- for the location in Tokyo, Japan, see Yoga (用賀、Yōga).
Yoga is a form of mysticism that developed on the Indian subcontinent in the Hindu cultural context. Its origin is impossible to trace, because it dates back to before recorded history. Yoga comes in many forms specifically designed to suit different types of people. As a result, some forms of yoga have gained significant popularity outside India, particularly in the West during the past century.
The word Yoga originates from the Sanskrit word "Yuj" (literally, "to yoke") and is generally translated as "union" or "integration". According to Yoga experts, the union referred to by the name is that of the individual soul with the cosmos, or the Supreme.
Yoga has both a philosophical and a practical dimension. The philosophy of yoga ("union") deals with the nature of the individual soul and the cosmos, and how the two are related. The practice of yoga, on the other hand, can be any activity that leads or brings the practitioner closer to this mystical union - a state called self-realization. Over thousands of years, special practical yoga techniques have been developed by experts in yoga, who are referred to as Yogis (male) and Yoginis (female).
These Yoga techniques cover a broad range, encompassing physical, mental, and spiritual activities. Traditionally, they have been classified into four categories or paths: the path of meditation (Raja Yoga), the path of devotion (Bhakti Yoga), the path of selfless service to the Divine (Karma Yoga), and the path of intellectual analysis or the discrimination of truth and reality (Jnana Yoga). The most conspicuous form of yoga in the West, Hatha Yoga - consisting of various physical and breathing exercises and purification techniques - is actually the third and the fourth stages of Ashtanga Yoga of Yoga Sutras by Patanjali.
Due to its Indic roots, Yoga philosophy makes heavy use of Sanskrit. Because these Sanskrit terms reflect a specific world-view and historical development of thought, many Sanskrit terms do not have precise equivalents in other languages, and consequently are translated in various ways. As differences in translation can be confusing, it is often more expedient and precise to use the original Sanskrit terms. Most yoga guidebooks include glossaries of these terms with local language explanations.
Today, the word yoga is written in different ways: Yoga (the most common around the world ); Yôga; ioga (common adulteration in the countries in which Portuguese is the official language).
Yogic philosophy is primarily Upanishadic with roots in Samkhya, and some scholars see some influence by Buddhism. It is a universal philosophy that enjoins the practitioner to pursue his or her own path to enlightenment, depending on personality and inclination. It is very much in line with its Vedic roots and the traditional pluralism of Hinduism. For this reason, it is easy for a "Christian", for example, to see Jesus the Christ as his or her own ishwar-devata (personal deity). "Christ the Yogi" is not an uncommon concept in the world of Yoga today. Most religions, when viewed through their ethical and spiritual standpoints without the trappings of dogma, are easily reconcilable with Yoga philosophy in general because of its transcendental message.
Yoga a Religion?
In the context of Hinduism, yoga is one of the six major schools of Hindu philosophy and as such means specifically Raja Yoga. In light of this and yoga's Indic origins, some people consider it to be a part or subset of Hinduism, implying that all yoga practitioners are Hindus. Although opinions on this may vary, most yogis would probably agree that there is nothing inherently religious about most yoga techniques. The sole exception to this is Bhakti yoga, which is a special yoga path designed for practioners who are religiously inclined. Even Bhakti yoga, however, does not prescribe any particular form of worship and specifically allows for and encourages its practice in the context of any religion, including but not limited to Hinduism.
Seminal Works on Yoga
The Bhagavad Gita is the archetype of Yoga scripture. Capturing the essence and at the same time going into detail about the various Yogas and their philosophies, it was the groundstone to Yogic thought, and constantly refers to itself as such, the "Scripture of Yoga" (see the final verses of each chapter).
It is spoken in the format of Lord Krishna, self-identified as a manifestation of Brahman (the impersonal, supreme force of the cosmos, the Divine Ground), to Arjuna, a warrior and friend who is loathe to go to battle that would involve his killing his own gurus (teachers) and family members. The book is contained within the Mahabharata, and is thought to have been written some time between the 5th and the 2nd century BC.
- For more information, see the article Bhagavad Gita.
Yoga is also one of the six darshanas (schools) of Vedic/Hindu philosophy, and as such specifically refers to Raja Yoga, the royal path of divine meditation on the one Brahman, which was codified by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras.
