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What is Yoga?

Namaskar

Recognizing the infinite light and love within you with all the magnificent charms of my mind and all the love and cordiality of my heart.

This About Yoga page explores both the ancient and contemporary views of yoga by investigating Sanskrit words and shlokas (couplets) as well as by looking at what yoga means to us in this modern day world. Although the practice of yoga is vast, here in a step by step sequence we will systematically examine some of the essentials of yoga so that we can deepen our understanding of this ancient practice. The following is designed as a stepping stone to delve deeper into the world of yoga. Hopefully it will serve as a helpful and supportive piece in your yoga journey. Namaskar.

What is yoga?
How is yoga defined by the Yoga Sutras?
How else can we talk about the term yoga?
What is a yoga asana?
What are other benefits of yoga asanas?
What is sadhana?
What are the benefits of sadhana?
How is it that meditation affects the body?
Yoga includes asanas, sadhana and what else?
History: The Formation of Astaunga Yoga
Astaunga Yoga: The Eight Limbs of Yoga

What is yoga?
Yoga is an age-old, time-tested systematic practice for human growth and development that brings fulfillment (anand or bliss) in life. The Sanskrit term ‘yoga’ literally means ‘union’ or ‘becoming whole’. Often it is said that this ‘union’ refers to the mind-body balance, the link between unit and universal, or the meeting of finite and infinite.

How is yoga defined by the Yoga Sutras?
Here are the three guiding shlokas, or Sanskrit couplets, from the Yoga Sutras that define the meaning and practice of yoga:

(1) Sarvacinta’paritya’go nishcinto yoga ucyate

“When the mind is free of all thoughts and all internal projections, that state is yoga.”

(2) Yogashcittavrttinirodhah

“Controlling or suspending the one thousand propensities of the human mind, that is yoga.”

(3) Sam’yoga yoga ityukto jiiva’tma’ Parama’tmanah

“The unification of unit consciousness, jiiva’tma’, with Supreme Consciousness, Parama’tma’, is yoga.

How else can we talk about the term yoga?
In this diverse and wonderful universe of ours, yoga can mean various things to different people. It is commonly agreed upon though that above all else yoga is a practice— not a belief system— that rejuvenates the body and purifies the mind so that one can be at their best and be in tune with their higher self. Furthermore, this practice of yoga is based upon two fundamental subsets: (1) asanas (physical yoga postures) and (2) sadhana (meditation).

What is a yoga asana?
Asana (pronounced Ah-sun, as the last ‘a’ is silent) is a Sanskrit word which literally means ‘seat’. Ages and ages ago those early yogis and yoginis were eager to explore the vastness and wonders of the human mind. So they would sit for hours on end in a seated pose and engage in silent contemplation, or meditation.

In this process, they realised that the body also played an important factor in our human existence. Because by sitting in their seated posture for long periods of time they found that their joints and muscles became sore; and not only that, they also realized that it was not always possible to keep the mind concentrated.

To solve this dual issue of a sore body and a wandering mind, those yogis and yoginis of old devised a system of physical postures known as asanas. Some examples of asanas are: Seated forward bend (paschimottanasana), lotus posture (padmasana), tree pose (vrksasana), to name a few. And these asanas or yoga postures were designed with the idea of rejuvenating the body as well as calming the mind.

Here below is that original Sanskrit sutra which defines the meaning of asana:

Sthirasukham a’sanam

“Asanas are calm, quiet and easy postures which are held with proper inhalation and exhalation. They exercise the nerves, tissues, glands and organs of the human body. While practicing asanas one enjoys physical comfort and mental composure.

The regular practice of asanas keeps the body healthy and cures many diseases. Asanas control the glands, the glands control the secretion of hormones, and the secretion of hormones controls the propensities. So asanas help a sadhaka [an aspirant] to balance the body and concentrate the mind.”

In total there are more than 50,000 yoga asanas which are meant to be used in a systemic and complementary manner to regulate the body and mind. So our yoga asanas are both an intricate and subtle practice that should be done under the guidance and instruction of a qualified teacher. Once learned, the practitioner can then do yoga asanas on their own as well.

What are other benefits of yoga asanas?
Here are five more good reasons for doing yoga asanas:
To increase the flexibility of the body.
To rectify glandular defects and balance hormonal secretions in order to control the vrttis [mental propensities].
To balance the body and mind.
To withdraw the mind from undesirable thinking.
To prepare the mind for subtler and higher sadhana [meditative practices].
By all of the above we can understand that the practice of asanas has a highly beneficial effect on both body and mind. That is why the practitioner of asanas can not only bend forward and backward more easily but also feels more balanced and centered mentally. For this reason, when one completes a yoga asana class they feel revitalized – both physically and psychically. Because yoga asanas rejuvenate and restore both body and mind.

What is sadhana?
The Sanskrit term sadhana (pronounced SA-duh-NA) literally means ‘struggle’ or ‘effort’ or ‘practice’. In day to day life, ‘sadhana’ can refer to any type of practice that one is deeply involved in such as the practice of musical instruments, sports, art, etc. In the world of yoga, sadhana strictly refers to the practice of meditation.

Sadhana or mediation is one of the key aspects of yoga as it enables the practitioner to reach deeper inside themselves which results in a feeling of deep internal peace. All in all there are many types of meditative sadhanas. There is pratyhara or the withdrawal of mind from external thinking; there is pranayama which is specialized breathing practice; there is dharana which is a technique for concentrating the mind; and there is dhyana or sustained meditation.

Some of the above sadhanas use a mantra— i.e. a word or phrase that is repeated again & again to guide the mind in a wholly positive direction. And there are other aspects of sadhana where a mantra is not used yet the mind is deeply engaged in its meditative approach.

