What is yoga? A short introduction

YogaYoga is a word in Sanskrit which means "union" or "to unite" and is an ancient tradition originating from India. Many people have an idea of what yoga is but are often (partly) wrong. What we in the west more often than not expect from yoga is primarily a physical kind of fitness program which focusses on stretching the muscles. Yoga is much more than this however.

When you go to a yoga class in typically any Western country this class is often focussed on performing yoga postures (yoga asana's) that do not only increase the flexibility of the body, but also primarily build strength in the muscles. In the far east, from which yoga originates, the yogis also practice the physical postures, but there is often a higher focus on the spiritual aspect of yoga, namely that of meditation and attaining spiritual enlightenment (Samadhi in Sanskrit). In this article we will first take a close look at the goals of yoga, after this we will discuss for who yoga is suited and then we discuss the different styles of yoga. Finally in this article the three paths of yoga are discussed and also the yoga sutra's of Patanjali: the centuries' old scriptures in which the science of yoga was first depicted.

Goals of yoga

To answer the question "what is yoga" it may be most beneficial to first look at what the goals of yoga are. Because there are so many different kinds of yoga, there are also many different goals in yoga and yoga practitioners can have multiple goals in mind whilst practicing yoga.

Flexibility. Often the physical body becomes tense because of taking a bad posture, for instance sitting or standing in a particular manner, and flexibility decreases. By performing a lot of postures in yoga in which you stretch your muscles and connective tissues, these  will elongate and you will start to feel more comfortable in your own skin.
Strength. What a lot of people do not know is that you can become very strong from practicing yoga. In the standing postures a lot of strength is created in the leg muscles. In other postures your arm, shoulder and back muscles will be exercised.
Relaxation. Many people would think of the word relaxation when thinking of yoga. By stretching the muscles of the body you are creating the possibility for your muscles to relax. By focussing your awareness on your breath during a yoga practice your mind and body will become more and more relaxed and calm. Yoga is relaxing!
Spiritual enlightenment. The goal that some have set out for their yoga practice is the attaining of spiritual enlightenment. One can describe this as a state of awareness in which there are no thoughts but you are focussed with your awareness in the here and now.
Weight loss. Yoga can also really work well in losing a few extra pounds. Originally yoga was not meant for this goal in particular, but nowadays there are a lot of styles of yoga like vinyasa yoga, Bikram yoga (hot yoga) and power yoga in which you move a lot, sweat a lot and burn a lot of calories.
Healing injuries. Yoga is nowadays often practiced to heal injuries. By working on the general posture of the body one might be able to, for instance, reduce chronic back pain. The type of yoga which specialises in the healing of injuries is called Yoga Therapy.

For who is yoga suited?

Often the idea comes to mind that yoga is only for women. This is not true however! There are also many men that practice yoga and it is just as health and fun for man and women alike. Others will say: "but I am not flexible enough", or "I am too old of yoga". This also does not have to be a limiting factor to practice yoga, it can actually be even more beneficial for those that are not flexible or a little older and have a very positive influence on mind and body. Young, old, flexible or a little weighty.... Yoga is for every-body!

Styles of yoga

Nowadays there are a myriad of styles of yoga that are being practiced and the differ quite a lot from each other. See here below a short overview:

Hatha yoga is a static form of yoga in which you do not do too many different yoga postures within the timespan of a class, the postures are held for longer periods of time compared to other styles of yoga and there is not all too much movement between postures.
In Hatha Flow there is more movement between the different postures, but it is quite similar to Hatha yoga.

Vinyasa flow or Vinyasa yoga is very popular nowadays. Usually in a Vinyasa class there is a lot of movement and the postures are held for not too long. This style of yoga is often very exhausting but in the end also energy invigorating, you could call it a good workout! Power yoga is quite similar to Vinyasa yoga, but it is even more focussed on being a workout in which you will sweat a lot.

Whilst in the above mentioned styles of yoga the choice and order of the asanas (postures) is free, it is set in the well known system of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, sometimes simply called Ashtanga Yoga. This style of yoga is quite vigorous and fast paced, most of the postures are only held for five breaths and after each posture the Ashtangi Yogi moves through a series of postures correlated which each inhalation and exhalation. This style of yoga is also very popular but is only recommended for the advance yoga practitioner.

