YOGA 101: AN INTRODUCTION
Yoga is a vast collection of spiritual techniques and practices aimed at integrating mind, body and spirit to achieve a state of enlightenment or oneness with the universe. What is normally thought of as "yoga" in the West is really Hatha Yoga, one of the many paths of yoga. The different paths of yoga emphasize different approaches and techniques, but ultimately lead to the same goal of unification and enlightenment.
Though yoga’s ultimate aim is lofty, its essence is practical and scientific as it emphasizes direct experience and observable results. It is not a religion, but a practice of personal inquiry and exploration. As the cultural and religious diversity of practitioners attest, yogic philosophy speaks to universal truths that can be incorporated within any belief system.
Yoga's history has many places of obscurity and uncertainty due to its oral transmission of sacred texts and the secretive nature of its teachings. The early writings on yoga were transcribed on fragile palm leaves that were easily damaged, destroyed or lost. The development of yoga can be traced back to over 5,000 years ago, but some researchers think that yoga may be up to 10,000 years old old. Yoga's long rich history can be divided into four main periods of innovation, practice and development.
What we commonly call yoga in the West is technically Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga (ha="sun" tha="moon") attains the union of mind-body-spirit though a practice of asanas (yoga postures), pranayama (yoga breathing), mudra (body gestures) and shatkarma (internal cleansing). These body centered practices are used to purify the body and cultivate prana and activate kundalini, the subtle energies of the body. Modern Hatha Yoga does not emphasize many of these esoteric practices and focuses primarily on the physical yoga postures.
Raja Yoga, Oneness through Meditation
Raja Yoga is viewed as the “royal path” to attaining the state of yoga or unity with mind-body-spirit. Raja Yoga is so highly revered because it attains enlightenment from direct control and mastery of the mind. This approach makes Raja Yoga an extremely challenging and difficult practice to engage in. Hatha Yoga, what we usually know as just “yoga” in the West is a much easier path. Hatha Yoga aims to control the body and breath to still prana (energy) that in turn stills the mind. Although Hatha Yoga was developed as a preparation for Raja Yoga, they can be practiced simultaneously.
Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of Wisdom
Jnana (wisdom or knowledge) is considered the most difficult of the four main paths of Yoga, requiring great strength of will and intellect. In Jnana yoga, the mind is used to inquire into its own nature and to transcend the mind’s identification with its thoughts and ego. The fundamental goal of Jnana yoga is to become liberated from the illusionary world of maya (thoughts and perceptions) and to achieve union of the inner Self (Atman) with the oneness of all life (Brahman). This is achieved by steadfastly practicing the mental techniques of self-questioning, reflection and conscious illumination that are defined in the Four Pillars of Knowledge.
Bhakti Yoga: the Yoga of Devotion
Bhakti Yoga is one of the four main yogic paths to enlightenment. Bhakti means “devotion” or “love” and this path contains various practices to unite the bhakta (Bhakti Yoga practitioner) with the Divine.
Tantra Yoga is a relatively modern revamping of the ancient vedic and yogic spiritual practices. The Tantrics developed innovative yet unorthodox techniques for allowing one to experience the reality of the true Self, the oneness of the entire cosmos. The Tantra Yogis emphasis on personal experimentation and experience led to radical techniques to cleanse the body and mind to break the knots that bind us to our physical existence. The famous “Left Hand” schools of Tantra used unlawful practices of consuming sex, alcohol and meat as powerful tools for transformation. Tantra Yoga encompasses a huge range of techniques, yet its underlying focus is on using the body as a temple to worship the all-encompassing oneness of life as sacred.
The traditional Indian culture promoted four Ashramas, or stages of spiritual life, that provided a simple framework of life planning for the spiritual aspirant. Each Ashrama defined a level of spiritual practice based on the duties and responsibilities required at each stage of life. The four Ashramas allowed the Indian culture to participate in and actively support a rich spiritual life, as well as gave the individual comfort and clarity to progress along the path of Self-realization.
The path of yoga can be long and hard, filled with obstacles, pitfalls, and detours. Luckily, yogic philosophy provides a roadside assistance program to aid you when you become stuck. The yogis who have traveled the path before us have left us a troubleshooting guide called the 13 obstacles of yoga.