- For more information, see the article Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
The most famous of the traditional Hindu schools of yoga, and a basis for nearly all modern systems, is Hatha Yoga. It is representative of all non-Bhakti-Karma-Jnana Yoga that has become so popular over the past century. The seminal work on Hatha Yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, written by Swami Svatmarama.
- For more information, see the article Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
The guide to Natya Yoga was written by Bharata Muni. Sage Narada along with Gandharvas were the first to practise Natya Yoga, which compraise all the four main yoga's. Natya Yoga was practised by the medieval devadasis, and is currently taught in a few orthodox schools of Bharatanatyam and Odissi
Yoga is often mentioned in company with Tantra, but the two are not the same. The principal difference is that Yoga sees body consciousness as the root cause of bondage and rising above body consciousness as the goal, while Tantra views the body as a means, rather than as an obstruction, to understanding. For more information see the article on Tantra.
While the Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras and Hatha Yoga Pradipika are clearly founded on Upanishadic and Brahmanical thought, much of Yoga has been influenced by and expanded into Tantra. Tantra is more ritual based, having its roots in the first millennium CE, and incorporates much more of a deist base. Almost entirely founded on Shiva and Shakti worship, Tantra visualizes the ultimate Brahman as Param Shiva, manifested through Shiva (the passive, masculine force of Lord Shiva) and Shakti (the active, creative feminine force of his consort, variously known as Ma Kali, Durga, Shakti, Parvati and others). It focuses on the kundalini, a three and a half-coiled 'snake' of spiritual energy at the base of the spine that rises through the chakras until union between Shiva and Shakti (also known as samadhi) is achieved.
It views the body as means, rather than as obstruction, to understanding, and as such incorporates mantra (Sanskrit prayers, often to gods, that are repeated), yantra (complex symbols representing Shakti in her various forms through intricate geometric figures) and rituals that range from simple murti (statue representations of deities) or image worship to meditation on a corpse! While much tantra certainly, through its many texts (see kaularvatantra, mahanirvana tantra) and teachers (e.g. Abhinava Gupta, Ramakrishna, a saint who practiced Kali bhakti, Advaita Vedanta and tantra, etc.) seems odd and highly arcane at times, it is transparent as being completely yogic. Also, injunctions are made that most people are not suitable for Tantra, especially those of pashu-bhava (animal disposition). This implies that anyone who has not observed celibacy, honesty, respect of elders, bodily cleansing, ritual cleansing through prayer, and various other processes for up to twelve years at a time, and still retains base desires, greed, sexual motivations, etc. one is not fit to practice Tantra. For this reason, even more stringently than other Yogas, Tantra, both Hindu and Buddhist, remains a strictly Guru-initiated system that as yet finds few true adepts outside of India.
Traditionally, knowledge of yoga has been passed down through the generations from teacher to student. In Sanskrit, the teacher is called the guru, and a disciple is called shishya. Emphasized to varying degrees by all schools of yoga, in some the Guru takes on quasi-divine proportions. The Guru guides the shisya (student) through yogic discipline from the beginning. When doing yoga, the student is urged to look long and hard for a sadguru (True Teacher) and then devote himself to imbibing that Guru's learning.
Beginning with the arrival of Swami Vivekananda in 1893, there has been a steady flow of learned teachers that have brought the transcendental message of Yoga to the West. While the influence of these Yogins is deeply inscribed into the surface of the modern yogic ethos, both in India and America, a proliferation of 'yoga clinics' and non-spiritual yoga systems has been seen in the West, especially in the United States. While many Americans view it as an exercise system that simply enhances one's health, a much greater number in India (and a minority in America) still see it as it has been for over 5,000 years, whether in the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras, the writings of the Dalai Lama, or the "Yoga Boom" of the twentieth century, a system of spirituality universal in its application.
The Great Modern Yogins
First brought into America as early as the 1890s by the great yogin and disciple of Shri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, the Hindu representative in the Chicago Parliament of World Religions, Yoga has also been transported in the arms of many other great yogins and formed into stratified schools seeking to propagate Yoga in its great spiritual context. But these teachers have made their imprint in both India and America, and continue to serve as modern embodiments of Yoga.
