It is strange that when the word yoga is mentioned, two very different images usually come to mind. One image is that of a yogi (a practitioner of yoga) sitting calmly, Buddha-like, in meditation. The other image is that of a sweating individual, clad in workout clothes, trying to keep still as he maintains what appears to be a rather difficult, unnatural posture.
Which image reflects true yoga? These two contradicting images can’t both be right, right?
Wrong. They are indeed both accurate representations of yoga. And there is a simple explanation for it.
Yoga is very old Indian art, so ancient that it was practiced five thousands of years ago (some three thousand years before Jesus). “Yoga” is actually derived from a Sanskrit word whose meaning is “to unite” or “to integrate.”" As such, yoga means union: the integration of a person’s many aspects (spiritual, mental and physical), or the union of personal or “self” consciousness with the universal or “divine” consciousness. Yoga means bringing together different things into one congruent whole.
The yogis of yore taught that in order to achieve unity, there should be balance. This means that within one individual, the body, mind and spirit should be aligned. In other words, his mind should not be thinking one thing while his emotions desire another. Intelligence, emotion and action should all be in harmony.
This gives rise to a very important issue: how to bring about harmony and balance. Again, the ancient yogis had the answer. According to them, yoga is achieved through exercise, breathing, and meditation. These three are the ways toward yoga or union; some say that these three are yoga itself. As a well-known yogic paradox goes, the path and the goal are but the same.
In yoga, the person is taught first of all to respect his human body, to care for it by nourishing it well, exercising, and staying away from harmful or forbidden substances. There are specific yoga exercises that improve the functions of all systems of the body, including circulation, respiration, the mental processes, digestion and so on. The key components of these exercises are breathing techniques and yoga postures called asanas. Proper breathing is especially important in yoga, because it is believed that breath is the origin and sustainer of life. Incidentally, correct breathing is also a necessary aspect of meditation, which is another important yogic activity.
Contrary to what many people think, meditation in yoga does not mean making the mind go blank. The goal of meditation is to have a quiet and peaceful mind, one that is unencumbered by the chatter of meaningless thoughts. Normally, even if a person is quiet and alone, his mind doesn’t rest. It is beset by a ceaseless cacophony of random thoughts that yogis liken to endlessly chattering monkeys. With yogic meditation, the mind is trained to be free of such thoughts, and to find true quiet and serenity. In practical terms, this is highly beneficial because it relieves anxiety and stress, and brings on deep relaxation. It promotes good mental health.
Obviously, yoga adopts a holistic approach, yet it is even more wide-ranging than most people think. There are actually many branches of yoga. What has been mentioned above covers only one branch: the one called Hatha Yoga or the Yoga of Postures. There are other systems of yoga that accommodate the different personalities and temperaments of all people. For instance, Bhakti Yoga (the Yoga of Devotion) is suited for people who are inclined towards prayer and devotion. Jnana Yoga is another branch that suits intellectual or philosophical types. And Karma Yoga (the Yoga of Service) is for those who are happiest when they provide selfless service to others. In all, there are six main branches of yoga. So far, what has come to be most widely accepted in the Western world is Hatha Yoga, the yoga that adopts the three-pronged approach of physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation.