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What is Yoga

In ancient India, with the evolution of ideas about humanity, the universe and their existence, there developed six schools or systems of philosophy, or darshanas, that represented humanity’s quest for realization of its true nature/reality through spirituality. These schools were Sankhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva-mimamsa and Uttara-mimamsa (also called as Vedanta). Among these various schools of philosophical sciences, is Yoga, which represents a method to realize this ultimate truth by contemplation and steady, persistent meditation. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj”, meaning “merge”, “combine” or “engage in” in the literal sense, though at a spiritual level, it signifies a state of deep meditation. The proponent of this school of philosophy was Patanjali, whose treatise on this body of knowledge are the “Yoga-sutras“, a set of aphorisms through which Patanjali prescribes a system of practices to reach that highest state of pure consciousness by understanding, then restraining and eventually controlling the operations of the human mind. Further, in these sutras, Patanjali prescribes an eight-fold path to attain to the state of perfect control and harmony of the body and the mind – namely, Yama (restraining of self, practice of non-violence, etc.), Niyama (practice of basic austerities), Asana (regulation of posture), Pranayama (regulation of breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (focus attention), Dhyana (meditation, or maintaining continued focus) and finally, Samadhi (the state of perfection in concentration). In a nutshell, Patanjali describes yoga as – yogashchittavrittinirodhah, Yogasutra 1.2 (Yoga is the cessation of all activities of the mind).
Other than referring to one of the six schools of philosophy, the term Yoga also implies engagement in a particular spiritual practice. In this context, Swami Vivekananda has categorized practice of yoga as four-fold. He said “The grandest idea in the religion of the Vedanta is that we may reach the same goal by different paths; and these paths I have generalised into four – viz. those of work, love, psychology, and knowledge” (Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 1, The Ideal of Karma Yoga), i.e.
1) Karma-yoga – perfection through performance of karma or action, more specifically, selfless action, without being attached to its outcome or results.
2) Jnana-yoga – perfection through knowledge and intellectual understanding.
3) Bhakti-yoga – perfection through love and devotion for a chosen ideal
4) Raja-yoga – perfection through practice of meditation and concentration
The term yoga gets a mention in several major texts of ancient Indian history as well, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata, Shrimad Bhagavatam, and so on.
Sri Krishna, an incarnate of God, instructs Arjuna (the Pandava warrior prince), while steering his chariot in the middle of the Kurukshetra war, the most venerable teachings of the Bhagavad Gita, considered one of the greatest scriptures of Hinduism, both from the perspective of profundity of thought and practicality/applicability of its discipline. Here, the Lord describes yoga as both equanimity of mind as well as dexterity of action –
योगस्थः कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय |
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्योः समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते || 2.48 ||
yogasthaH kuru karmaaNi sangaM tyaktvaa dhananjaya |
siddhyasiddhyoH samo bhootvA samatvaM yoga uchyate || 2.48 ||
बुद्धियुक्तो जहातीह उभे सुकृतदुष्कृते |
तस्माद्योगाय युज्यस्व योगः कर्मसु कौशलम् || 2.50 ||
buddhiyukto jahaateeha ubhe sukrutadushkrute |
tasmaadyogaaya yujyasva yogaH karmasu kaushalam || 2.50 ||
Being steadfast in Yoga, O Dhananjaya, perform actions, abandoning attachment, remaining unconcerned as regards success and failure. This evenness of mind, is known as Yoga. (2.48)
Endued with this evenness of mind, one frees oneself in this life, alike from vice and virtue. Devote thyself, therefore, to this Yoga. Yoga is the very dexterity of work. (2.50)
(Srimad Bhagavad Gita, Commentary by Swami Swarupananda, Advaita Ashrama publication, 2007)
The topic of Yoga is vast and encompasses a wide array of physical and spiritual practices, especially in this current day and age. For further reading on these topics, the reader is directed to the following references:
a) Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: With the Exposition of Vyasa, Swami Veda Bharati, Motilal Banarsidass, 2015
b) Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 1 (Karma Yoga, Raja Yoga), Vol 2 (Jnana Yoga), Vol 3 (Bhakti Yoga)