Swami Rama Tirtha, who came from a deep yoga tradition in the Himalayas of India, was the founding spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute. He was the first yogin to come to America and be subjected to the scrutiny of modern science. Among other things, he stunned doctors by stopping the beat of his heart completely for several minutes.
Many modern schools of Hatha Yoga derive from the school of Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who taught in Mysore, India from 1924 until 1947, at which time he moved to Madras, where he taught until his death in 1989. Among his students prominent in popularizing Yoga in the West were Sri K. Pattabhi Jois famous for popularizing the vigorous Ashtanga Vinyasa style, B.K.S. Iyengar who emphasizes alignment and the use of props, Indra Devi and Krishnamacharya's son T.K.V. Desikachar who developed the Viniyoga style. Desikachar founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Madras (now Chennai), with the aim of making available the heritage of yoga as taught by Krishnamacharya.
Other great yogins are Paramahansa Yogananda, practitioner of Kriya Yoga who arrived in America as a powerful example of the universality of Yoga. Sporting a cross, he came to the U.S. with the Hindu Bhagavad Gita in one hand and the Christian New Testament in the other, speaking to his disciples in pluralist ideology with Yoga as the binding force.
Sri Aurobindo, referred to as Aurobindo Ghosh by those who consider him as merely a philosopher rather than an Avatar, was not simply an intellectual genius born in West Bengal and educated in the best university in England. His masterful translations and interpretations of Hindu and Yogic scriptures are mystic and esoteric, and often are the opposite of what you will find in Max Muller's and other purely intellectual translations of the sacred Sanskrit texts, among which his translations/commentaries on the Hindu texts of the Upanishads and Gita are mystic in nature, and his epic Hindu/Yoga poem Savitri is a treasure of Hindu Yogic literature, formally being the longest poem ever written in English. Beyond this, his personal life is a fascinating testimony of the life of a true yogin. After the goddess Sri entered his being, he became Sri Aurobindo. Besides his influence and scholarly writing on Yoga, he also founded Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry, that continues to propagate the practice of Integral Yoga , which is a Tantric synthesis of the four main Yogas (Karma, Jnana, Bhakti and Raja).
Gopi Krishna was a Kashmiri office worker and spiritual seeker who was born in 1903, and wrote autobiographical accounts of his spiritual experiences with Yoga. His most famous one is "Kundalini": Path to Higher Consciousness." Gopi Krishna's graphic accounts of his experiences stand out as among the clearest journals documenting a spiritual transformation. They are highly recommended as reading for anyone interested in Yogic phenomena.
Swami Sivananda (born in Pattamadai , Tamil Nadu, India in 1887), one of the greatest yoga masters of 20th century has authored over 200 highly inspiring books on yoga. Sivananda has also established Sivananda ashram of Rishikesh, India and is the founder of Divine Life Society. His disciple, Swami Satyananda (born in Almorah , Uttar Pradesh, India in 1923), has established International Yoga Fellowship movement, Bihar School of Yoga and Bihar Yoga Bharati, world's first university on yoga. The university is now headed by his disciple, Swami Niranjananda . Another deciple of his, Swami Vishnu-Devananda , has founded the international yoga vedanta centers in the west.
Shrii Shrii Anandamurti, Bengal, India, 1921-1990 is a great master of tantric yoga. His teachings incorporated full system of Raja Yoga with advanced meditation techniques from the tantras. Social movement Ananda Marga is based on his teachings called Ananda Sūtram given in traditional form of slokas (aphorisms) in sanskrit language.
Mahamandaleshwar Paramhans Swami Maheshwarananda (Swamiji) comes from Rajasthan, India, and has been living in Vienna, Austria since 1972. Swamiji is the author of the scientific master-system Yoga in Daily Life and founder of the International Sri Deep Madhavananda Ashram Fellowship and Yoga in Daily Life ashrams and centres worldwide. He also inspired the foundations of the Yoga in Daily Life Youth Union and the Ayurveda Academy of Yoga in Daily Life.
- For a list of some modern styles of Yoga popular in America, Australia, Europe and India, see the List of yoga schools page.