The word ‘Yoga’ is a Sanskrit term derived from the root ‘Yuj’, which means to yoke, join or unite. As traditionally described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the main purpose of yoga is to calm the thought streams of the mind.
“However beautifully we carry out an asana (posture), however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga. What is yoga after all? It is something that we experience within our being. Yoga is not an external experience. In yoga we try in every action to be as attentive as possible to everything we do. Yoga is different from dance or theatre. In yoga we are not creating something for others to look at.
As we perform the various asansa we observe what we are doing and how we are doing it. We do it only for ourselves. We are both observer and what is observed at the same time. If we do not pay attention to ourselves in our practice, then we cannot call it yoga."
In its truest sense Yoga is about much more than the physical postures and breathing exercises. Whilst very important, and also capable of bringing great benefits to practitioners, these are actually just preparatory techniques that will eventually settle the mind into silence and are just two parts of the eight limbs of classical yoga.
Regular yoga practice leads to a calmer mind, a healthier body and a more open heart.
The famous yoga teacher Vanda Scaravelli very beautifully describes some of the benefits and changes that we can expect to experience through yoga, in her book Awakening The Spine:
“Practice transforms us. We need to eat less, because we assimilate more and therefore there is a loss of unnecessary weight. We become more beautiful, our faces change and our walk gains in elasticity. Our way of standing is steady and poised, our legs are firmer, and our toes and feet spread out, giving us more stability.
Our chests expand, the muscles of the abdomen start to work, the head is lighter on the neck (like the corolla of a flower on its stem moving easily with flexibility while the wind blows).
To watch these enchanting changes is amazing. A different life begins and the body expresses a happiness never felt before. These are not just words; it actually happens.
Your everyday activities will improve and become more efficient. You will have less time for useless occupations, that are constantly in the way, preventing your contact with more essential things. It is like a sieve through which superficial things drop away leaving only what is essential. . .You will no longer be a slave to your body, as the independence from it is the greatest gift you can receive.
Yoga is a way of life, it changes you and therefore changes the way you relate to other people and influence your environment.”
The origins of yoga date back to over 3,500 years ago in ancient India. The concept was first introduced in Brahmanism, a complex religious tradition based on sacrifice and ritual that formed the basis of modern day Hinduism. The sacred scriptures of Brahmanism, known as the Vedas, contain the first mention of the word yoga.
Little more is known of yoga's development until around 800 to 500 BC when yoga played a more prominent role in the Upanishads, the sacred revelations of ancient Hinduism. The Upanishads contained little that we would call yoga asana practice. Instead yoga referred in a more general way to a discipline used or a path taken to achieve liberation from suffering.
The next real mention of yoga comes in the very famous yoga text the Bhagavad Gita ("The Song of God"), which dates from around 150 BC and provides the most comprehensive description of yoga at that time.
Other extremely important texts that followed later and continued the development and tradition of yoga are Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (circa 500 BC), the Bhagavad Gita - "The Song of God" (circa 200-150 BC) and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (circa 1,500 AD).
Most of the physical poses or yoga asanas that are practised by yoga students in the West today only came into being very recently (within the last 150 years or so) and owe as much to gymnastics, martial arts and Indian army training programmes as they do to the yoga tradition itself. Two thousand years ago the asana repertoire consisted of a limited number of seated poses whereas today there are thousands of postures. However, all postures, from the few seated poses dating from 1,500 BC to the vast array of postures practised today all serve to strengthen the body, to purify the nervous system and to quieten the mind enough to connect the practitioner more deeply to his or her inner self.
Much of what is practised as yoga in the West today has descended from the teachings of T. Krishnamacharya, who in early 1930s India took it upon himself to champion the benefits of yoga asana, and in turn from three of his students: B.K.S.Iyengar, Sri K. Pattahbi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar.
The Classical Limbs of Yoga System, known as Ashtanga Yoga (ashta - ‘eight’, anga - ‘limbs’), as laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is divided into eight steps or stages through which the body and mind are prepared, purified, and then surmounted.