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What is Yoga  

 

Yoga, in Sanskrit means union - generally interpreted as union with our higher nature. Though Yoga is associated with Hindu culture, Yoga is not a religion, it is a philosophy and methodology to realize our higher nature. Learning our higher nature is a spiritual task and not religious one. 

 

While Yoga has been prevalent for many thousands of years, Patanjali defined and elaborated on Yoga philosophy in his book Yoga Sutras (Yoga aphorisms) in 1st century BC. 

 

Patanjali defines Yoga as Chitta Vritti Nirodha - stopping the movements of feelings - the emotional part of the mind. Yoga considers that mind and especially the emotional part of the mind, acts as an obstruction to understand our real nature. 

 

However, apart from mind, Yoga philosophy has described many parameters that need to be understood and practiced as a part of this path. The major ones are (1) Breath (2) Mind (3) Prana or life energy. 

 

As it can be seen, the philosophy behind Yoga is based on practical observations and many cultures across the word did discover these secrets what ever name they are called. Now let us examine each of these parameters. 

 

Effect of breath 

 

All of us know that when we are calm, our breath is slower and when we are agitated breath is fast. That means breath is closely related to the mental states. Similarly we know that in deep sleep, our breath is deep and slow, our body is relaxed and mind is restful. So our body, mind and breath are interrelated. Yoga uses this practical observation to refine the mind. It may be difficult to control the mind directly but by using breath and body (as in yoga postures) as the media we can relax the mind, calm the mind, thoughts and feelings and eventually go beyond the mind, which is the goal of Yoga. 

 

Various pranayama (meaning control of life force) techniques are available in Yoga in order to improve our breathing and positively influence our mind. In Hatha Yoga, there are yoga postures which help in improving the body flexibility, health and positively influence breath and mind. Many of the postures are combined with pranayama for more effectiveness. 

 

Mind  

 

We have observed in our lives that when we are mentally relaxed, we perform better. When we are inspired and in happy mood, we are healthy and do well. When we are depressed, everything seems to go wrong. So Mind has an influence on the external environment and infact we can create our situations using our mental images. Bhagavad Gita says ‘mind is the friend as well as the enemy’.  At one level, mind has its influence on and around us and we need to learn to refine the mind so as to be able to gain from its creative nature. At the same time, Yoga mentions that we need to go beyond the mind to realize the higher nature.  

 

The techniques to exercise the mind are various concentration exercises, imagining and expansion techniques, meditation etc. 

 

Prana or life force 

 

Yogis realized the subtle nature of the universe. What we see physically is only the tip of the iceberg. The most important subtle factor is Prana or Life force. It is the energy that drives us. Yogananda mentioned that if our bodies can be compared with bulbs, Prana is the electricity that lights them. When we eat, we get ‘physical’ energy which can be interpreted in terms of calories and nutrition. But we also get the subtle energy Prana through our eating. Similarly we get the Prana from water, air (breathing), during sleep, from sunshine etc. Internal to our (subtle) body, there is an energy distribution system which includes Chakras. It is possible to directly get the energy by mental direction of will. Have you observed that when you are happy and inspired you have lots of energy?  

 

At a subtle level, our health depends upon this subtle energy. Chinese Acupuncture and similar techniques are based on this principle.  

 

So Yoga employs the principle of energy in yoga postures and meditation techniques so as to maximize, optimize and allow free flow of energy, which is essential on the path of spiritual progress. 

 

Different paths of yoga 

 

There are different paths of yoga. Hatha Yoga involves yoga postures which is like a foundation in disciplining the body. Bhakti (devotion) yoga involves devotion, karma yoga involves using our day to day work to progress spiritually. Jnana yoga is the wisdom path, using our intellectual reasoning and self enquiry to understand the higher nature and progress.  

 

Each of the paths mentioned are suitable for specific temperaments. If one is more feeling prone, Bhakti yoga can be the right path and if one is more intellect oriented, Jnana yoga is the way. Depending upon each one’s tendencies, one naturally picks up their comfortable path.  

 

However, we can appreciate that while there may be predominant tendencies in us in one direction, there is never a strict separation of these paths. So yoga suggests a combination path, which is the Raja (royal) yoga. Raja yoga is the integral approach involving various practices from different paths of yoga.  

 

The purpose 

 

The whole purpose of the practice of exercising the body, breath and mind is to understand our true nature which is beyond our body and mind. Yoga philosophy explains the interdependencies of these parameters well and gives techniques to achieve this purpose. 

A few words: I wrote this overview, my own understanding from a general perspective. However this understanding was useful to me and helped me in my own path. If you want to read more about Yoga, please refer to good books on this subject. As a general guidance, this site also contains various pointers to available books and reviews of some of them. Hope this is helpful.  

 

 

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