The word yoga is often translated as “to unite” or "wholeness". Emphasis is placed on yoga as not just a system of physical exercises but a holistic system that can be deeply transformative on a physical, emotional, mental and spiritual level. The word yoga also translates as “discipline”, and one of my teachers used the translation “unitive discipline”. This more accurately reflects that
yoga is at its core an applied discipline that is intensely experiential.
Yoga is often thought of as a spiritual practice, but what is spirituality? Spirituality is at its core mind training - the systematic control of the mind to overcome negative (less desirable/unhelpful) thoughts and emotions and replace with their counterparts. Ultimately the mind becomes completely transparent to so that we are able to see reality without it being distorted by our thoughts- either positive or negative. This is the state of enlightenment or Samadhi. It is when we overcome the small dramas unfolding in our own small world and open into a state of constant connection to the amazing universe around us. It has been described as a deeply unitive experience accompanied by feelings of joy, peace and harmony.
Yoga practice is not so much a staircase to this end, but a windy mountain road, with dead ends, precarious cliffs and boulders in the way. Everybody’s journey up the mountain will be different.
The origins and brief history of Yoga
The origins of yoga are thought to date back to the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation in the region now known as India and Pakistan. This was the largest civilisation in early antiquity at the junction of two mighty rivers (no longer in existence) ca 4000-1900 BC. The Rig Veda dates from this time and is the oldest known text in any Indo –European language, passed down orally for thousands of years before being written. The Rig Veda is a series of Hymns and shows us that this civilisation worshiped the Sun as the giver of life. One of the best known is the Gayatri Mantra, (RV:3.62.10) which is still recited today, and is sung by many modern singers such as Deva Primal and Donna Delorry.
We know that the yoga practiced at this time included elements of current yoga practices, such as concentration, mantra repetition, regulation of the breath and surrender of the ego. Archaeologists have found depictions engraved on soapstone that resemble yogi-like figures. It is possible that variations of the practice of Surya Namaska (Salute to the Sun) dates back to this ancient civilisation.
Over time the knowledge of yoga was handed down by word of mouth and numerous schools developed with distinct traditions. Views and Practices differed even though they all are all a means to liberation from suffering. Georg Feuerstein has described the wheel of yoga, outlining the major paths of Bhakti Yoga, Jhana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Sammyasa Yoga, Karma Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Kriya Yoga and Hatha Yoga. All of these are different paths to the same end of liberation from suffering, and are all guided by a strong and similar ethical framework.
From 1500 BC-200AD the teachings of the Upanishads elaborate on Yoga Philosophy. One of the classic texts from this period is the Bhagavad Gita, an important text of the Hindu religion. This text elaborates on the practice of yoga as a way to deal gracefully with the various struggles of life. The essential message to achieve this? Practice Yoga, practice yoga practice yoga. Yoga philosophy also appears in texts important to the Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists.
The classical period of yoga is considered to be around 200AD when the Yoga Sutras were compiled by Patanjali. This text is still studied by yoga practitioners today and many modern translations and interpretations are regularly published. This text compiles in a systematic and succinct way the art and science of the unitive discipline of yoga. It gives us the 8 limbs of yoga that our current Hatha Yoga classes are based on. (Observances, restraints, postures, breath control, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and bliss)
The post classical period of Yoga is from 500AD and includes many texts, including work on Kundalini and the Chakras, which originate from a philosophy known as Tantra. Hatha Yoga is an offshoot of this tantric philosophy, and includes texts such as the Hatha yoga Pradipika. Hatha is often translated as “forceful”, indicating the focus is on developing the physical body’s potential. Enlightenment is seen not only as a mental state, but to have a profound effect on the nervous system and physical body. Today, Hatha Yoga is offered in many styles with emphasis on different parts of the teachings and tools from the accumulated history and evolution of yoga.
Current research into Yoga
Western Medical Science has recently taken the practice of Hatha Yoga seriously as the various health benefits from the practice are assisting people with all types of conditions such as cancer, arthritis, depression and back pain. It has been demonstrated that there is a real biological response that happens in your body when you regularly practice yoga. Research has shown that yoga practices can
• alter white blood cells and therefore improve immune function
• increase the brain chemical gamma-amino-butyric-acid (GABA) which is associated with positive mood and decreasing anxiety,
• change the chromosomes of the DNA! Telomeres are structures that shorten as we age in response to stress, and a study by Ornish in 2013 demonstrated that yogic lifestyle interventions made them become longer!
Meditation, an important element of yoga practice acts as a valuable mental time out for over stimulated brain, which can help us deal with the inevitable stress of life. Continued meditation practice has been shown to produce a thickening of the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that plays a key role in memory, attention, awareness, thought and language.
Yoga is a contemplative mind-body practice dating in various forms 5000 years . It is not religious and does not require you to believe anything. It is an experiential practice with lots of tools for the physical body, the respiratory system and the mind. It does however demand commitment, discipline and the help of a qualified and passionate teacher!