Iyengar yoga is the style of yoga in which there is a lot of focus on the right alignment of the different body parts in each yoga asana. Often yoga practitioners who usually practice different styles of yoga follow a number of Iyengar yoga classes. They do this in order to improve the details of alignment in their postures which they can apply to their preferred style of yoga. Iyengar yoga is highly recommended for every serious yoga practitioner.

Yin yoga is the style of yoga which focusses on relaxation and surrendering of the body and without effort. It is primarily about stretching of the connective tissues through which the body relaxes and finds freedom in movement.

Acro yoga is a mix of yoga and acrobatics. You practice yoga always with two or more people in which one person "flies" and the other forms the base on the mat. Acro yoga is a lot of fun!

Raja yoga is the older branch of yoga in which the 8 stepped plan is followed to reach spiritual enlightenment.

Kundalini yoga focusses on awakening the "serpent energy" that is housed in the first chakra (energy centre).

The three paths of yoga

In the yoga philosophy 3 paths of yoga are described that you can follow.

Jnana yoga - the path of knowledge
Bhakti yoga - the path of love and devotion
Karma yoga - the path of action

Yoga sutra's of Patanjali

According to the ancient scriptures written by sage Patanjali more than 2000 years ago there is a path of yoga that knows 8 steps. Below follows a list with the 8 steps and after this each step will be described shortly.

  1. Yama
  2. Niyama
  3. Asana
  4. Pranayama
  5. Pratyahara
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi

By purifying your self morally you practice the first two steps, yama and niyama. There are 5 yamas and 5 niyamas, a few of them are: no stealing, truthfulness, non-violence, sexual self-control and free of possessiveness. If you can live to these ideals you are practicing the first two steps of yoga successfully.

Asana actually means "to sit comfortably" but it also means "posture". When people say they are going to a yoga class, usually they are going to an Asana class: a class where you do yoga postures. By making your body flexible and powerful you are controlling the subject Asana and you are able to sit still for a long time, a feat required to practice meditation extensively.

Pranayama means the "expansion of the life force energy". Often we mean by the term pranayama particular breathing exercises. In the teachings of yoga there are different breathing techniques with different effects. There are pranayama's which will heat the body and make it active, there are however also different techniques to make the body and mind calm. Often the more active pranayama exercises are performed before the start of yoga asana, whilst the pranayama exercises with a calming effect will be practiced at the end of a yoga class.

Pratyahara means "withdrawal of the senses". The old scriptures of yoga expound upon how to control the senses to withdraw from an object, to for instance not be distracted by a sound or a scent.

Dharana means "concentration". When there is a practice of "meditation" in a yoga class, most often than not the participants are trying to concentrate but are not effectively meditation. Concentrating appears to be quite difficult for most because most people are easily distracted by different sounds but also by their own thoughts. Concentrating can be on a multitude of objects, but only one at a time. Often people that practice yoga will start to concentrate on the breath. You can follow your breath when it comes in through the nose and makes its way down to the abdomen and back up again. You can also focus in the expansion and contraction of the belly or only on the tip of the nose. Other objects to concentrate on can be a flame of a candle (this technique is called Trataka"), the repitition of a mantra in your mind or simply focus on total stillness.

Finally the 6th step, concentratie (Dharana), leads to the 7th step in yoga, Dhyana (meditation). Meditation is the state of awareness in which you are totally focussed on one object and your awareness is absorbed by the object completely. One might say that meditation is very relaxing for body and mind. Recent research shows that meditation has very positive effects on the brain and the brain develops new neural pathways whilst in meditation.

Samadhi is the last step in the 8 steps of yoga as written by Patantali and is translated as the attainment of "spiritual enlightenment". In this state it is said that you feel you are one with the universe and that everything is perfect, a state that is only attained by a few people. But even if you do not reach these last steps of yoga, the practice of the earlier steps can be of a very healthy influence on body and mind for most people.

Concluding remarks

Finally we can say that there are many styles of yoga that all originate from ancient traditions from India. The one style of yoga focusses more on the spiritual nature while another style of yoga focusses more on the development of the human body. Practicing yoga can be very positive for most people.



Article written by: roybor
Times read: 2191x
Added: 18-10-2016 14:13
Last modified: 05-11-2016 13:00

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