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What is Yoga?
The word 'yoga' these days is broadly used to mean the various postures or exercises that have come down from ancient India. However, there is more to it than refining the physical body and staying healthy by regular practice of these postures. Many people ask 'how do I start yoga?' and usually expect to join a course at a center to learn yoga. However, the mere cultivation of the body or mind for its own sake is not yoga. It is actually a way to wholeness and to an integration of all aspects and levels of oneself. It is 'based upon a perfectly structured and integrated world view which aims at the transformation of a human being from his actual and unrefined form to a perfected form.'
The word 'yoga' is derived from the root 'yuj' meaning 'to unite'. This word is a cognate of the English word 'yoke'. It speaks of an integration of all aspects within a human being as well as of the connection with subtler levels of reality. Any spiritual path towards this integration may be called a yoga. Thus, yoga is both the goal and the way to the goal. – Ravi Ravindra
To achieve the integration of all aspects of a human being many enlightened sages have laid out certain practices that have to be followed to gain the necessary result. In this regard it is a science. 'Yoga' is a sanskrit word and has been used in many ancient Indian texts and scriptures. Even though classical yoga is by its nature linked to Hinduism, it is now accessible to everyone. It retains the basis of its ancient teachings in its modern form with its many facets due to the efforts of great contemporary Yogis. It can be practiced by Christians, Muslims, Jews or by any person without religious affiliation. It can be followed and practiced anywhere and stands in no opposition to any religious faith.
Unlike other spiritual disciplines of the various religions the Yoga teachings take into account the various temperaments and constitution of different human beings, degree of maturity, the aim and purpose for which they want to practice Yoga.
Which kind of the Yoga do you think resonates with your inner nature to achieve self-realization??
Four Main Systems of Yoga
There are four main systems of Yoga that have come down to us from ancient times:
- Karma Yoga – integration through performing action
- Jnana Yoga – integration through knowledge, gnosis and discernment
- Bhakti Yoga – the way of devotion
- Raja Yoga – the royal yoga encompassing all of the above and developing each of them in balance.
Though we hear about many kinds of yoga including those mentioned above, the Indian tradition has in general maintained that there is only one yoga, with varying emphases on different aspects and methods used by the various schools of yoga. These yogas are not exclusive; they interpenetrate and support each other in the practice of achieving integration.
There are two major texts on classical Yoga:
- The Yoga Sutras or Aphorisms of Yoga compiled by Patanjali a great Indian sage.
- The Bhagavad Gita or the Lord's Song
A study of both these texts are absolutely essential for an understanding of yoga. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras is a teaching of a psychological practice based on a spiritual vision, the vision of a still mind. He is a teacher who gives practical instructions for yoga, the work required in order to be more and more related to the Real.
Annie Besant in her translation of the Bhagavad Gita says:
It is meant to lift the aspirant from the lower levels of renunciation, where objects are renounced, to the loftier heights where desires are dead, and where the Yogi dwells in calm and ceaseless contemplation, while his body and mind are actively employed in discharging the duties that fall to his lot in life. That the spiritual man need not be a recluse, that union with the divine Life may be achieved and maintained in the midst of worldly affairs, that the obstacles to that union lie not outside us but within us – such is the central lesson of the Bhagavad Gita.
The first aim of yoga is the development of a steady attention, a still mind. This can be achieved by the proper practice of meditation. However, before meditation can be achieved there is a lot of preparatory work to be done. Meditation means, among other things, the purifying and quietening of the mind. The ground must be prepared for this by expelling from the mind all that is impure, degrading, all that hinders the well-being of society and the individual.
Yoga Sutras (01/85) Swami Rama
How to do Meditation? – Dhyana Yoga
Dhyana Yoga is the path of meditation. The word dhyana is the same as ch'an in Chinese and zen in Japanese. It leads a person through control of the body to the unfolding and mastery of the mind and finally to the direct experience of the One. This path leads from:
- the emptying of the contents of thought
- to inner serenity, which through silence, chanting – leads to concentration
- then through the channelling of the senses and thoughts towards one pointedness
- to meditation until all these paths to contemplation can be used and developed by the consciousness and will.
There are various methods that can be adopted to gain training in serenity and the condition of inner emptiness:
Japa Yoga and Mantra Yoga – is the spiritual practice of continuous repetition of a word or sentence to train the mind to focus on one thing. For example, Hindus chant the name of their favourite deity like Shiva by repeating 'Om namah shivaya', a Catholic might pray 'Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, libera nos, Domine', a Buddhist might chant 'Om mani padme hum' and so on. The repetition of the mantra or chant is not merely a religious ritual, it is also a psychic discipline. Those without any religious affiliation may chant the Maitra Sutra:
'May everyone be happy, may everyone be healthy, may everyone behold the countenance of happiness, not one person shall be unhappy! Peace!Peace!Peace!
