Yoga is a classical Indian science dealing with the search for the soul. The word ‘Yoga’ signifies both the way to discovery of the soul and union with it. It is an ancient natural system of physical, mental, and spiritual culture designed to increase vitality, produce rejuvenation, attain spiritual awareness of one’s own perfection and to achieve harmony with all material manifestations as well as the subtle yet powerful unseen universal energies.
Philosophers and mystics developed and perfected yoga over the centuries in ancient India. Yoga is so comprehensive that it deals with every aspect of life and delves into the very nature of reality. It is a method by which we can increase the body’s supply of life force or bio-energy and remove any interference to the transmission of this energy, throughout the mind and body. Yoga has specialised in this subject for thousands of years and is an unsurpassed means of attaining your full, unlimited potential.
The great sage, Patanjali, systemised most of the yoga philosophy in a single treatise called the Yoga Sutras some 2000 years ago. These yoga sutras are acknowledged by most yoga practitioners of today. Patanjali divided Yoga into eight aspects or limbs known as Astanga. The limbs are interlinked and have numerous facets that are revealed through the study of the texts. They lead progressively to the higher stages of awareness and to spiritual life.
The eight limbs of yoga each play their part in achieving spiritual life and harmony:
1. Yama, the first limb, gives the basis of moral behaviour.
2. Niyama, the second limb, develops a self-discipline and contented mind.
3. The third limb, Asana, are the yoga postures. They build a healthy, strong body which has a direct impact on the state of mind.
4. Pranayama, meaning ‘breath control’, deals with powerful energising and healing techniques.
5. Pratyahara, which means ‘the withdrawal from outside stimuli’, develops a deep tranquility forming a receptive base for meditation practices.
6. Dharana is the limb of concentration.
7. Dhyana, which is meditation, enhances the state of inner peace, preparing the soul for immersion in the bliss of the eighth limb of Samadhi.
8. Samadhi is the union of the soul with the divine.
Yoga is also closely allied to another philosophical system known as Sankhya. Sankhya systematises ancient Vedic concepts about the nature of the universe and creation. These concepts form the background to yoga philosophy. Veda understands that the universe consists of two distinct principles, which in Sanskrit are known as Prakriti and Purusa.
Prakriti, which is the substance of the material world, is indestructible and eternal. It has three qualities called Gunas. The Gunas together in various combinations are present in every aspect of the entire created world. They are present for example in the weather, your emotions, the type of food you choose to eat. Sattva, the first guna, is represented in the quality of light, intelligence and peace. For example, if your mood is peaceful and meditative, this is a Sattvic state. Rajas, the second guna, is the quality of energy and motivation. Being active in daily life with a driving force is a rajisticstate. Tamas, the last guna, is the quality of mass and material substance. It is by far the least subtle of energies. A tamasic state, for example, would be a feeling of tiredness and depression.
Purusa is the spiritual essence of pure consciousness. It is also indestructible and eternal. It is referred to as the ‘atmon’, meaning the inner self of all beings. The interaction of Prakriti and Purusa according to this philosophy results in creation.
Yoga philosophy deals with the most profound of mysteries, the essential nature of the human being in relation to the universe. Another wonder is the yoga text, the Bhagavad Gita, which forms the scriptural portion of the famous text, the Muhabharata. This describes a dialogue between God (Lord Krishna) and his devotee, Arjuna. Many profound truths and parables are found here and it discusses the different aspects of yoga such as the yoga of action (Karma Yoga), the yoga of intellect (Jnana Yoga) and the yoga of Devotion (Bhakti Yoga).
Types of Yoga
While there are many different paths of yoga each aim at achieving a oneness with God or the universe. To reach this desired goal of pure consciousness or oneness, all paths and philosophies are interrelated. Depending on individual personalities and preferences, one may be guided or attracted to Hatha (the yoga of postures and breath control), Raja Yoga (meditative practice), Tantric Yoga (practice of becoming aware of the unseen energy channels known as chakras) or the many other yoga forms that can quench the spiritual seeker.
For thousands of years the yogis have turned their minds inward and discovered their true nature. They recognise that all human beings are searching for happiness, it is just that most people settle for the brief, watered-down version of temporary pleasures. They acknowledge that people who commit crimes such as stealing money are really searching for happiness for they are under the delusion that money will bring happiness.
Pleasure and Pain
Yoga states that at some time during the evolution of the spirit (over many lifetimes) people will eventually become dissatisfied with brief, temporary pleasures and, when ready, start the quest for eternal bliss. Methods for finding this eternal and inner bliss were perfected and developed by many great yoga masters over the centuries. They consider that nature's laws are so designed that human beings must evolve. Pain and suffering is the main mechanism of the laws of the universe which propels human evolution.
The yoga masters maintain that when people do not derive happiness or a sense of purpose, human nature is such that eventually after pain, suffering and desperation, they may start looking more deeply into life, in search for peace and purpose. The powers of the universe wait patiently for humans to reach this stage. Once the quest for inner peace and awareness is initiated, so the journey to inner knowing and lasting happiness begins.
The most commonly practised yoga, Hatha Yoga, is the basis of much modern day yoga and has numerous benefits. Hatha Yoga works on the mind and body at the same time, as well as exploiting their interdependence. No western system does this. Western psychology studies the mind, western exercise studies the effects on the body but there is little or no emphasis on the interrelationship of the mind and body. Yoga postures, or asanas, and breathing deal with the physical body but, owing to their effect on the brain, they also affect the mind.
