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  • Writer's pictureAnn Yebei

What is Yoga?

Physical Living Post #1: What is Yoga?

 

When I first invested in my physical health, I was graceful with myself. Took as many breaks as I needed and sought out female experts online to follow. It's been quite a journey- about 3 years now- and I've come a long way. High impact sports were too rough for me (it's only now that I'm considering running), so I had moved from high Intensity Interval Trainings (HIIT) and the like, and went for something I more naturally aligned with: yoga.


In an uncarpeted stone hallway a woman holds the pose in the middle of the hallway in matching deep blue vest and leggings, barefoot. The open air corridor has an ashy brown floor and pure white arches with no doors
Eka Pada Urdhva Dhanurasana (One-Legged Upward Bow or One-Legged Wheel Pose)

And for at least half a year, I used yoga as my exercise, or movement, activity for the days. I slowly built the discipline and internal inclination to return to the mat and my time with my body. I used it to build a habit of mobility building, strength building, bodily exploration and awareness, and play.


Yoga is an ancient practice with various postures that make up its foundation with benefits ranging from the bodily to the psychological and philosophical. The increase in well-being is an explicit part of yoga’s purpose and goal and involves focusing on breath and movement; that is, movements of physical strength and flexibility. Underneath “yoga” are disciplines, or elements, involving the physical, mental, and spiritual.


However, from last year, I shifted to pilates- which seemed quite similar- but was spiritually neutral. I did so due to my lack of understanding Yoga's Vedic roots and Indian spirituality sources. As a spiritual practitioner myself, Christian, to be specific, I chose to disengage completely rather than half-heartedly partake and substitute "the Supreme Being" or "the Force" for Yahweh, my God, and his Spirit, during my meditative movements and bodily exercises. It was an act of respect to its origin story and my own deity due to being ignorant about yoga.


I thought: Better safe than sorry!


Now, I want to share what I have learned about yoga, and why I will return to it in due time!


A small flame is lit on small black bowl that is set into a taller holder carved out to show a leafy plant in its hollow body. It has the color of green jade. The background is out of focus but shows a wooden beam and poorly lit insides of a building during the day. The flame holder is lit by natural light in the foreground
Mindfulness Practice in the Body

Yoga: Origins and Meaning


The definition depends on the philosophy in question, or the era of literature one is reading. This word "yoga" can be found in works from the Rigveda era (since around 1500 BCE), and into later Vedic works like the Brahmanas. Some of the definitions included "achieving the unachieved," "harnessing," "controlling," "yoking," "connection" and so forth.


Yogya is presumed to be an old Aryan word used in later Sanskrit literature of the Upanishads as well. Yoga was documented while being refined and developed by sages called Rishis in the Upanishads and these writings consisted of their beliefs and practices. It is important to note that the original language of yoga is Sanskrit. So many names of yoga poses, or asanas, will be in Sanskrit or transliterated terms.


The summative meaning behind yoga is the metaphor of one reigning their senses consciously. It's about building the skill of being in control of one's bodily senses and mind as one does a bow's stretch or a wild horse. Beyond this, there are as many interpretations as there are schools or forms of yoga. Some involve focusing on unity with the Supreme Being, explicitly. Others focus on joining the breath and mindful meditation. And others focus on the unity of the senses, mind, and breath via removal of all sensual, or worldly knowledge, or Bhava (e.g. emotional attachments, reaction tendencies, habits, etc).


The person is Asian presenting and male with a high manbun, a grey sweat vest and black pants as he smiles while holding up a rolled up light grey yoga mat with one hand. His background is lit with white walls and a couple of green plants at the sides of the photo
Joyful Movement is Part of a Good Life

So where can yoga be found over the thousands of years since its conception? Now, it has been adapted to global localities and 19 different types of yoga can be noted. Yoga is among the 6 schools of philosophy in Hinduism and in Buddhism it is a major part of practice alongside its own meditations. 


Elements of Yoga

A person is standing tall on a boulder overlooking a misty and vast forested mountain terrain. Her right leg is bent and folded onto her upper inner thigh as she maintains balance with her hands together over her head
Vrikshasana (Tree Pose)

There are a few disciplines or elements of yoga and the categorization of the yoga practice can be influenced by the teacher or school of thought in question. Mantras, for example, may not be used in all yoga practices. These are the repetitive sounds used to adjust the vibration of one’s being, or to penetrate the depths of the unconscious mind. Mantras can be chanted, listened to, or merely thought of.


They can be thought of as a meditative cue, and are typically in Sanskrit.


The root of the word is “man” (to think) and “tra” from “trai” (to protect/free from bondage). Conclusively, mantra is meant to protect, or free, the mind from bondage during practice.


Swami Vishnudevananda’s 5 Basic Principles of Yoga

Swami Vishnudevananda is one of the teachers who brought yoga to the global audience. He is noted to consider the lifestyle needs of his locality and teach from that informed state of mind. As a result, the adapted wisdom resulted in the following 5 principles of yoga:

  • Āsana: Proper Exercise

  • Prānāyāma: Proper Breathing

  • Savāsana: Proper Relaxation

  • Vegetarianism: Proper Diet

  • Vedānta and Dhyāna: Positive Thinking and Meditation


Translating…

Asanatraditionally, it is "the seated posture" in meditation; from Sanskrit meaning "seat"


"Although asana is now the most popular aspect of yoga, it is considered to be only one small part of the tradition of yoga as a whole.... Asana practice is considered important since it helps to keep the physical body healthy. Since the body is the vehicle for the soul, looking after the physical body is vital for spiritual development".

