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A Brief Overview of Yoga

By Christina M. Rau

Yoga is one of six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy. The earliest archeological evidence of meditation is from the Indus Valley circa 3000 BCE. Figures on a wall show men meditating. As for literary evidence (mostly written in Sandskrit), the oldest books in the world, the Vedas, stem from Northern India circa 2500 BCE. Literary evidence is difficult to come by from ancient times because most yoga was taught via an oral tradition, as were most customs at that time. Next, the Upanishads offer summarized yoga experience from expert participants of the practice. Also, two epic poems from Northern India reveal yoga origins: the Ramayana is a poetic tale and the Mahabharata is an encyclopedia of teachings. These poems appear in literary history before the Buddha's birth in the 6th Century BCE yet after the Upanishads.

The Pantanjali Sutras are the next recordings of yoga. Pantanjali most likely lived some time between 500 and 200 BCE. He wrote about grammar, medicine, and yoga, collecting 196 aphorisms, or sutras, for people to follow. He was thought to be a svayambhu, "an evolved soul incarnated of his own will to help humanity" (Iyengar). In his Yoga Sutras, he taught that the aim of yoga is to unite Paramata (the Supreme Universal Spirit) with Jivatma (the human spirit). This unity was achieved by withholding citta (consciousness), in manas (mind), buddhi (intelligence), and ahamkara (ego).

According to the sutras, there are eight limbs or stages in the quest for the soul. They are: Yama (universal moral commandments), Niyama (self-cleansing via discipline), Asana (posture), Pranayama (control of breathing through rhythm), Pratyahara (freeing the mind from physical and exterior stimuli), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (super consciousness gained via meditation to unify with Paramata).

After Pantanjali, Shankaracharya wrote his Vedanta Sutras, a compilation of Upanishads. These teachings were brought to the West by the German scholar, Paul Deussen. Jumping forward into the 16th Century CE, Madhusudana Sarasvati become a forerunner of yoga teachings. One of his students was Vidyaranya Swami, also an influential spiritual guide.

Yoga may have one goal, but many branches of yoga exist to attain that goal. Jnana is the Path of Wisdom outlined in the Upanishads. It is mostly philosophical in its questioning the existence of all things. Karma is the Path of Selfless Action. This branch entails ritual action. Bhakti serves to offer constant remembrance of the Divine; it is the Path of Love-Devotion. Mantra is the Path of Sacred Sound. The most sacred of these sounds is OM. Raja is the Royal Path which entails Classical Hindu philosophy. Hatha is the Path to Inner Power. Hatha means forceful. This branch requires self-transformation and self-transcendence. Hatha is closely linked to Tantra, which awakens the kundalini-shakti, or unified energy, within.

Two other important aspects of yoga are the theoretical study and the temples of India. Sadhana is the theoretical study of yoga texts as well as the spiritual journey to self- discovery. To continue the journey, one must have constant practice, or abhyasa. Indian temples offer one way to maintain abhyasa. They contain a base idol made of stone that never moves out of the temple. This idol is the atman, or the Soul. An icon of the base idol made of bronze can be taken out of the temple. That represents the individual self. These two images are the basis of yoga - participants of yoga seek to unify the individual self with the Universal Soul.

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2007. Published with permission. Christina Rau is a freelance writer and is not affiliated with
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