Yoga: An Ancient Art for Balancing Mind, Body & Spirit

Yoga has always seemed to be a bit mysterious to those unfamiliar with this ancient art. In fact, many believe that yoga refers to a vague set of exercises and breathing techniques that are far too difficult for the ordinary person to learn or master. However yoga, which means “union between mind, body and spirit,” represents a comprehensive, but by no means inaccessible, practice. In fact, anyone desiring to become more fit, relaxed, and peaceful may learn and benefit from the gentle and truly transformational practice of yoga.

There are different ways to achieve such a state of union between mind, body & spirit with four main paths outlined in the yoga teachings: Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Raja Yoga. All of these paths create inner and outer harmony for the practitioner, and it is the choice of each individual to determine which path best suits him or her.

The first path of Karma yoga may be described as the path of “selfless service” in which an individual works with projects that will benefit humanity, with little regard for the self or any thought of gain or reward. This is a path often chosen by people who have an outgoing nature and who enjoy being around people and helping.

The second path, Bhakti Yoga, is the path of devotion, which may appeal to those who have a more emotional nature. Bhakti yoga is the path of love in which the practitioner surrenders himself or herself to life through unconditional love for all people, animals and all of creation. Working with mantras or devotional singing are both examples of Bhakti yoga.

The third path, Jnana Yoga, is the path of knowledge or wisdom, the path of the intellect. Jnana Yoga requires the practitioner to use his/her intellectual energy through reading, studying, and analyzing data. A college professor, scientist, or an academician would gravitate towards Jnana yoga.

The fourth and last path, Raja Yoga , is the path of the physical. In Raja Yoga the practitioner works with the body through precise exercises and breathing techniques to bring energy, light, health and wellbeing to the system. Within Raja Yoga are 8 sub-categories or “limbs” in which the practitioner works with the physical body on various levels. Hatha yoga–the asana practice found in a yoga class–is one integral limb of raja yoga. The results of a Raja yoga practice include: inspiration, happiness, wellbeing, greater health, relaxation, and peacefulness. It is said in India that “a healthy mind can exist only in a healthy body.”

It should be stressed that no one path is the “right” path or the “best” path–instead, it is recommended that yogic practitioners work with a combination of yogic paths, finding the one which suits them best but still incorporates the other paths as well.

This article will focus upon Raja Yoga, which involves a system of physical postures and breathing techniques that originated in India thousands of years ago. Originally yoga was revealed to people who were considered to be “enlightened” beings–special individuals who had accessed certain truths about our existence by withdrawing from society, quieting their minds, concentrating on their breath and contemplating life. Archaeological finds indicate stone carvings showing people in yogic positions from around 3000 B.C. Ancient writings in India’s oldest language of Sanskrit also speak about yoga and its many benefits. A great teacher and practitioner of yoga named Patanjali wrote and assembled the first teachings on yoga into a series of manuscripts called the “yoga sutras” with “sutra” meaning “thread” in Sanskrit. All things that we know today about yoga stem from these sutras.

To practice yoga, practitioners do not need special clothes or equipment–just some quiet time and a small bit of space on a floor or outside. The yoga postures (called “asanas”) can help anyone strengthen and tone muscles, joints, the spine, organs, glands and nerves, keeping us in a glowing state of health. Yoga also helps release tension in the mind and body so that we are able to access greater amounts of energy to fuel our projects and our lives.

There are actually hundreds of yoga postures, and as we increase in flexibility, the postures become more challenging. But even in the beginning stages there are varying degrees to every posture so that students may do the postures in ways that are friendly to their own system. As students progress, they may stretch the postures a little further and challenge their bodies more, in a gentle and non-threatening manner.

In ancient days, students learning yoga would go and live with a teacher and be treated as part of the teacher’s family. The teacher would not only teach the student yoga postures but also would give him or her various assignments to help the student focus the mind–such as chopping wood or some other repetitive task which would require concentration. The usual training for a yoga student lasted for 12 years and the student began his training at the age of 8 years. Yoga postures were taught one-on-one, customized by the teacher for the student’s particular needs. Much of the time yoga was taught outside in Nature.

Today, a typical yoga class consists of an instructor leading a group of students through a series of poses and breathing techniques a few times per week. The atmosphere is usually quiet and relaxed, and some light music can be also used. Class is preferably conducted outside or at least in a ventilated area. Students may use a small mat or piece of cloth to stand on and the postures are typically done in bare feet. Usually the instructor first teaches and then demonstrate the postures for the students. Afterwards, the teacher walks around the room, correcting the students’ alignment and positioning. A class may last for about one hour or longer and will focus on many of the hundreds of yoga postures which are available.

Some of the modern teachers of yoga in India identified five principles of yoga which are also important in understanding how yoga works. These five principles consist of: Proper Exercise, Proper Breathing, Proper Relaxation, Proper Diet, Positive Thinking & Concentration. When these five principles are employed, the student enjoys a balanced and serene lifestyle.

Ultimately yoga helps people become stronger, happier, more peaceful, healthier and more connected to one another. In the yoga texts, it is said that “the yogi sees himself in the heart of all beings and all beings in his heart.” If everyone on the Earth did some form of yoga and held such beautiful sentiments, this world would indeed be a happier and more harmonious place.

Copyright © 2007 Yoga Acharya V.V.R. Ganesh

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