In contemporary times, yoga as a practice has been rebranded and labelled in myriad ways, leading to the discipline losing its essence and true meaning. In order for us to understand the real meaning of the practice, let us first be acquainted with the etymology of the term.
The term yoga has been derived from the Sanskrit word yug meaning ‘to unite’ or ‘integrate’. The origin of this practice can be traced back to almost 5,000 years ago in northern India. The practice was gradually developed over thousands of years and the whole process is documented in sacred texts of the Rig Veda (one of the four sacred canonical texts of Hinduism). Primarily a spiritual discipline, yoga concentrates on the subtle science that focuses on achieving harmony between one’s mind and body. The practice goes beyond the physical asanas that it is popularly associated with, especially in the West. It stands for the union of the mind and body with universal consciousness. The ‘union’ here refers to uniting individual consciousness (individual experience of reality) with divine consciousness (the essence of truth as perceived when all five senses are quiet and reconnected with the Supreme Self within). The ultimate aim of yoga is to achieve self-realization that enables the individual to overcome all kinds of suffering, eventually leading towards the state of liberation (moksha) or freedom (kaivalya). It caters to both the material and spiritual upliftment of humanity.
Historical evidence of the existence of yoga is found in folk traditions, right from the time of the Indus Valley civilization. The great sage Maharshi Patanjali systematized and codified the then existing practices of yoga, its meaning and its related knowledge through a series of ancient texts known as the Yoga Sutras. After Patanjali, many sages and teachers contributed greatly for the preservation and development of the field through their well-documented practices and literature. Today, the practice is commonly misunderstood as being only a therapy, or exercise system, for maintaining physical fitness. While this holds true—as physical fitness and flexibility are natural consequences of consistently practicing yoga—the actual goal and significance of yoga is far more profound and absolute.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali outlined the “Eight Limbs of Yoga”. These inner and outer practices all move toward a scientific method of meditation that enables individuals to perceive their unity with the ever present, ever conscious, blissful spirit.
The first limb is Yamas, which refers to moral qualities individuals need to cultivate in order to reconnect with their true unified nature.
- Ahimsa (Non-violence)
- Satya (Truthfulness)
- Asteya (Non-stealing)
- Brahmacharya (Self-control)
- Aparigraha (Non-attachment)
The second limb comprises the Niyamas, or observances that help integrate inner and outer experiences, helping establish a more harmonious life.
- Saucha (Purification)
- Santosha (Contentment)
- Tapas (Right effort)
- Svadhyaha (Self-reflection)
- Ishvara Pranidhana (Devotion)
The third limb is the most-commonly associated as well as the most widely-practiced aspect of yoga, asanas. Literally meaning ‘posture’ or ‘seat’, asanas refer to the various physical postures that help maintain physical stability while stimulating the physiological systems of the body, such as the circulatory, immune, digestive and nervous systems.
The fourth limb is pranayama or the conscious awareness of breath—the life force that both energizes and relaxes the body. It consists of developing awareness of one’s breathing followed by willful regulation of respiration as the functional or vital basis of one’s existence. Regular pranayama develops mindfulness, discipline and concentration. It enables one to establish control over one’s mind. Pranayama is considered to be a preliminary step to dhyana or meditation.
The practice of withdrawing from the sensory pull of the material world in order to shift inward toward stillness, comprises the fifth limb of yoga. Pratyahara indicates dissociation of one’s consciousness from the senses that are connected to material or external objects. It is considered to be an important bridge between the external focus of the previous limbs of yoga, such as asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing), and the internal focus of the subsequent limbs. By drawing the attention inward, pratyahara reduces disturbances in the mind known as vritti, enabling the peace of mind required for concentration and truly meditative states. This practice is also described as Yoga Nidra, or restorative yoga, as the attention is specifically drawn away from external stimuli.
Literally meaning ‘concentration’ in Sanskrit, dharana is the sixth limb of the eightfold path. Patanjali explains it as the concentration of the mind on a particular object—either external (an image or deity) or internal (chakra). He also states that the last three limbs should be considered together, as they are progressive stages of concentration. Regular practice of dharana enhances yoga practice by improving the practitioner’s ability to remain focused.
The penultimate limb of yoga practice is the stage of meditation. This kind of meditation is taken up only after engaging in preparatory exercises. Reaching this stage requires immense practice, concentration and patience but once the mind is trained to practice dhyana, it will feel significantly calmer, relaxed and more aware of the surroundings. There is greater psychological balance and overall enhanced health and well-being.
Regarded as the pinnacle of all spiritual and intellectual activity, samadhi refers to enlightenment or bliss. This is considered to be the stage in which individual and universal consciousness unite, fulfilling the ultimate goal of yoga. It is a blissful form of total meditative absorption, reached once the practitioner has moved through the preliminary steps on Patanjali’s eightfold path.These eight limbs offer a systematic approach to calming the mind and finding liberation from suffering. While practice and eventual attainment of samadhi may sound complex, each aspect of yoga benefits us physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The true meaning and significance of yoga as a practice is anchored in the quest to find union or universal harmony between the body and mind.