Preparation for the Practice of Meditation
Dhyana or meditation is the going inward, concentrating on the self within. For this to be successful we must examine the life that we are living in the present. Is it conducive to meditation? What are the thoughts that disturb us when we sit down to meditate? Try sitting quietly for five minutes and observe your breath. You will see that you cannot hold the mind on your breath for long. You will find that the mind has wandered. It has to be brought back again and again to watching the breath. As you practice this regularly you will notice that watching your breath changes its quality. The breathing slows down, your mind is becoming calm and you are aware of the present moment.
Exterior conditions are not as powerful in hindering our meditation as our inner attitude. Our attitude depends on the kind of life we live, it depends on our character and the number of distracting activities that we indulge in. You will be surprised to know that before we can successfully meditate we have to first refine our character. Meditation can actually be used to build our character. We have to let go of harmful habits for example, drinking alcohol, smoking tobacco or other substances and watching television. These habits affect our brain to a great extent. Our attitude to other human beings also determines our level of peace of mind.
A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality towards wrong-doers. – Yoga Sutra 1.33
The practice of the above suggestions is not so easy because we are mostly self-preoccupied with our own likes and dislikes, our own suffering and neglect to see others properly as having their own happiness or sorrows, hopes and fears, etc. Constant and regular practice of the Eight Limbs of Yoga will enable us to achieve this attitude towards others and help us become serene.
Eight Limbs of Yoga
right alignment or posture
regulation of breath
withdrawal of the senses
free attention ('knowing by becoming' - I.K. Taimni)
Eight Limbs of Yoga
There are Eight limbs of Yoga according to Patanjali the practice of which gradually destroys the impurities or the obstructions within oneself and leads to right discernment.
The first five namely, yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, andpratyahara, are regarded as the outer limbs of yoga and the last three, namely, dharana, dhyana and samadhi are the inner limbs.
The Yamas and Niyamas are actually the do's and don'ts for practicing yoga. These focus on the building of character. Without working patiently and consistently at each of them and making them a part of our character we will not go far on the path of yoga and of achieving integration of all our aspects. They are moral practices for the development of conscience, a gateway to higher consciousness. The Yamas and Niyamas are:
purity (of body, heart and mind)
The practice of the yama and niyama leads to many positive changes in the person. It enables one to practice yoga because it
'requires vigilance and an awareness arising from being present here and now, to this situation, at this time and responding to it.' Ravi Ravindra
The eight limbs of yoga do not have to be practiced in sequence by mastering them one after another. In fact, a person can practice all if them simultaneously emphasizing one or two at a time. For this to be possible a person can take up each limb and practice it for a month. In doing this meditation is a great aid.
Each quality to be developed must be studied and meditated upon, ponder on it and put into practice in daily life. The next step is to become one with the quality during meditation. As one grows by doing the study and practice it will be noticed that meditation also gets better and the mind and body are able to stay still for longer periods. However, meditation in the beginning should be done between 5-10 minutes and gradually increased to half an hour and not more.
In conclusion it can be said that meditation is one of the steps to gaining integration of all aspects of a human being on the road to perfection. It is the means and not the end. A lot of preparation is required to practice meditation in the proper way.
Benefits and Techniques of Meditation
- 10 Reasons Why You Must Go On a Meditation Retreat
Regular meditation is said to result in brain growth. Going on a meditation retreat helps foster personal growth and responsibility, be challenged physically and mentally and many other helpful benefits to improve your life.
- How to Practice Focused Meditation
Two simple exercises to do focused meditation. Success in meditation depends on how well a person can concentrate with a single focus on a particular subject or ideal. Meditation begins where concentration ends.
- Meditation Results in Brain Growth
The brain is the most complex, powerful organism in the universe and taking care of it requires a holistic approach. Here are tips on nutrition, physical and mental exercises and meditation to improve brain health and brain growth.
- The Wisdom of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: A New Translation and Guide, by Ravi Ravindra. Morning Light Press, 2009.
- Yoga and the Teaching of Krishna, by Ravi Ravindra. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, 1998.
- Meditation and Mankind: Practices in Prayer and Meditation throughout the World, by Vladimir Lindenberg, Translated from the German by Betty Collins. Rider and Company, London, 1959.
- Meditation -- Its Theory and Practice, by Hari Prasad Shastri. Shanti Sadan, London. 1958.
- Meditation -- Its Practice and Results, by Clara M. Codd. The Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, Chennai, 1994.
- Concentration: An Approach to Meditation, by Ernest Wood. The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, USA, 1987.