To understand how yoga works it is necessary to understand the yogic concept of prana. The beneficial effects of yoga can be explained by the increase in blood circulation and oxygen to the brain, glands and internal organs but this is not the full explanation of yoga’s effects. Advanced yogis, who are clairvoyant, can see a subtle energy flow in the body. This energy flow occurs in non-physical energy channels called ‘nadis’. The yogis maintain that there are literally thousands of nadis or energy channels running throughout the non-physical body. Where there is a concentrated conglomeration of nadis, the yogis called these major energy centres chakras.
Occultists in all cultures and ages have maintained that there exists in the air, water, food, sunlight and everywhere, a substance or principle from which all activity, energy, power and vitality are derived. While they have used different names for this force, the basic concept remains the same. In Sanskrit, ‘prana’ means absolute energy or life force.
Prana is the essence of all motion, force or energy and is manifested in gravitation, electricity and all forms of life. We are constantly inhaling air charged with prana and extracting prana from the air for the body to use for its various functions. In normal breathing we absorb and extract sufficient prana for the normal body functions but, by doing yoga breathing exercises or pranayama, we extract a much greater supply of prana. This extra prana is stored away in the nerve centres, producing vitality and a reserve of energy to be drawn upon when necessary.
Prana, once it enters the body, is taken up by the nervous system and your activities and stressful lifestyles gradually diminish our supply. Even the messages transmitted from the brain to all parts of the body along the nerves (called nerve impulses by modern science) are known by the yogis to be just another manifestation of prana. Without it, the heart could not beat and none of the other organs could function.
Hatha Yoga also deals with the physical body - the poses or asanas are designed to benefit the spine, glands and internal organs. The asanas work on more than one aspect of the body at the same time. For example the twist asana benefits the spine, adrenal glands, liver, pancreas and kidneys, facilitates deep breathing and, through the stillness of the pose, stills the mind.
The asanas produce their beneficial effect on the organs and glands in three major ways. Firstly, the position of the asana causes an increase in blood circulation to the specific organ or gland. Secondly the position of the asana often produces a slight squeezing of the organ or gland. This has the effect of massaging the organ or gland and stimulating it. Thirdly, deep breathing and focus on the target area sends an extra supply of the healing energy, prana.
The poses also benefit the spine and help to create flexibility and strength. This ensures a good nerve supply to all parts of the body, since the nerves from the spine go to all the organs and glands. The effect is a strengthened nervous system and a calmer state of mind. Because of yoga’s rejuvenating effects on the glands and nervous system, including the brain, the results are a positive, healthy mental/emotional state of being.
Yoga also promotes healthy endocrine systems, the ductless glands that secrete powerful hormones that control growth, weight and size. They determine metabolism, vitality, sexual vigour and emotional states. The most important glands are the pituitary, pineal, thyroid, adrenal, pancreas and sex glands. The pituitary and pineal are situated in the brain, the thyroid is in the neck area, the adrenals and pancreas in the solar plexus area and the sex glands in the pelvic region.
Since the pituitary and pineal are situated in the brain, the well known asana, the headstand, has a powerful effect on them. The thyroid gland secrets a hormone called thyroxine and, if not enough thyroxine is secreted, the metabolism becomes sluggish and weight gain is usually results. If too much thyroxine is secreted, the metabolism speeds up, resulting in a nervous disposition and weight loss. The adrenal glands produce a variety of hormones, the major one being adrenalin. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormone because it prepares the body for the extra effort required to meet danger, cope with stress or carry out a difficult task. Cortisone is another major hormone produced by the adrenals. It plays a part in the immune system, is vital for healthy skin and naturally reduces swelling of joints.
The pancreas secretes two hormones, insulin and glycogen, which help to balance the body's blood sugar levels. The hormones secreted by the sex glands are important not only for sexual virility but also healthy skin and balanced, happy dispositions.
The asanas as described above have a powerful healing effect on the brain, spine and glands and they also benefit the internal organs and increase the efficiency of the digestive system. Even the food consumed, if nourishing, has to be digested properly and the toxins eliminated efficiently. The asanas result in an improved blood and nerve supply to the digestive and eliminative systems. The asanas produce a stretching effect on the joints and cause the secretion of a lubricant called synovial fluid which keeps them supple. Even the stretching of the skin during the pose stimulates the cells of the skin resulting in firmer, healthier skin.
When the body receives the full benefits of asana, the mind is controlled through pranayama, and the senses are subdued through pratyahara, then the true benefits, the fruits of yoga, are experienced. Yoga prepares the mind and body traditionally for a conscious focus on the spiritual centre, to make contact with the soul. To make contact with the soul or go within, meditation (Patanjali’s ‘seventh limb’) is practised.
Meditation is a profoundly moving spiritual experience that brings about a control of the senses and the mind, leading to an awakening to the higher levels of being. Meditation is one of the golden keys to life and opens up experiences of enrichment, greater awareness and joy. Meditation is the state of being with oneself, right now. It also has physiological and psychological benefits; it releases energy within the body which can be used for healing and releasing stress. The breathing begins to slow down, the heart rate and blood pressure drop and the muscles relax and physiologically release stress as the mind begins to settle.
Meditation brings calmness in attitude and things which used to distress will become inconsequential. Memory improves and so does concentration. One is able to accomplish more in a day and have more energy. Life becomes effortless and, as the awareness grows within, a deep understanding and loving compassion is expressed to all sentient beings and the universe as a whole.
Yoga is a powerful tool that allows a physical, mental and emotional release, strengthening and purifying the mind and body. It works on all systems of the being. This is designed as preparation for the search within, unlocking the treasures of inner power and strength, creativity and sensuality, unconditional love and compassion, universal intellect, natural psychic abilities and a deep connection with the Earth and the universal energies. It is a system of letting go or surrendering all that does not serve your higher purpose. Then, and only then, can you experience (if only for a moment) the perfection and beauty within you and all that exists.