Yoga is not a religion, nor does it require that a practitioner give up her religion. Rather, Yoga combines philosophical theory with physical and mental practice. Yoga is a Sanskrit word that means union or yoking. Yoga strives for a union between the individual and universal soul.The semi-mythical sage Patanjali is considered in the Indian tradition to be the author of many classical works, including books on Yoga. In his mythic manifestation, he is the incarnation of the serpent Ananta (also known as “The Infinite One”). This snake served as the bed for Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the world, before he began creating it.
It is said that Patanjali was born of a highly spiritual woman named Gonika when he fell into her hands as a tiny snake at the same time she was offering water to the Sun. His name comes from pata, or snake, and anjali, or hands folded in prayer. His icon is a man’s torso and the coiled tail of a snake.
Patanjali’s master work and the authoritative Yoga reference work is the Yoga Sutra, or the Yoga of Eight Limbs, which he wrote around 200 BCE.
The eight limbs, or ashtanga, of Yoga, are discussed by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra.
Yama teaches nonviolence (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), nonstealing (asteya), chastity (brahmscarya) and non-covetousness (aparigraha). There should be no harm to an living creature in thought, word or deed. Yama stresses ethical behavior. This is the limb of discipline.
Niyama deals with personal practices, including a clean mind and body (sauca), contentment (santosa), fervor for a subject (tapas), study of self (syadhayaha) and surrender of thoughts and actions to God (Isvarapranidhana), which contribute to self-discipline and contentment. This is the limb of restraint.
Asanas, or Yoga postures, are the most familiar to Western practitioners. They need to be practiced continually for mastery and perfection. This leads to a strong, healthy body and a mind in harmony and the disappearance of misleading dualities separating the self and the body. Asanas are steady (sthira) and joyful (sukham). There are said to be 840,000 asanas. This is the limb of physical practice.
Pranayama, or yogic breathing, should be practiced only by proficient Hatha Yoga practitioners. It involves the regulation and refinement of the breath, which is broken down into air and universal life force (prana). This is said to lead to introspection and tranquility and make it easier to absorb spiritual knowledge. This is the limb of breath control.
Pratyahara consists of drawing in the senses from the external world into the interior world, which, like pranayama, creates a spirit of introspection and tranquility. This is the limb of sense withdrawal.
Dharana teaches uninterrupted concentration on one object or point, which needs constant practice but helps create inner peace. This is the limb of concentration.Dhyana is related to the previous limb, Dharana, and uses meditation to increase concentration. This is the limb of meditation.
Samadhi is the ultimate ashtanga, a state of truth, bliss and absorption of consciousness into the soul that is rarely reached. This is the limb of ecstasy.
Besides the works of Patanjali, other classical Yoga texts include the Vedas, which are considered to be revelations from God. Part of the Vedas are the Upanishads, which deal with the nature of the universal soul.
The Puranas are popular narratives that, among other subjects, discuss asanas, or Yoga postures.
The Ramahana and the Mahabharata are stories about the various incarnations of God and contain characters that practice Yoga.
The well-known Bhagavad Gita is part of the Mahabharata and consists of a dialogue between Lord Krishna (God) and Arjuna (his follower) on the eve of a battle. As well, it discusses the various branches of Yoga.
There are seven classical types of Yoga.
The most widely practiced, particularly in the West, is Hatha Yoga, which teaches liberation through kundalini-each person’s divine power-by practicing asanas, kriyas (cleansing procedures using water and cloth), pranayama (breathing exercises that deal with energy flow, and bandhas (closing actions) to prevent loss of energy.
Raja Yoga seeks the union of mind and soul through contemplation and meditation and produces samadhi, or enlightenment.
Mantra Yoga teaches the achievement of perfection through reciting sacred syllables, or mantras.
Laya Yoga advocates reaching perfection through the letting go of individuality and practicing absorption, or laya, in God.
Bhakti Yoga practices dedication to, and participation in, the Divine and is the yoga of devotion.
Karma Yoga is the yoga of achieving freedom in action by cultivating an inner attitude of egolessness.
Jnana Yoga is the yoga of self-knowledge and uses willpower along with reason to distinguish between reality and unreality.
In addition to these ancient approaches to Yoga, there is Integral Yoga, also known as Purna Yoga, or the yoga of finding the Divine in yourself and the world around you. It was adapted from the older yogas by the philosopher and mystic Sri Auribindo in order to appeal to modern Westernized minds.
The important point to remember is that no matter which path a Yoga practitioner embarks upon, all of them are designed to lead to self-transcendence and liberation of the spirit.