What is Yoga?

By Dr Benjamin Major and Joanna Bertzeletos

So, I’ve seen lots of pictures of very flexible people getting into very difficult postures. Is that yoga?

In the modern world we have a tendency to see yoga as a largely physical practice, which one does to keep fit, build strength, stay healthy, relax or a combination of these things. However, though these certainly can be wonderful and beneficial effects of sustained yoga practice, excessively focusing on such things can actually make us miss the central aim of yoga. Yoga is in fact a mostly internal process. It is the process of cultivating a full and present awareness of reality in which all the energies of the body, senses and mind are brought to a single point of tranquil focus.

This point of focus can take many forms. The focal points could be those described in many of the classic yoga scriptures, such as the breath, physical asanas or the subtle centres known as chakras. Or the focal point could be an action that you are performing as is the case in karma yoga.  Or indeed it could be love and devotion as in bhakti yoga, or true knowledge of reality as in jnana yoga. In theory, even things like cooking and gardening along with many other activities can count as yoga if they are performed with mindfulness and awareness and with no harm caused to oneself or to other beings!

So far we have talked about yoga as method or practice. What is interesting about the term yoga is that it denotes at once a method but it also denotes the state of being that the method ultimately leads to. Yoga in this sense of goal is simply the perfection of the above process, where one has reached a state of fully focused, integrated, expansive yet grounded awareness that is continuous and effortless. This is the state of Samadhi. This is a state in which one responds to each moment with one's whole being and without the need for deliberation or effort, and does so not just in the context of a yoga class but throughout one’s day to day life and regardless of how challenging our circumstances may be.

So, it isn't actually that important if you can perform a perfect scorpion pose or headstand or not. Great stuff if you can. But if you’ve attained that ability to permanently reside in Samadhi, that’s when you know you are a true yoga master. Furthermore, the ultimate goal of yoga is not simply to maximize the number of these ‘peak experiences’ in life, but rather to perfect one's ability to infuse the energy and insights of these experiences into the ‘ordinary’ world of everyday life.

A Brief History of Yoga

Pashupati Seal from the Indus Valley

It is possible that people were practicing yoga in some form for hundreds or thousands of years before our earliest written records, and we have archaeological finds in the form of pictures on clay tablets such as the one to the right that have been interpreted as evidence in favour of this. However, this evidence is inconclusive and so we must look to the written records of the Upanishads, foundational Vedic texts, many of which were composed before 600BCE, to find real evidence that people were engaging in the kinds of practices that we have just mentioned above. At this time there is no indication that any of the physical postures many people know as yoga today even existed.

Moving further along in time we find the great sage Patanjali, whose birthdate and very existence is contested but who seems to have lived some time around 200 - 500 CE and who was the first known systematiser and compiler of yogic practices. A well-known part of his Yoga Sutras is his description of the eight limbs of yoga, which provides us with a very helpful framework for our yoga practice, and it will be set out in more detail below. But note that, even here, physical postures occupy a very small space and even when they do appear they consist simply of seated postures that enable one’s body to open up to the more introverted practices that follow. Also at around this same time we see the emergence of bhakti and karma yoga, the yoga of devotion, the most well known text of which is the Bhagavad Gita, an amazing and beautiful text outlining the path of selfless action.

A group of Hatha yogis

In later times, from about 500 to 1300CE, Tantric yoga added a whole new complex and intricate suite of techniques that could help the seeker to achieve the state of yoga. These included various methods of visualization, mantra, working with the ‘subtle body’ or chakras and kundalini energy and bodily postures and mudras. It appears that it was only at this time that standing and inverted postures were added to the yogic repertoire. Next came Hatha yoga, which is essentially the root of all modern postural yoga. Hatha was in part an outgrowth of Tantra and it retained many of its practices. Its main purpose was to strengthen and empower the body, and to awaken the kundalini. Let us note, then, that even though physical practices were now beginning to increase in importance, they were still performed as an aid to the ultimate goal of yoga, that state of fully focused and integrated awareness that we mentioned earlier.

Finally, in the 20th century we see the birth of what has been called modern postural yoga. Krishnamāchārya is often credited as being the founder of modern yoga in early 1930s Mysore. He drew on Hatha yoga, but also upon the Western disciplines of gymnastics. This probably explains why so many popular modern yoga styles that can be traced back to Krishnamāchārya can often feel somewhat gymnastic. This is a far cry from the kind of yoga depicted in the Upanishads or Yoga Sutras. However, it is very important to stress that this fact does not make these styles necessarily unyogic. As we mentioned earlier, the method of yoga requires a point of focus, and it may well be that, for some individuals, such vigorous physical practice may well provide that point of focus, as long as the ultimate aim of yoga is kept in sight and the practice does not descend to the level of mere exercise, which unfortunately we are seeing more and more.

At Yoga Nature we very much draw upon Hatha, Tantra and the teachings of Patanjali, whose system we examine in more detail below.

Patanjali and the Eight Limbs of Yoga

The eight limbs of yoga (or to better translate, the eight aids to yoga) as set out by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras comprise a framework which can help us on the path to achieving the state of yoga, that state of fully present, fully aware bliss. We will now explore each of the limbs in a bit more detail. But first, it should be stressed that the eight limbs need not necessarily be followed rigidly in the order described as though they were a shopping list. In fact, it is hard to believe that anyone could approach them in this way. Rather, an individual can focus on any one of the eight limbs of yoga at any time or can work on them simultaneously.

