Yoga is a family of ancient Hindu
spiritual practices that originated in India, where it remains a vibrant
living tradition and is seen as a means to enlightenment. Karma Yoga,
Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Raja Yoga are considered the four main
yogas, but there are many other types. In other parts of the world where
yoga is popular, notably the West, Yoga has become associated with the
asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga, which are popular as fitness exercises
and also form the basis of an expanding business.
Yoga as a means to enlightenment is central to Hinduism, Buddhism,
Jainism and has influenced other religious and spiritual practices
throughout the world. Important Hindu texts establishing the basis for
yoga include the Upanishads, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Bhagavad
Gita, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Modern yoga practice often includes
traditional elements inherited from Hinduism, such as moral and ethical
principles, postures designed to keep the body fit, spiritual
philosophy, instruction by a guru, chanting of mantras (sacred
syllables), breathing exercises, and stilling the mind through
meditation. These elements are sometimes adapted to meet the needs of
non-Hindu practitioners, who may be attracted to yoga by its utility as a
relaxation technique or as a way to keep fit.
Proponents of yoga see daily practice as beneficial in itself, leading
to improved health, emotional well-being, mental clarity, and joy in
living. Yoga advocates progress toward the experience of samadhi, an
advanced state of meditation where there is absorption in inner ecstasy.
The goals of yoga are expressed differently in different traditions. In
theistic Hinduism, yoga may be seen as a set of practice intended to
bring people closer to God - to help them achieve union with God. In
Buddhism, which does not postulate a creator-type god, yoga may help
people deepen their wisdom, compassion, and insight. In Western nations,
where there is a strong emphasis on individualism, yoga practice may be
an extension of the search for meaning in self, and integration of the
different aspects of being. The terms Self-Realization and
god-Realization are used interchangeably in Hindu yoga, with the
underlying belief that the true nature of self, revealed through the
practice of yoga, is of the same nature as God.
The ultimate goal of yoga is the attainment of liberation (Moksha) from
worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). Yoga
entails mastery over the body, mind, and emotional self, and
transcendence of desire. It is said to lead gradually to knowledge of
the true nature of reality. The Yogi reaches an enlightened state where
there is a cessation of thought and an experience of blissful union.
This union may be of the individual soul (Atman) with the supreme
Reality (Brahman), as in Vedanta philosophy; or with a specific god or
goddess, as in theistic forms of Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism.
Enlightenment may also be described as extinction of the limited ego,
and direct and lasting perception of the non-dual nature of the
For the average person still far from enlightenment, yoga can be a
way of increasing one's spiritual awareness, or cultivating compassion
and insight. While the history of yoga strongly connects it with
Hinduism, proponents claim that yoga is not a religion itself, but
contains practical steps which can benefit people of all religions, as
well as those who do not consider themselves religious.
History of Yoga
Images of a meditating yogi from the Indus
Valley Civilization are thought to be 6 to 7 thousand years old. The
earliest written accounts of yoga appear in the Rig Veda, which began to
be codified between 1500 and 1200 BC. It is difficult to establish the
date of yoga from this as the Rig Veda was orally transmitted for at
least a millennium. The first Yoga text dates to around the 2nd century
BC by Patanjali, and prescribes adherence to "eight limbs" (the sum of
which constitute "Ashtanga Yoga") to quiet one's mind and merge with the
The first full description of the principles and goals of yoga are found
in the Upanisads, thought to have been composed between the eighth and
fourth centuries BC.
The Upanisads are also called Vedanta since they
constitute the end or conclusion of the Vedas (the traditional body of
spiritual wisdom). In the Upanisads, the older practises of offering
sacrifices and ceremonies to appease external gods gives way instead to a
new understanding that man can, by means of an inner sacrifice, become
one with the Supreme Being (referred to as Brahman or Mahatman) -
through moral culture, restraint and training of the mind.