The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root Yuj which means ‘to unite’, ‘to join’, or ‘to attach’. Yoga is an overarching term for a system of spiritual and physical practices which originated in India over 2500 years ago. One of the most famous yogic texts, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is a collection of 196 sutras or aphorisms, which are terse sayings or observations expressing truths or principles. Written by the sage Patanjali sometime shortly after the first millennium, he states the purpose of yoga in the second and most famous sutra:
Swami Vivekananda, a 19th century Indian Hindu monk and a significant figure in the introduction of Yogic philosophy and practice to the Western world translates the sutra as “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).” Essentially, it means that yoga is the practice of attaining a state of consciousness free of the distractions of the external world and focused on God the Supreme Being. The ultimate goal of Yoga is moksha, which is liberation from Maya, the illusion of what we perceive as reality in this life.
Yoga promotes the mobility of the physical body through Āsana and Prānāyāma, and the stilling of the subtle body through Yama, Niyama, Dhāranā, Pratyāhāra, Dhyāna and Samādhi. These are known as the eight limbs of Yoga.
Patanjali describes eight limbs to the practice of yoga:
Yama (Moral Codes)
Ethical rules or moral imperatives of which he outlines five:
- Ahiṃsā: Nonviolence.
- Satya: Truthfulness.
- Asteya: Non-stealing.
- Brahmacārya: Chastity, marital fidelity or sexual restraint.
- Aparigraha: Non-avarice or non-possessiveness.
Niyama (Self Purification)
Virtuous habits, behaviours and observances of which he describes five:
- Śauca: Purity and clearness of body, speech and mind.
- Santoṣa: Contentment, acceptance of others and of one’s circumstances as they are in order to get past or change them, optimism for self.
- Tapas: Persistence, perseverance, austerity.
- Svādhyāya: Study of Vedas, the study of self, self-reflection, introspection of oneself’s thoughts, speeches and actions.
- Īśvarapraṇidhāna: Contemplation of God the Supreme Being, Brahman, True Self, Unchanging Reality.
Āsana (Body Postures)
Physical postures that one steadily maintains, motionless, relaxed and comfortable for a period of time. The pose that causes pain or restlessness is not of yoga.
Prānāyāma (Breath Control)
The practice of consciously regulating the breath to still the mind.
Pratyāhāra (Sense Control)
The process of withdrawing the mind and senses from external distractions. Pratyāhāra is the transition from the first four limbs that perfect external forms to last three limbs that perfect the inner state of being.
Introspective focus and concentration of the mind onto a particular state or subject of one’s mind such as a mantra, the breath, an object or a concept, without drifting.
Contemplation, reflection and profound, abstract meditation, reflecting on whatever Dhāranā has focused on.
Union, joining, combining with or oneness with the subject meditated upon. There is no distinction between the meditator, the meditation or the subject of meditation. Samādhi is a spiritual state where the mind loses its sense of identity, and the meditator, the meditation or the subject of meditation become one.