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What is Yoga, Really?

Many people practice yoga every day. They do so for its benefits to strength, balance, flexibility, mindfulness, mood, and a host of other reasons. Most of us know that Yoga has a history in spiritual practice, but few know what that history is. From its historical beginning thousands of years ago, to the key elements still practiced today, yoga's spiritual and physical elements can benefit everyone, regardless of their spiritual beliefs.  We live in a world rich with diversity of faiths, cultures and religions.  The practice of yoga has tenants that are familiar to people of all faiths and backgrounds.  Most denominations believe in the union and communion of the people on Earth.  So does yoga.  Every world religion underlines the need for gratitude to a higher power.  We all long for protection from evil, forgiveness and good health.

The symbols of yoga, such as the chakras, pranas and mandalas, are not meant to be exclusive, or divisive.  Yoga never wishes that anyone does anything contrary to their foundational beliefs.  Everyone is welcome to join in the meditation and movement, which are simply the joining together of the mind and body.

The legend of the first yogi

Although there are many historical accounts, it is widely believed that Shiva is the adiyogi — or first yogi. A yogi is a person who practices Yoga. Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu make up the holy trinity of the Hindu religion. These are the supreme gods that are responsible for the creation and protection of the universe.

It is said that thousands of years ago, Shiva discovered Yoga during his successful attempt to achieve enlightenment. Many observed a positive change in Shiva and sought to learn his secrets. Lost in his own calm, Shiva ignored these requests until 7 disciples proved that they had the thirst for knowledge required to fully understand his teachings.

After teaching the 7 disciples the foundation of Yoga, Shiva sent them off in seven different directions to spread the word and teach others how to begin on the path of enlightenment.

The Etymology and Deeper Meaning of the Name

Yoga is a Sanskrit word. Sanskrit is an ancient language with deep roots in India. It was the high language of many religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, and early Judeo-Christian manuscripts. The language is one of the earliest recorded members of the Indo-European language family, the language family that English and most of the world's popular languages belong to.

The literal meaning of Yoga is perhaps better explained by another word with the same origin, yoke. Yoga is a yoking, or in other words, a union. As with any spiritual issue, the meaning of what it is a union of can vary among many different interpretations.

It is not hard to see though, that yoga combines the power of the mind, the body, and the soul. Bringing about the union of all of these elements allows you to shut out the outside world and focus on your inner well-being, much like Shiva when long lines of men came up to him seeking his secrets.

The Roots of Modern Yoga

Much of what constitutes modern yogic practice, however, does not come from 15,000 years ago with Shiva, but rather from the 3rd or 4th century BC from the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita, as it is also called, is an important spiritual text of the Hindu religion. In it, Prince Arjuna is facing a moral dilemma. War seems inevitable, but he is concerned about the loss of life that it will bring. He asks his advisor, Krishna for advice. It is this advice that is laid out in the Gita.

This advice lays out three paths of yoga. These paths provide guidance for both action and thoughts. Although they were seen then as spiritual paths to enlightenment, they are universal truths that are still applicable to modern secular life.

Diverse class of yoga practitioners in a studio

Yoga's Spiritual Origins

The three paths of yoga are laid out below. You can see the universal aspects or morality and reflection that are present in them and can imagine why they have endured for thousands of years.

  • Karma Yoga - This is the path of action. It teaches that one's actions should be for the benefit of others, without thought to one's own personal gain.
  • Bhakti Yoga - The path of devotion. Historically, this would have meant devotion to a god. It can also mean devotion to any worthwhile and fulfilling endeavor.
  • Jnana Yoga - The path of knowledge. In a yogic context, knowledge refers to philosophical questions, such as "Who am I?" or "What am I?" These are the types of questions best answered through meditation and deep inner thought.

The Yoga Sutras

Written around the same time as the Gita, the Yoga Sutras define 8 principles of yoga. These principles were written in the form of sutras, or short memorable expressions of truth. The sutras fall into the following eight broad categories.

  • Yamas - Ethical rules
  • Niyama - Virtuous habits
  • Asana - Postures
  • Pranayama - Breathing
  • Pratyahara - Awareness
  • Dharan - Concentration
  • Dhyana - Reflection
  • Samadhi- Union

Yoga's Evolution

We've talked a lot about spirituality, but haven't said a word about upward dogs, or downward dogs, or any of the other poses that you think of when you think yoga. We mentioned early how the interpretation of what yoga is a union of varies. Up until this point in the story, the body didn't play a key role in yogic teachings. If anything, it was seen as an obstacle to enlightenment. A mere vessel with little worth of its own.

This changed with the advent of tantric yoga. Tantric yoga teaches that, rather than being useless, the body is just as sacred as any god. Now, tantric yoga is associated with adult activities, but its origins are more general than that.

The tantric teachings that the body is sacred naturally led to a desire to care for the body, to treat one's body as a temple. It was through this desire that practitioners began to mimic the movements of animals. Upward dog, downward dog, suddenly the origin of those names begins to make sense. This style of body-inclusive yoga is referred to as Hatha yoga, it is what we most commonly associate with yoga today.

Yoga philosophy for everyone

You needn't practice the Hindu religion to benefit from the philosophy of yoga, nor does it need to conflict with your own religious or spiritual beliefs. The truths that yoga focuses on are universal and can be applied to any belief system. From the very beginning when Prince Arjuna struggles with the loss of life, we see that yoga views life as sacred. This is a principle shared by almost all religious and secular moral systems. So too are the concepts of self-reflection, devotion to goals, and treating others as you would want to be treated.

You can bring yoga into your daily practice by staying mindful of these four yogic precepts.

  • Value life - See the value in, and show appreciation for living things all around you. By showing appreciation for their life, you will develop a deeper appreciation for your own.
  • Meditate - Meditation, and the proper breathing exercises that come with it, allow us to reflect on — or set aside — the problems facing us in our daily lives. Whether as a relief from stress, or a path to find solutions to your problems, meditation will aide in improving your state of mind.
  • Find your meaning - Discover what it is in life that brings you the greatest fulfillment, and make sure that you take time every day to work towards that thing. This will ensure that no matter how rough your day was, a part of it will always be filled with joy and a sense of accomplishment.
  • Be mindful of Karma - Even if you don't believe that your bad actions are going to come back to you, treating others with respect and dignity will not only invite them to do the same for you but will help you shed anger and other negative emotions.

It's our hope that we've begun to de-mystify yoga culture and history.  If you've enjoyed this post, or would be interested in more posts of this type, please let us know here.

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