The practice of Yoga as a mental and physical discipline has for long been endorsed and vouched for by celebrities. And today, it has penetrated to a large section of the population in the USA. In this article on the basics of Yoga, we try to unravel the mysteries of this ancient discipline and find out how it is relevant in this day and age.

What Is Yoga?

Originating in India, Yoga refers to the set of physical and mental disciplines practiced for attaining physical and spiritual harmony with oneself and with the universe.

The oldest references to the discipline are found in ancient Hindu texts. Later, offshoot religions from Hinduism such as Jainism and Buddhism have also incorporated and developed on the philosophy to include the mental, verbal and physical activities. In its turn, religious and other texts on Hinduism have included the additions of Buddhist and Jain philosophers till now, it is difficult to ascertain or separate one from the other.

The word 'Yoga' is derived from the Sanskrit 'yuj', meaning to control or unite. The term commonly implies union, oneness or conjunction (with the universal spirit). In the western world, Yoga usually refers to a form of exercise or meditation involving various postures (called asanas) and breathing techniques.

Basics of Yoga: According to Hindu philosophy, there are basically five branches of Yoga:

Raja Yoga literally means the royal union, was popularized through the writings of the Hindu sage Patanjali. Also referred to as astanga Yoga, this is primarily concerned with the cultivation of the mind using meditation, the ultimate goal being liberation.

Karma Yoga focuses on the commitment to duty without any expectations of reward or result. It requires the Yogi (the person who practices Yoga) to adhere to his duties unselfishly for the welfare of the world and achieve salvation in doing so. This branch is also dealt with extensively in the Hindu religious text, the Gita.

Jnana Yoga refers to the knowledge of the absolute, i.e. the understanding of the body (kshetra) and the spirit (kshetrajna), and the relationship between the two.

Bhakti Yoga is the loving devotion to God. The main Bhakti cults which have embraced this form of Yoga as their mainstay are Vaishnavism (worshipping Krishna and the power of love), Shaktism (worshipping the female power or Shakti) and Shaivism (worshipping Shiva).

Hatha Yoga is a compound of the words Ha (sun) and Tha (moon) and refers to opposite and complementary energies. It involves practices for mental and physical strength. This is also common in countries outside India and includes asanas (for poise, control and balance for physical health; purification processes and breathing techniques (pranayam). In yoga for beginners, usually a modified form of this discipline is imparted.

In an advanced form, hatha Yoga has six stages focusing on the attainment of Samadhi (experiencing unity with the Supreme Being). These limbs are asana, Pranayam, Pratyahar, Dharan, Dhyan and Samadhi. It also attempts to awaken the kundalini or the internal energy.