Imagine an activity that increases your flexibility, strengthens your muscles, centers your thoughts, and relaxes and calms you. Yoga does all that and more! In this article, I will review a brief history and the philosophy of yoga, the different types of yoga, the benefits, equipment you need to do it, where to do it, how to get started, and a whole lot more.
What is yoga?
Yoga is an ancient physical and spiritual discipline and branch of philosophy that originated in India reportedly more than 5,000 years ago. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means to yoke, join, or unite. The Iyengar school of yoga defines yuj as the "joining or integrating of all aspects of the individual - body with mind and mind with soul - to achieve a happy, balanced and useful life." The ultimate aim of yoga, they claim, is to reach kaivalya(emancipation or ultimate freedom).
Who invented yoga?
There is no written record of who invented yoga because it was practiced by yogis (yoga practitioners) long before any written account of it came into existence. Yogis over the millennia passed down the discipline to their students, and many different schools of yoga developed as it spread. The earliest written record of yoga, and one of the oldest texts in existence, is generally believed to be written by Patanjali, an Indian yogic sage who lived somewhere between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago. Patanjali is credited with writing the Yoga Sutras (sutrameans "thread" in Sanskrit), which are the principles, philosophy, and practices of yoga that are still followed today. Although many schools of yoga have evolved over the centuries, they all follow the fundamental principles described by Patanjali more than 2,000 years ago. Buddhism and other Eastern spiritual traditions use many of the yoga techniques or derivations of those techniques.
How does yoga work?
Yoga uses asanas (postures), focused concentration on specific body parts, andpranayama (breathing techniques) to integrate the body with mind and mind with soul.
Yoga asanas (postures or poses) help condition your body. There are thousands of yoga poses, and in Sanskrit, these poses are called kriyas (actions), mudras (seals), and bandhas (locks). A kriya focuses on the effort necessary to move energy up and down the spine; yoga mudra is a gesture or movement to hold energy or concentrate awareness; and a bandha uses the technique of holding muscular contractions to focus awareness.
Yoga focuses on the mind by teaching you to concentrate on specific parts of the body. For instance, you may be asked by the instructor to focus deeply on your spine, or let your mind go and have your body sink into the floor. This awareness keeps the mind-body connection sharp and doesn't allow a lot of time for external chatter (like worrying about what you're going to have for dinner or the presentation at the office that you're preparing for). Instead, the focus is internal, between your head and your body. An example is savasana (the corpse pose), which is practiced by virtually all schools of yoga. During savasana, you lie on your back with your eyes closed and just let your entire body sink into the floor. The idea is to not fight any thoughts you have, but to let them come and go while the instructor leads you through visual imagery to help you focus on how your muscles feel. The desired and often obtained result is to drift into a peaceful, calm, and relaxing state. Savasana is generally the final pose of a yoga session before final chanting and/or breathing exercises.
Yoga uses controlled breathing as a way to merge the mind, body, and spirit. The breathing techniques are called pranayamas; prana means energy or life force, and yama means social ethics. It is believed that the controlled breathing of pranayamas will control the energy flow in your body. It is my experience that controlled breathing helps me focus on muscles that are working, and during savasana, it slows down my heart rate, calms my mind, and leads to a deep, inner calm and sense of relaxation.