1. Yamas (universal truths)

First there are five yamas which describe our attitude towards things and people outside ourselves:

Ahimsa (non-violence): This means not doing harm to other sentient and non-sentient beings and ensuring that our thoughts, words and actions are acts of kindness and compassion to both ourselves and other beings. We often focus on this quality in Yoga Nature classes.

Satya (truthfulness): This means living a truthful life that does not harm others.

Asteya (non-stealing): Not taking anything that has not been freely given. This includes both the material and non-material. For example, not stealing people’s ideas or sharing information that has been given to you in confidence.

Brahmacharya (sense control): Literally celibacy, but we can read this to mean more generally moderation of the senses, that is, avoiding over-stimulation and over consumption of any kind.

Aparigraha (living a life free from greed): Taking only what is necessary, not being over possessive and not exploiting others. Living a simple life within our means.

2. Niyamas (studying of the self)

There are next five niyamas which describe our attitude and how we behave towards ourselves:

Sauca (cleanliness): Keeping both the body and one’s environment clean. Through practicing yoga, pranayama and meditation both the mind and the body are kept pure and clean.

Santosha (contentment): Being happy with what we have and our lifestyle even when things are difficult.

Tapas (austerity): Literally means to heat the body and therefore keep the body cleansed and fit. Forms of tapas include watching what we think, say, eat, breathing patterns and body posture.

Svadhyaya (self-study): getting to know yourself through a combination of study of scripture along with self-reflection or self-examination.

Isvarapranidhama (devotion): Surrender of the fruits of our practice to something higher than ourselves, however we may conceive that.

3. Asanas (physical postures)

This limb is what many people today recognise yoga as being. Traditionally meaning a 'steady and comfortable' posture, asanas today are comprised of a set of physical exercises which stretch the body leading to increased flexibility, strength and stamina in body, mind and spirit. Asanas are of great benefit to us. They can enable a person to become attuned with the needs of the physical body, the mental & emotional mind and the needs of the spirit. With time the practice ends up being a meditation leading to self-reflection and an increased awareness which then begins to bring harmony to the individual, the family, the community and eventually the wider world.  

4. Pranayama (breath control)

This is the limb where we learn to control the breath through the use of specific yogic breathing techniques including retention techniques at the top and at the bottom of the breath. Through linking the breath to the static, dynamic and flowing yoga postures and sequences we become aware of an increase of energy, a cleansing and strengthening of the central nervous system and the mind becoming calmer and more focused. Through these pranayama techniques we become increasingly aware of the flow of prana (energy) in and out through the body.

5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)

Pratyahara means withdrawal of the senses from the attachment to external objects. By practicing asana, pranayama and meditation the practitioner becomes so inwardly focused that outside events and attachments are not a distraction anymore, leading to self-realisation and internal peace.

6. Dharana (concentration)

Dharana means developing a single pointed mind, a mind which does not jump from one thought or activity to the next. By practicing the steps described above a practitioner begins to develop dharana and thus a great peace begins to settle within and meditation can begin. Indeed by doing asana and pranayama a practitioner’s practice becomes a type of dharana where in certain moments it is possible to discover great stillness and concentration within an asana and breathing technique.

7. Dhyana (meditation)

Dhyana is the practice by which there is constant observation of the mind. Observing whether the mind is processing the past, thinking about the future or, ideally, experiencing the present moment. Through the constant observation of the mind a practitioner begins to sharpen the mind and concentration leading to a greater understanding of the self and also experiencing the unity of the universe.

8. Samadhi (enlightenment)

Finally, we have Samadhi. This is the ultimate aim of Patanjali's yoga. It is where a person is in complete harmony, where there is no more jumping from one thing to the next and the person is not attached to emotions or external objects. An individual flows with life and what it brings knowing that even the most challenging situation contains some sort of opportunity for development. The individual at this point resides in ananda, that state of pure bliss.

Finding Out More

If you want to find out more why not come along to one of our Satsangs where we discuss various aspects of the history and philosophy of yoga, whilst sharing good food, cakes and company? Or why not join one of Ben's courses on yoga history entitled In Search of the Essence of Yoga? Check here for when the next course is running.

Below is a list of further resources for finding out more about the history and philosophy of yoga:

For a comprehensive overview check out The Yoga Tradition or any other work by Georg Feuerstein.

Another excellent source for the philosophy and history of yoga, this time with a focus on Tantra, is scholar-practitioner Chistopher Hareesh Wallace. His book entitled Tantra Illuminated is, in the opinion of Ben, one of the best out there.

For an alternative and more feminist perspective on yoga and Tantra you cannot go wrong with Uma Dinsmore-Tuli who has published an excellent book called Yoni Shakti, a women’s guide to power and freedom through yoga and Tantra.

There are many translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on the market. The ones we have read are by Sri Swami Satchidananda and this more academic one by Edwin Bryant.

Swami Nishchalananda Saraswati is the director and spiritual head of Mandala Ashram in Wales. He has a deep knowledge of the yoga tradition. Find out about him and his writings at the Mandala Ashram site.

In addition to the above, almost any book published by the Bihar school of yoga is usually full of great insight and wisdom. Most of them are stocked by the Sheffield Satyananda School.

If you can get hold of them, we also highly recommend the set of 6 DVDs by Carlos Pomeda called 'The Wisdom of Yoga'. Although the production values may be low, and the price quite high, the content itself is excellent. These DVDs are full of insights about the historical development of yoga.

Finally, please feel free to ask Ben or Jo about more advice on what to watch or read!