In sum, it can be said that sadhana or yogic meditation is the process of channelizing the mind to a more pure, pristine state so that one can easily feel the boundless joys of life.

What are the benefits of sadhana?
The benefits of sadhana are very great, both in quantity and quality. Before describing them though, let us first remember that yoga itself means ‘union’ and part of the meaning of this union is the mind-body link. Let us also recall that the physical practice of asanas not only rejuvenates the body but also calms and focuses the mind. Similarly, the mental practice of yoga not only brings sweetness in the mind but it also enhances the wellness of the body. And it is this very dual approach of asanas and sadhana that are part and parcel of the wonderful practice of yoga wherein both body and mind are immensely benefited. Herein lies the great secret of yoga.

Now let us take a look at some of the benefits of sadhana, knowing full well that these benefits occur in both the mental and physical spheres.

In the mental arena sadhana or meditation positively transforms the mind in the following ways:
Reduce and eliminate mental stress;
Appreciate the here and now;
Calmer disposition;
Better memory;
More focused concentration;
Increased self-esteem;
Kindness towards others;
More optimistic outlook;
Clarity of thinking;
Enhanced analytical skills;
Better decision-making;
Strength of mind and courage;
Overcome shyness;
Decrease and eliminate depression;
More in-tune with oneself and others;
Enhanced creativity;
Greater mental peace; and more!
In the physical arena sadhana or meditation positively transforms the body in the following ways:
Lowered heart rate;
Decreased blood pressure;
Reduced respiratory rate;
Luster to the skin;
Enhanced balance;
Deeper breathing;
Straighter posture;
Better alignment;
Faster healing and recovery time;
Decreased metabolic rate;
Lower cholesterol levels;
Slower aging process;
Reduce toxins in the body;
And more!

How is it that meditation affects the body?
Every thought we have has a direct affect on our entire existence. Because the thinking process itself sets off a chain reaction that includes the secretions of the glands and hormones– which directly affects the body. That is why if we just think of a tasty piece of blueberry pie or chocolate cake then our salivary glands will immediately go to work and secrete saliva— even if there is not even a piece of cake in front of us! The mere thought itself will create this reaction.

In that same way when we think of something that makes us nervous then we may start to perspire or even tremble. So our thoughts are intimately linked with our physical existence.

Thus when sadhana or meditation is the systematic and scientific process of redirecting the mind in a wholly positive direction, then that invariably has a tremendous effect on the body.

And in this ultra-modern era, in all fields of life step by step this secret is fast becoming known. For example, day by day medical researchers are documenting more and more how mediation helps patients in the recovery process.

So the meditative process of sadhana which the yogis and yoginis discovered ages ago really does work wonders not only on the mind but on the body as well.

Yoga includes asanas, sadhana and what else?
While asanas (physical postures) and sadhana (meditation) encompass the large majority of our yoga practice, the field of yoga can be described with still greater precision and scope. Taken all together the whole of yoga is composed of eight branches or eight limbs, at minimum. Here below is a short history.

History: The Formation of Astaunga Yoga
Yoga as we know is a 15,000 year-old practice that began when the first vedas (ancient Sanskrit shlokas) were recited. And those teachings were handed down from generation to generation, and expanded upon as well. Approximately 2,300 years ago a yogic sage named Patanjali codified many of the already existing teachings of yoga into a particular system known as Astaunga Yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga. The Sanskrit prefix ‘asta’ means ‘eight’ and the root ‘aunga’ means ‘limb’. Hence the eight limbs of yoga. Some of these we have already talked about above. But for your easy reference here are the 8 limbs of yoga.

Astaunga Yoga: The Eight Limbs of Yoga
(I) Yama (pronounced JA-MA):

Yama literally means ‘behaving with others in a controlled way’. It is the first step of yogic morality and consists of five basic principles:
Ahimsa which means not inflicting harm on others by thought, word, or deed.
Satya which means to practice benevolent truthfulness.
Asteya which means non-stealing or to not even think about taking that which belongs to others.
Brahmacarya which means to see all as being part of the One.
Aparigraha which means to live in a simple way and not collect or gather an excessive amount that is beyond one’s needs.
(II) Niyama (pronounced Nee-ya-ma)

Niyama literally means ‘follow rules for one’s own purification’. It is the second step of yogic morality and also consists of five principles:
Shaoca which means cleanliness in body and mind.
Santosa which means to maintain a proper ease of mind.
Tapah which means to have a sacrificing nature for the greater goal.
Svadhyaya which means clear and proper understanding of yogic philosophy.
Iishvara Pranidhana which means keeping the mind fixed toward the goal.
And in a nutshell here are the remaining six limbs of astaunga yoga:

(III) Asanas (physical yoga postures)

(IV) Pranayama (Specialized breathing technique)

(V) Pratyhara (Withdrawal of mind from the external senses)

(VI) Dharana (Acute mental concentration on particular cakras)

(VII) Dhyana (Sustained meditation)

(VIII) Samadhi (Ensconced in bliss)

The above then represents the 8 limbs of astaunga yoga. As we can see the third limb is asana and steps 4 through 8 are actually inherent aspects of the practice of sadhana, or meditation. That means that six of the eight limbs of astaunga yoga come directly within the realm of our asana and sadhana practice. Thus asanas and sadhana comprises nearly the whole of astaunga yoga. While it is widely understood that the first 2 limbs– yama and niyama– serve as the firm foundation for embarking on the fantastic journey into the vast and wonderful world of yoga.

In the coming weeks and months, more aspects will be added to this page about the practice and philosophy of yoga.

Upcoming Topics Include:
Svarshastra, nadiis, cakras, kiirtan, karma (selfless service), jinan (knowledge), bhakti (devotion), dharma, prapatti, 7 Secrets of Success, Samgacchadhvam, and more…