(Yogapedia)


Pranayama: derived from Sanskrit roots; prana meaning “vital life force,” yama meaning “control'' and ayama meaning “extension/expansion.” The breath is symbolic of prana, and pranayama can be understood as methods to extend and expand vital life force energy through the deliberate control of breathwork


"Not only does pranayama have the potential to steady the mind, but the practice has far-reaching physiological benefits such as increased heart rate variability, improved oxygen saturation and overall re-balancing of the nervous system".

(Yogapedia)


A photo of 2 women in a group session completing the Warrior 2 pose. At the forest is a black presenting woman focusing on her movement while, in the hazy background, is a white presenting woman with auburn hair
Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II)

Savasana: common at end or start of sequences to relax and integrate the movements of that session. “[In] both Sivananda and Yoga Therapy it is sometimes practiced between postures in order to calm the nervous system” (Yogapedia). Derived from shava, meaning "corpse"; asana meaning "seat" or "posture".


Vedanta: from veda, meaning “knowledge,” and anta, meaning “end.” May be read as “the end goal of Vedic literature.” Denote someone with mastery of the four classical Vedas, and hence has the knowledge that will lead to their freedom/liberation as a soul. “The term is sometimes used to describe Indian philosophy in general” (Yogapedia).


“Vedanta is a philosophy which emphasizes the harmony of all religions. It teaches that all beings are members of a single family and any apparent differences are just superficial. The supreme Soul is within everyone, and one form of worship is to recognize the Divine in all beings…. The core teaching of Vedanta is to experience one’s true nature: the individual soul as a part of the universal or supreme Soul…. Understanding that the individual soul is limitless and all-pervasive brings about the direct experience of this reality”.

(Yogapedia)


Dhyana: means “meditation,” from root words dhi meaning “the mind/receptacle” and yana, meaning “moving/going”. Dhyai is an alternative root meaning “to think of”. It’s a refined meditative practice calling for deep concentration and which can be done only after completing preparatory exercises.


An elderly black presenting woman is meditating on an ocean blue mat laid out Infront of a white building with it's door open behind her. The sun and shade create a play of shadows and bright white light against the house as she meditates in the shade in front of what seem to be tall, thin, and winnowy plants. Her eyes are closed, she is smiling, and wearing a long sleeved dark purple top with a lighter shade of paints and magenta socks.
Asana (The Seat)

Yoga Sutras of Maharishi Pantanjali

These Sutras are one of the classical works that make up the foundation of yogic philosophy, history, and practice. Below is the 8-Fold Path of Ashtanga Yoga, a classical form of yoga.

  • Bahiranga Yoga Sadhana: The External

    • 1st Fold: Yama- One’s Entire Value System

    • 2nd Fold: Niyama- One’s Personal Disciplines

    • 3rd Fold: Asana- One’s Physical Posture/Movement

    • 4th Fold: Pranayama: One’s Breath(work)


  • Antaranga Yoga: The Internal

    • 5th Fold: Pratyahara- The Bridge; The Move Towards One’s True Inner Self

    • 6th Fold: Dharana- One's Concentration Practice

    • 7th Fold: Dyana- One's Meditation Practice

    • 8th Fold Path: Samadhi- One’s Concentrated State of Being


Translating…

Yama: “bridle/rein”, boundaries and outer behavioral codes to attain healthy and ethical living


Niyama: similar to prior Fold of Yama, except it focuses more on the vital internal “observances” or “duties” in yogic philosophy of living. Applying elements of Yama to the person’s own mind, body, and spirit to foster positive internal strength, clarity, and discipline.


Asana: (View Above)

Pranayama: (View Above)


A Large white lotus is the midst of unfurling. It is on still dark waters with lily pads next to it. The more central the petals are the pinker they are and bright yellow stamens are visible partially inside the flower next to bright blush pink petals.
A Large Opening White Lotus Flower on Still Water

Pratyahara: Control over one’s senses, moving focus inwards, Vital preceding Fold before Inner Elements of Yoga can be practiced, “withdrawal of the senses”, Roots words of prati meaning “against/withdraw” and ahara meaning “food/external consumption”. Fold of practicing to connect with inner reality and better attain self-realization and understanding of the influence senses, thoughts, and feelings have on lived experiences.


Dharana: Concentration


Dyana: (View Above) Meditation, Builds on prior Folds


Samadhi: Absorption/Enlightenment/Bliss, Once all Folds are engaged samyama is reached; a state of full detachment from the world and complete union in meditation to their Self.

Conclusions and Reminders


Learned anything new? I did!


After understanding that yoga is focused on positive development in the mind and body- with no mysticisms attached, or a single particular religious doctrine- though there are plenty of religious or spiritual systems which have their own yoga practices- I’m excited to jump back into it! Yoga is holistic in nature and a complex practice as it touches on the physical, intellectual, spiritual, and mental/emotional health of an individual.


A black presenting woman with braids is grinning down at her child who is of much lighter complexion comparatively in matching clothes (mother has pale green while the child has orange). She is in Table Top position as the child crawls towards her on her black yoga mat. They are in the kitchen by the metallic island counter.
Yoga can be Practiced in Solitude or in a Community

As a lifestyle, its goal is developing the practitioner to be able to balance themselves in body, mind, and spirit. Self-realization and empowerment are its key tracks. This may result in changes in values, motivations, habits, and attitudes.


Feel free to find the yoga practice that fits your age and physical abilities! Have fun and practice safely (or with an instructor!)! I wish you all a fruitful and healing journey of play and learning with your bodies.

 


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