In the Western world, we have come to know yoga largely as a physical practice, through the asanas. "Asana" is the Sanskrit word for “posture” or “pose”. Traditionally, the physical side of yoga is known as Hatha yoga. All modern physical practices of yoga, from the Ashtanga Vinyasa styled by Pattabhi Jois as a form of athletic conditioning for soldiers, to the Bikram yoga (hot yoga) devised by Bikram Chowdry, to Yin Yoga from Paul Grilley and Bernie Clarke, to Jivamukti from Sharon Gannon and David Life, and many, many others, they are all rooted in Hatha yoga asana.
But yoga does go beyond the physical practice. No summary of yoga is complete without referencing the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. (https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/who-was-patanjali). They are a series of instructions framed as verses written in Sanskrit that date back at least 2000 years. It is said to be the first real attempt to classify and define yoga, which had traditionally been simply passed on from individual guru to student.
The first mentions of Yoga crop up millennia even before Patanjali’s Sutras, in the Vedas, ancient, mystical, religious texts from India that pre-date Hinduism. Yoga was a gift from the gods to the rishis and sadhus (wise men).
Then we have the Hatha Pradipika, which is essentially a treatise on yoga and its purpose(s) written during the fifteenth century by Svāmi Svātmārāma, and it is one of, if not the most, influential of texts on Yoga around today, although there are of course others too such as the Bhagavad Gita (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhagavad_Gita).
The word Hatha itself is made up of two parts, ha (sun) and tha (moon). The word Yoga derives from the Sanskrit for yoke. Joining together. Creating connection, most obviously connecting movement and breath, but also conceptually, energetically and physically connecting the mind and body, the masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti) energy we all carry, the right and left sides of the brain, higher and baser self or instincts.
In the Hatha Pradipika, as I’d hope every teacher can tell you, Ashtanga (meaning eight limbs) Yoga, which must be distinguished from Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, is found to be not just postures, which are only one of the eight limbs, but also a complete system for living a good life (https://www.yogajournal.com/practice/the-eight-limbs).
In context, it is worth remembering that this is a tradition that is effectively a design for life and heavily influenced by the idea of karma and achieving release from the cycle of reincarnation by living in a good and pure way. Raja yoga. This may be practiced in many ways through how you treat yourself, others and how you live your life, even how you think, and goes beyond what your downward dog looks like or whether you can get your leg behind your head.
The Pradipika makes this clear quite early on,:
Hatha yoga systematically prepares the body, mind and emotions, so there will be no difficulties when the aspirant is undergoing higher states of consciousness.. ……. Hatha yoga is the means and raja yoga is the goal. Hatha yoga is the stairway leading to raja yoga. Once the sadhaka (aspirant) reaches the stage of raja yoga, hatha yoga ceases to be necessary for him.
(Muktibodhananda, Swami. Hatha Yoga Pradipika (Kindle Locations 659-661 and 664-666). Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India. Kindle Edition.)
But don’t worry, you don’t have to embrace all aspects of Yoga to get on the mat and find some benefit. It is not a religion after all and it is surprisingly undogmatic. It embraces all faiths and all students. Where ever you are at today is just fine.
Through hatha yoga you regulate the body secretions, hormones, breath, brain waves and prana; then the mind automatically becomes harmonious. (as above)
This itself happens slowly over time and if that is all you ever want or need from it that’s just fine too. The immense physical and mental benefits a yoga practice brings about are an added bonus even if they’re not the ultimate goal set down by the sages. We are not all suited to the more esoteric, spiritual path. The idea is though that eventually you get there anyway (even if it is not in this lifetime!), that it just happens as your practice deepens and grows.
My jury is still out on reincarnation and the cycle of samsara. I have no way of knowing for sure really. But I have certainly found it to be true that:
Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah (Yoga quiets the chatter of the mind).
And in this day and age, is there anyone of us who does not need a little bit more of that?
Merry Christmas if you celebrate it and happy holidays to everyone whatever your purpose, faith or philosophy. I hope to see you on the mat soon.