Yoga (Sanskrit, Pāli: योग yóga) is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, originating in ancient India. The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility. The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
Within Hindu philosophy, the word yoga is used to refer to one of the six orthodox (āstika) schools of Hindu philosophy. Yoga in this sense is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and is also known as Rāja Yoga to distinguish it from later schools. Patanjali’s system is discussed and elaborated upon in many classical Hindu texts, and has also been influential in Buddhism and Jainism. The Bhagavad Gita introduces distinctions such as Jnana Yoga (“yoga based on knowledge”) vs. Karma Yoga (“yoga based on action”).
Other systems of philosophy introduced in Hinduism during the medieval period are bhakti yoga, and hatha yoga.
The Sanskrit word yoga has the literal meaning of “yoke”, from a root yuj meaning to join, to unite, or to attach. As a term for a system of abstract meditation or mental abstraction it was introduced by Patañjali in the 2nd century BC. Someone who practices yoga or follows the yoga philosophy with a high level of commitment is called a yogi or yogini.
The goals of yoga are varied and range from improving health to achieving moksha. Within the Hindu monist schools of Advaita Vedanta, Shaivism and Jainism, the goal of yoga takes the form of moksha, which is liberation from all worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (samsara), at which point there is a realization of identity with the Supreme Brahman. In the Mahabharata, the goal of yoga is variously described as entering the world of Brahma, as Brahman, or as perceiving the Brahman or Ātman that pervades all things. For the bhakti schools of Vaishnavism, bhakti or service to Svayam Bhagavan itself may be the ultimate goal of the yoga process, where the goal is to enjoy an eternal relationship with Vishnu.
The Sanskrit word yoga has the literal meaning of “yoke”, or “the act of yoking or harnessing”, from a root yuj. In Vedic Sanskrit, the term “yoga” besides its literal meaning, the yoking or harnessing of oxen or horses, already has a figurative sense, where it takes the general meaning of “employment, use, application, performance” (compare the figurative uses of “to harness” as in “to put something to some use”). All further developments of the sense of this word are post-Vedic. A sense of “exertion, endeavour, zeal, diligence” is found in Epic Sanskrit. The more technical sense of the term “yoga”, describing a system of meditation or contemplation with the aim of the cessation of mental activity and the attaining of a “supreme state” arises with early Buddhism (5th century BC), and is adopted in Vedanta philosophy by the 4th century BC.
There are a great many compounds containing yoga in Sanskrit, many of them unrelated to the technical or spiritual sense the word has taken in Vedanta. Yoga in these words takes meanings such as “union, connection, contact”, or “method, application, performance”, etc. For example, guṇá-yoga means “contact with a cord”; cakrá-yoga has a medical sense of “applying a splint or similar instrument by means of pulleys (in case of dislocation of the thigh)”; candrá-yoga has the astronomical sense of “conjunction of the moon with a constellation”; puṃ-yoga is a grammatical term expressing “connection or relation with a man”, etc.
Many such compounds are also found in the wider field of religion. Thus, bhakti-yoga means “devoted attachment” in the monotheistic Bhakti movement. The term kriyā-yoga has a grammatical sense, meaning “connection with a verb”. But the same compound is also given a technical meaning in the Yoga Sutras (2.1), designating the “practical” aspects of the philosophy, i.e. the “union with the Supreme” due to performance of duties in everyday life.
Several seals discovered at Indus Valley Civilization sites, dating to the mid 3rd millennium BC, depict figures in positions resembling a common yoga or meditation pose, showing “a form of ritual discipline, suggesting a precursor of yoga,” according to archaeologist Gregory Possehl.Some type of connection between the Indus Valley seals and later yoga and meditation practices is speculated upon by many scholars, though there is no conclusive evidence.
Techniques for experiencing higher states of consciousness in meditation were developed by the shramanic traditions and in the Upanishadic tradition. While there is no clear evidence for meditation in pre-Buddhist early Brahminic texts, there is a view that formless meditation might have originated in the Brahminic tradition. This is based on strong parallels between Upanishadic cosmological statements and the meditative goals of the two teachers of the Buddha as recorded in early Buddhist texts.As well as some less likely possibilities, the view put forward is that cosmological statements in the Upanishads reflect a contemplative tradition, and it is concluded that the Nasadiya Sukta contains evidence for a contemplative tradition, even as early as the late Rg Vedic period.
The Vedic Samhitas contain references to ascetics, while ascetic practices (“tapas”) are referenced in the Brāhmaṇas (900 to 500 BCE), early commentaries on the Vedas.
Upanishadic and Early Buddhist era
The Buddha depicted in yogic meditation, Kamakura, Japan
The more technical linguistic sense of the term “yoga”, describing a system of meditation or contemplation with the aim of the cessation of mental activity and the attaining of a “supreme state” arises with early Buddhism. In Hindu scripture, this sense of the term “yoga” first appears in the middle Upanishads, such as the Katha Upanishad (ca. 400 BCE).Shvetashvatara Upanishad mentions, “When earth, water, fire, air and akasa arise, when the five attributes of the elements, mentioned in the books on yoga, become manifest then the yogi’s body becomes purified by the fire of yoga and he is free from illness, old age and death.” (Verse 2.12). More importantly in the following verse (2.13) it mentions, the “precursors of perfection in yoga”, namely lightness and healthiness of the body, absence of desire, clear complexion, pleasantness of voice, sweet odour and slight excretions.
