At present, Yoga is predominantly known as an exercise and a means to physical fitness and wellness. This physical practice of Yoga is important and offers invaluable benefits. However, Yoga is more than an exercise and physical fitness regimen, a stress management tool, a medical treatment. There is a deeper and profound purpose behind the physical practice of Yoga.
Upon study and analysis, it becomes clear that the modern day physical practice of Yoga is a preliminary step to prepare a healthy body and a healthy mind. This in turn should open the door to the real purpose of Yoga, which is the spiritual practice to realize profound truths about one’s true nature and the essence of everything, in order to realize everlasting happiness and peace.
A well-established definition of Yoga from the Katha Upanishad dating back to 1500 - 1000 BCE states:
“When the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not
- then, say the wise, one has reached the highest stage.
This steady control of the senses and the mind is defined as Yoga.”
Meaning of yoga: Thus the word “Yoga” in its entirety means all spiritual practices (sādhanā) performed to reach highest goal of Self-realization.
What is being practiced under “Yoga” currently is the physical practice - Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga refers to the practice of physical yoga postures, meaning all Ashtānga, Vinyāsa, Iyengar, Yin and Power Yoga styles including other forms.
Tradition says that yogic science was a divine gift revealed by Lord Shiva (also worshipped as the Lord of Yoga) to ancient sages for the human kind to realize their inherent divine nature. This wisdom has been passed on for centuries through authentic teachings, through guru-shishya (student) paramparā (lineage).
Yoga is a Sanskrit word which means union. The literal meaning is “to yoke”. The word Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root word “yuj”, which means to join, to integrate, or to harness.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras defines Yoga as Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah, which means:
“Yoga is the nirodha (regulating, mastering, integrating)
of the modifications (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind.”
The definition of the word “Yoga” encompasses:
Different types, paths of Yoga (encompassing the full spectrum of Yoga as a spiritual practice) are:
The sages had realized that a sick, weak and impure body is an obstacle to an endeavor to sit still, become silent and focus the mind on one point for the practice of meditation.
In order to advance on the path of Rāja Yoga, to prepare the body and mind for the practice of meditation, the yogis developed a preparatory practice, a system which is called Hatha Yoga.
“Yoga is the journey of the self, to the Self, through the Self.”
~ The Bhagavad Gitā
Hatha Yoga refers to a set of physical exercises (known as āsana or postures), and sequences of āsana, designed to align body, breath and mind. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance by developing strength and flexibility. These physical practices of āsana bring attention to the breath, which helps to still the fluctuations of the mind and be more present in the unfolding of each moment.
Different styles of Hatha yoga include Vinyāsa style, Iyengar style, Ashtānga style, Power, Yin or Restorative style, Kundalini style etc. These various styles focus on various aspects of the physical practice of Hatha yoga. Most of the modern "styles" of Hatha Yoga did not exist a few decades ago, while Yoga in its entirety as spiritual practice is thousands of years old.
Hatha yoga is meant to be a powerful tool for self-transformation.
The word Hatha comes from a scripture named Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā. It was composed by a sage named Svātmārāma in the 15th century CE and explains the preparatory stage for physical purification that the body practices for higher meditation or Yoga.
The popular meaning of Hatha involves a metaphysical explanation of uniting the sun (ha) and moon (ṭha). However, the literal Sanskrit meaning of the word Haṭha is “force” or “absolute or inevitable necessity”.
The first teachers who brought Yoga to the Western world were Swāmi Rama Tirtha in 1902, Paramhansa Yogānanda in 1920 and other disciples of Swāmi Sivānanda of Rishikesh, India. These teachers stressed upon the spiritual aspects of Yoga.
Yoga masters like B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, T. Krishnamāchārya and Swāmi Satchidānanda made it imperative that their students in the West understood Yoga philosophy. The students of Yoga had to go through rigorous training to learn various āsana, prāṇāyāma, kriyā or bandha, and at the same time understand the complete system of Yoga and the philosophy that lives and breathes through the physical practice.
Over the last few decades, āsana practice (Hatha Yoga) has gained importance, and the philosophy of Yoga and spiritual aspects are known and understood by few yoga teachers only.
Yoga philosophy can help yoga teachers deepen their connection with themselves, their environment and their students helping them teach more meaningful and impactful yoga classes.
“Yoga is not an ancient myth buried in oblivion.
It is the most valuable inheritance of present.
It is the essential need of today, and the culture of tomorrow.”
~ Satyananda Saraswati
In order to practice and teach Yoga effectively, it is crucial to understand the philosophy of Yoga. Without awareness of the higher goals of Yoga, the physical practice of yoga postures (Hatha Yoga) on its own is incomplete. Āsana practice can be a gateway to deeper spiritual teachings only with a proper understanding of the Yogic wisdom.
Yoga philosophy teachings address the mind and its relationship to one’s spiritual growth, and this is greatly pertinent in today's times and of great importance for our future generations.
True Yoga is about training the mind. It is about gaining maturity. Yoga is the science of right living. Wisdom of Yoga needs to be incorporated in one’s daily life (and not only to be practiced as yoga on the mat alone) as it works on all aspects of the person – the physical, psychological and spiritual.
Therefore, in order to live a life of Yoga and help students advance, yoga teachers should make efforts for a systematic study and understanding of the philosophy of Yoga (spiritual teachings). Yoga philosophy can help a yoga teacher to train and discipline their mind to lead an intelligent and fulfilling life and guide their students effectively.
“Calming the mind is Yoga. Not just standing on the head.”
~ Swāmi Satchidānanda