconscious state is when the practitioner goes beyond the sense of individuality through the process of meditation and eventually experiences the Cosmic Consciousness.

Thus Yoga can be thought of as a scientific method to explore the full potential of a human being. It not only harmonizes one’s interaction with the external world, but also balances our internal world, resulting in peace and awareness of mind; the final goal being experiencing one’s oneness with the Cosmic Consciousness.