What is yoga? The Sanskrit word “yoga” means to yoke, to unite. In a narrower sense it means the union of the individual soul with the Cosmic Spirit or God.
There are so many definitions of the term “yoga” that it is not easy to find a simple answer to the question “What is yoga?”. In the Western civilisation we often equate yoga with some kind of physical exercise. And the yoga science indeed comprises a system of physical exercises, but that is merely one aspect of it.
There are four major yoga systems, Karma Yoga (path of action), Bhakti Yoga (path of devotion), Raja Yoga (the science of mental control) and Jnana Yoga (path of knowledge).
Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion or divine love. Through prayer, singing and reciting of mantras the consciousness is directed to God.
Raja Yoga is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Raja Yoga (“royal yoga”) is also called Ashtanga Yoga (“ashta” means “eight” and “anga” means “limb”). Its main practice is meditation and the goal is to achieve physical and mental control.
The eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yama (code of conduct; self-restraints to destroy lower nature; comprises non-violence, truthfulness, control of all senses, non-stealing, non-covetousness)
- Niyama (observances; internal and external purity, contentment, austerity, study of the sacred texts, surrender to God)
- Asana (Patanjali only describes a steady and comfortable sitting posture. The various postures of Hatha Yoga are a much later development)
- Pranayama (control of breath)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (superconscious state, union with God)
Jnana Yoga is the yoga of knowledge.
“This is the most difficult path, requiring tremendous strength of will and intellect. Taking the philosophy of Vedanta the Jnana Yogi uses his mind to inquire into its own nature. We perceive the space inside and outside a glass as different, just as we see ourselves as separate from God. Jnana Yoga leads the devotee to experience his unity with God directly by breaking the glass, dissolving the veils of ignorance. Before practicing Jnana Yoga, the aspirant needs to have integrated the lessons of the other yogic paths – for without selflessness and love of God, strength of body and mind, the search for self-realization can become mere idle speculation.” (http://www.sivananda.org/teachings/fourpaths.html#jnana)
Hatha Yoga (“ha” means “sun” and “tha” means “moon”) is the yoga of the body. It was first introduced by Yogi Swatmarama (a yogic sage who lived in the 15th century and who authored the Hatha Yoga Pradipika). This yoga system focuses on the third and fourth limb of Raja Yoga, Asanas and Pranayama.
The main goal of Hatha Yoga is, as in all other yoga systems, the reunion with God. Through regular and thorough practice of asanas, pranayamas and meditation a balance between the mind and the body is tried to be achieved, which leads to calmness, equilibrium and inner strength.
Hatha Yoga comprises all different styles of yoga, such as Power Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga (developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois), etc.
The fourth step of Raja Yoga. “Prana” means “Life Force”, “ayama” means “to control” or “to expand”. Through special breathing techniques the union of body and soul is aspired. Hatha Yoga comprises various pranayama exercises in order to get control over the mind.
Pranayama is the deliberate regulation of the breath, which requires frequent practice.
In addition pranayama has many positive effects on the body. “Pranayama, though it concerns the breath, gives good exercise for the various internal organs and the whole body. Pranayama removes all sorts of diseases, improves health, energises digestion, invigorates the nerves, removes passion, and awakens the Kundalini Sakti.” (Swami Sivananda, Bliss Divine; The Divine Life Society, p. 380)
Meditation is the seventh step of Raja Yoga (Dhyana) and it is a practice to calm the mind, to withdraw it from all worldly objects and thoughts, even from the body and focus only on God. To silently repeat a mantra or focus on a sound or on the breath can help to steady the mind.
Meditation has many beneficial effects, such as slowing the breath, lowering the blood pressure and reducing stress and make you more stress-resistent. In addition the need for sleep is reduced if you meditate on a regular basis. This are only some of the many, many positive effects, that meditation has on all areas of life.
For further information here a selection of recommendable books:
- Paramhansa Yogananda – Autobiography Of A Yogi
- Paramhansa Yogananda – God Talks With Arjuna-The Bhagavad Gita
- Swami Sri Yukteswar – The Holy Science
- Sri Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabuphada – Bhagavad Gita as it is
- Sri Swami Sivananda – The Bhagavad Gita
- Sri Swami Sivananda – Bliss Divine
- Swami Vishnudevananda – The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga
- I. K. Taimni – The Science of Yoga
- Leslie Kaminoff – Yoga Anatomy
- Armin Risi – Gott und die Götter
- Armin Risi – Unsichtbare Welten
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