What’s is Yoga?
Nowadays, yoga is mostly known in Western societies as a physical exercise. Although it is differentiated from other exercises like Fitness, CrossFit or Pilates for involving a mental and spiritual side, the main attention goes to asanas (postures) and it’s done in order to have a healthy body.
The word “yoga” derived from the Sanskrit word “yug”, to unite or bring together. On one hand, the basic meaning of it is to unite body, mind and soul. So, it’s a practice that directly relates a healthy body with a healthy state of mind. In order to achieve that, it involves physical elements, asana & pranayama (breathing techniques), and mental elements like meditation, which is applied to our current practice in form of Shavasana (final relaxing pose).
On the other hand, the ultimate goal of the traditional practice was to yoke the inner-self or soul (atman) with the eternal or universal-self (Brahman). In Hinduism, Brahman (the God) is a universal energy, found everywhere, also inside of us. The only obstacle and problem that Hinduism finds separating both selves is ignorance. Therefore, in order to reach that goal, we have to cultivate our mind, as well as our body. It requires discipline (everyday practice) and dedication.
As yoga is an integrative and holistic practice, it’s benefits are found physically, physiologically and psychologically.
- Physically it strengthens and protects our muscles, joints and bones, preventing injuries and future illnesses like osteoporosis. It also perfects our posture and increases flexibility.
- Physiologically yoga works in all the body systems: it improves blood flow, turning in a more purified and oxygenated blood and healthy heart, increases digestion and respiration and regulates the glands, among others. This ultimately translates into a more efficient body, better sleep and more energy, which will have an impact on how we feel.
- Psychologically it boosts our mood because we feel better and energetic. It also improves concentration and learning efficiency. As you go deeper into your yoga practice, you will feel more mental clarity and stability and, through awareness, you will slowly start to become conscious of your feelings and emotions and are going to be able to control them.
As it works on different levels (body & mind), it has not only succeeded as a practice to reduce stress and deal with our daily life, but also as an alternative therapy for a wide range of illnesses, from mental and psychosomatic disorders like depression and eating disorders, until chronic health problems like asthma, arthritis or diabetes.
HISTORY: Where does Yoga come from?
We can distinguish between 3 periods:
Yoga was originated in India, in the Indus Valley civilization (currently Rishikesh) about 5.000 years ago. It was first found in the sacred texts, starting by the Rig Veda. The Vedas are a collection of texts containing songs, mantras and rituals to be used by Brahmans, the Vedic priests to conduct ceremonies. They got refined in the Upanishads, which are a compilation of writings that adapted the concept of sacrifice to the sacrifice of the ego through different types of yoga: self-knowledge (Jnana Yoga), Action (Karma Yoga) and Devotion (Bhakti) to achieve the ultimate goal to become one with the universal energy. By that time, yoga was only a meditative practise and the only poses mentioned where meditative ones The most known writing is Bhagavad-Gîtâ, composed around 500 B.C.E.
The Classical Period started with Patanjali, who created Raja Yoga or, as it is known now, Hatha Yoga. He put all the previous knowledge of yoga into a system in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. He divided the practice of yoga into 8 different steps and limbs, The 8 limbs of Yoga, where you progress one step at a time but it functions as a whole system at the end, with the final goal of attaining Samadhi (enlightenment, union of the atman with Brahman).
The asanas (physical postures) are just one step of the whole system. From that point, yoga became a holistic practice, which has to be applied in the lifestyle.
The 8 steps of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are:
- Yamas: Your behaviour towards the world: how you eat, speak, act…
- Niyamas: Your behaviour towards yourself: hygiene, cultivating knowledge and studying, your mood… It also refers to some purification and cleaning techniques.
- Asanas: taking care of your body through the poses
- Pranayama: breathing techniques that help us to move from the physical body into inner layers
- Pratyahara: the conscious process of withdrawal of the outward senses in order to be fully aware of the one-self and turn our attention and thoughts inwards.
- Dharana: having a focused, concentrated, one-pointed mind.
- Dhyana: meditation, a state of deep rest and awareness
- Samadhi: the mind and the sense of your own identity and ego (atman, inner-self) dissolves through meditation with the universal soul (Brahman).
Few centuries after Patanjali, a group of yogis created Tantra Yoga, separating these two major paths. Tantra Yoga is focused on attaining Samadhi and enlightenment through the control of the energies in a conscious manner.
In the 1920s and 30s, there was a boom in India of Hatha Yoga and personalities like Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and Swami Sivananda influenced the yoga scene and its transformation.
- Krishnamacharya opened the first Hatha Yoga school in Mysore (India) in 1924 and had 4 important disciples who followed his legacy and became popular for creating their own style of yoga: B.K.S. Iyengar, T.K.V. Desikachar, his son, Indra Devi, the first foreign yogini, and Pattabhi Jois.
Krishnamacharya introduced innovative elements taken from the western gymnastics to the asana practice, creating a dynamic style, known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which highly influenced the posterior creation of contemporary styles like Vinyasa Flow or Power Yoga.
B.K.S Iyengar founded Iyengar Yoga, a slow and methodically style focused on the correct alignment of the asana while breathing properly. He introduced and popularized the usage of props (blocks, belts, straps…) to adjust and go deeper into the pose, due to his students usually presented different injuries.
Pattabhi Jois was the creator of Ashtanga Yoga, an advance and vigorous style. In 1948 he established the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore. He also actively transmitted yoga to the West on the 20th century.
Swami Sivananda Saraswati was a guru and yogi and founded the Divine Life Society (a spiritual yoga organization currently found all over the world) in 1936, wrote more than 300 books on yoga and opened 9 ashrams and many yoga centers around the globe. He created his own yoga style. The Sivananda style is an integrative approach to yoga, teaching the 4 paths of Hatha Yoga: reaching enlightenment through Karma (action), Bhakti (Devotion), Raja (8 limbs of yoga) and Jnana (Knowledge).
In the 1980s and 90s, Yoga became very popular in the West and gave birth to new styles created from the fusion of Western physical exercises and the asana yoga practice. Currently, we can find a huge new variety of yoga styles, apart from the more traditional ones, such us Prenatal Yoga, Yin Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Hot Yoga…