What is Yoga?

These days the word "yoga" seems to be everywhere. It appears in the contexts of fitness and sports, healing of injuries and diseases, concentration and mental discipline, stress reduction, spiritual practice and on and on.. But what is this suddenly popular idea really about?

The word conjures up many images, including emaciated Indians in contorted postures, swallowing rags, levitating above the ground, and meditating for unreasonably long periods of time. In most cases, the practice is generally understood to be a physical discipline involving particular postures and possibly some breathing techniques. In my experience, the most common reasons people explore yoga are to increase flexibility and enhance/facilitate relaxation. In the United States the most common yoga practice is hatha yoga, that part of yoga that involves the body and breath.

Its effects of relaxation, increased flexibility, strength, vitality, improved concentration and immune system function are now well known and documented. Use of hatha in healing musculo-skeletal problems and training athletes and dancers is in the news daily.

While all of the effects mentioned above are indeed the results of hatha yoga practice, they are merely side effects of a much bigger purpose. Great side effects, to be sure, yet there are far more profound effects to be discovered within the heart of yoga.

Hatha, in fact, is only a small part of yoga.

The overall discipline of yoga involves the mind-and the mind's control over every aspect of our existence-biological, mental, emotional, and creative. The goal of yoga is to peel away the layers of obscurity that cloud our ability to see clearly. This clarity comes from a place within that is innate, immutable and perfect. When we operate from that perfect place of awareness our actions will relate to reality rather than our "clouded" perceptions of it. Such actions will never result in suffering.

T. K. V. Desikachar, reknowned yogi and son of the revered Sri Krishnamacharya, said, "The ultimate goal of yoga is that we always observe correctly, and therefore, we never act regrettably." Yoga is about enhancing our lives in all ways. The purpose of yoga is to diminish suffering.

According to ancient texts, there are eight "limbs" of yoga. The term "limb" (rather than "steps") expresses the idea that all parts of yoga evolve simultaneously, in a somewhat unpredictable manner, much like the growth of limbs on a tree. practice Yoga is not a series of consecutive steps, one contingent upon completing the last, but an ever-changing process, clearing away the mental obscurities that prevent us from seeing clearly. Of these eight limbs, only two are specific practices to be consciously done with an object in mind. The others evolve as results of these practices and the changes they make in our lives.

The Sanskrit names for the eight limbs are as follows:

Yama -attitudes toward other people and our world

Niyam -attitudes about ourselves

Asana -practice of using/improving the body

Pranayama -practice of using/controlling the breath

Pratyahara -use and restraint of our senses

Dharana -ability to direct the mind

Dhyana -ability to interact with the object of our concentration

Samadhi -absorption within the object of our concentration

The ancient texts of yoga are practical and surprisingly modern! They are universal techniques-applicable to all. Anyone can benefit from this discipline. There are various approaches to yoga. One personality type might approach yoga through study and knowledge of the ancient texts, another might choose the avenue of devotion, or of service, or through mastery of the body. Most important is the desire to grow, to enhance one's life-to see clearly, and at every moment to act unregrettably.