When we speak of Yoga the first thing in mind is the posture, the breaths, the exercise. Yoga is commonly associated with flexibility and its complex postures. It is also associated with breathing excercises and meditation. But this is not always the case. There is more to Yoga than just the exercise. For those who studied Indian Philosophy, Hinduism or Indian culture and history, Yoga is not just all those things; it is something more.
So what is Yoga to begin with? The word yoga literally means ‘union’. Union in the sense of spiritual union of the individual soul with the Universal Soul. Yoga is “a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation.”To put it simply, Yoga is a school of thought in Indian Philosophy; one of the Orthodox Systems.
The said founder of the Yoga system is Patanjali. Although there had been other Yoga sutras written from an ancient pre-existing oral yoga tradition which were composed of practical advice and theoretical context, Patanjali’s Yoga sutra has been the most accepted form. For Patanjali, “Yoga does not mean union but spiritual effort to attain perfection through the control of the body, senses and mind.” The aim of Yoga is to achieve a transcendent state and spiritual discipline.
Yoga can also be traced back in the Bhagavadgita. In this most popular and sacred book, Bhagavadgita, Yoga means the synthesis of action, devotion and knowledge. The Bhagavadgita defines Yoga as “that state than which there is nothing higher or worth realizing and firmly rooted in which a person is never shaken even by the greatest pain; that state free from all pain and misery is Yoga.” In the Bhagavadgita, Yoga is considered as one with Sankhya. On one hand, Sankhya means knowledge and it is the theory. On the other hand, Yoga means spiritual action and it is the practice. “Yoga mostly accepts the metaphysics and epistemology of Sankhya.”
Yoga believes and accepts the existence of God. In Yoga, God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. He is the perfect being and has pure knowledge. But this God in Yoga is not the creator, nor the preserver, nor the destroyer of the world. He does not reward nor punish. He has nothing to do with the bondage and the liberation of a person. This concept of God is not perfect and is quite unsatisfactory.
Patanjali’s Yoga sutra is well known for its Eightfold Path of Discipline. This eightfold path aims for the control over the body, the senses and the mind. One of the ways to achieve one’s true nature is through the detachments from sensual materials. One also has to overcome and conquer one’s excess passions and needless cravings. The first five are called external aids to Yoga, while the remaining three are the internal aids. The first of the eightfold path is Yama which means abstention. Yama is also considered as to how a person treats others; moral principles. “The yamas are the moral virtues which, if attended to, purify human nature and contribute to health and happiness of society.” The first Yama is the abstention of all kinds of injury to others; doing no harm to others. This is known as ahimsa or nonviolence. Mahatma Gandhi has explained ahimsa as “the avoidance of harm to any living creature in thought or deed.” The next is satya or truthfulness. One must tell the truth and avoid making lies. Though there might be times when the truth could harm someone unnecessarily, one has to consider what he/she says, how he/she says it, and in what way it could affect others. The third Yama is asteya or simply nonstealing. Nonstealing here does not only refer to material objects. Asteya also encourages a person not to steal intangible materials such as pride, honor and many others. Another Yama is brahmacharya or nonlust. Brahmacharya is the abstention from passions and lust. “The person who...