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About Yoga Series : Introduction

Friday, March 23, 2007

The "About Yoga" Series which will introduce elements of yoga, yoga philosophy, and history.
atha yoganusasanam
(Translation: With prayers of divine blessings, now begins an exposition on the sacred art of yoga.)
So what is yoga? Yoga stems from the Sanskrit word, yuj, which means "to yoke together" or "union" among several other definitions and can also refer to "spiritual endeavor". Yoga is not simply just postures and some breathing techniques. It is a way of living which is designed to help us reach enlightenment.

According to Sri BKS Iyengar from his book Light on Yoga, "Yoga is one of six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy. It was collated, co-ordinated and systematized by Patanjali in his classical work, the Yoga Sutras, which consist of 185 terse aphorisms. In Indian thought, everything is permeated by the Supreme Universal Spirit (Paramatma or God) of which the individual human spirit (jivatma) is a part. The system of yoga is so called because it teaches the means, by which the jivatma can be united to, or be in communion with the Paramatma, and so secure liberations (moksa)." [1]

Just why are these Yoga Sutras so important? They are physical and spiritual teachings which provide us with a way of living, designed to help us quiet the mind, the ultimate goal for achieving enlightenment. The word Sutra translastes as "thread". As within a typical class, the poses are weaved together around a common theme, which the thread or sutra of the class.

Although there is no mention of specific poses or discourse on which style of physical practice should be followed, it is clear how we should live or act from moment to moment, day to day. The sutras are, in essence, poems which pass on or share information to the listener or reader. Traditionally they were passed down verbally from guru to disciple. To help in the overall understanding of the yogic process, Patanjali divide the sutras into four sections or padas. Each pada expounds on a particular aspect of the overall concept of yoga.

These padas are:

* Samadhi pada - on contemplation
* Sadhana pada - on practice
* Vibhuti pada - on properties and powers
* Kaivalya pada - on emancipation and freedom

In the second verse of the first pada, Patanjali tells us what yoga is and specifically does.

I.2 yogah cittavrtti nirodhah
(Translation: yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness)
By stopping the constant chatter in the mind, we will ultimately be able to achieve the state of Samadhi (profound meditation and complete absorption) which ultimately leads to Kaivalya (liberation, emancipation) which Buddhist refer to as Nirvana. Patanjali places forth this process by giving us an eightfold path as the basis to achieve enlightenment. Because there are eight limbs, many people refer to Patanjali's yoga system as Ashtanga Yoga, ashta (eight), anga (limb). These eight limbs are:

1. Yama - restraints and behavior
2. Niyama - spiritual observances
3. Asana - practice of postures (learning to sit still)
4. Pranayama - Expansion of the vital energy through control of the breath
5. Pratyahara - withdrawal of the senses
6. Dharana - concentration
7. Dhyana - meditation
8. Samadhi - complete absorption

So as you can begin to see, yoga is much more than simply linking some poses together in a class. Underlying the physical work is a matrix which impacts each aspect of our life, both on and off the mat. Even within a daily class, sometimes it is obvious we are working on more than just asanas and pranayama and sometimes it is more subtle. Either way, as we expand on the various aspects of the yoga sutras and delve deeper into their meaning and implications, we hope you will not only gain a greater understanding of yoga, but start to see how it impacts every aspect of your daily life.

Next Issue : Understanding the Yamas

Footnotes: 1. Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar, Schoken Books, New York, 1979.

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