The early Buddhist texts describe meditative practices and states that existed before the Buddha, as well as those first developed within Buddhism. One key innovative teaching of the Buddha was that meditative absorption must be combined with liberating cognition.Meditative states alone are not an end, for according to the Buddha, even the highest meditative state is not liberating. Instead of attaining a complete cessation of thought, some sort of mental activity must take place: a liberating cognition, based on the practice of mindful awareness. The Buddha also departed from earlier yogic thought in discarding the early Brahminic notion of liberation at death.Liberation for the Brahminic yogin was thought to be the realization at death of a nondual meditative state anticipated in life. In fact, old Brahminic metaphors for the liberation at death of the yogic adept (“becoming cool,” “going out”) were given a new meaning by the Buddha; their point of reference became the sage who is liberated in life.
Many of the Yogic practices that came in later ages synthesized the multiple approaches seen in this era, incorporating elements from Jainism and Buddhism into the Hindu Samkhya philosophy.
Classical Yoga as a system of contemplation with the aim of uniting the human spirit with Ishvara, the “Supreme Being” developed in early Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism during Indian Antiquity, between the Mauryan and the Gupta era (roughly the 2nd century BCE to the 5th century CE).
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
In Hindu philosophy, Yoga is the name of one of the six orthodox philosophical schools.The Yoga philosophical system is closely allied with the Samkhya school. The Yoga school as expounded by the sage Patanjali accepts the Samkhya psychology and metaphysics, but is more theistic than the Samkhya, as evidenced by the addition of a divine entity to the Samkhya’s twenty-five elements of reality. The parallels between Yoga and Samkhya were so close that Max Müller says that “the two philosophies were in popular parlance distinguished from each other as Samkhya with and Samkhya without a Lord….”The intimate relationship between Samkhya and Yoga is explained by Heinrich Zimmer:
These two are regarded in India as twins, the two aspects of a single discipline. Sāṅkhya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature, enumerating and defining its elements, analyzing their manner of co-operation in a state of bondage (“bandha”), and describing their state of disentanglement or separation in release (“mokṣa”), while Yoga treats specifically of the dynamics of the process for the disentanglement, and outlines practical techniques for the gaining of release, or “isolation-integration” (“kaivalya”).
Patanjali is widely regarded as the founder of the formal Yoga philosophy. Patanjali’s yoga is known as Raja yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. Patanjali defines the word “yoga” in his second sutra, which is the definitional sutra for his entire work:
योग: चित्त-वृत्ति निरोध:
– Yoga Sutras
This terse definition hinges on the meaning of three Sanskrit terms. I. K. Taimni translates it as “Yoga is the inhibition (nirodhaḥ) of the modifications (vṛtti) of the mind (citta)”. The use of the word nirodhaḥ in the opening definition of yoga is an example of the important role that Buddhist technical terminology and concepts play in the Yoga Sutra; this role suggests that Patanjali was aware of Buddhist ideas and wove them into his system. Swami Vivekananda translates the sutra as “Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Citta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).”
A sculpture of a Hindu yogi in the Birla Mandir, Delhi
Patanjali’s writing also became the basis for a system referred to as “Ashtanga Yoga” (“Eight-Limbed Yoga”). This eight-limbed concept derived from the 29th Sutra of the 2nd book, and is a core characteristic of practically every Raja yoga variation taught today. The Eight Limbs are:
- Yama (The five “abstentions”): non-violence, non-lying, non-covetousness, non-sensuality, and non-possessiveness.
- Niyama (The five “observances”): purity, contentment, austerity, study, and surrender to god.
- Asana: Literally means “seat”, and in Patanjali’s Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
- Pranayama (“Suspending Breath”): Prāna, breath, “āyāma”, to restrain or stop. Also interpreted as control of the life force.
- Pratyahara (“Abstraction”): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
- Dharana (“Concentration”): Fixing the attention on a single object.
- Dhyana (“Meditation”): Intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation.
- Samādhi (“Liberation”): merging consciousness with the object of meditation.
In the view of this school, the highest attainment does not reveal the experienced diversity of the world to be illusion. The everyday world is real. Furthermore, the highest attainment is the event of one of many individual selves discovering itself; there is no single universal self shared by all persons.
Yoga and Samkhya
Further information: Samkhya
Patanjali systematized the conceptions of Yoga and set them forth on the background of the metaphysics of Samkhya, which he assumed with slight variations. In the early works, the Yoga principles appear along with the Samkhya ideas. Vyasa’s commentary on the Yoga Sutras, also called the “Samkhyapravacanabhasya,” brings out the intimate relation between the two systems.
Yoga agrees with the essential metaphysics of Samkhya, but differs from it in that while Samkhya holds that knowledge is the means of liberation, Yoga is a system of active striving, mental discipline, and dutiful action. Yoga also introduces the conception of God. Sometimes Patanjali’s system is referred to as “Seshvara Samkhya” in contradistinction to Kapila’s “Nirivara Samkhya.”
The Bhagavad Gita (‘Song of the Lord’), uses the term “yoga” extensively in a variety of ways. In addition to an entire chapter (ch. 6) dedicated to traditional yoga practice, including meditation, it introduces three prominent types of yoga:
- Karma yoga: The yoga of action.
- Bhakti yoga: The yoga of devotion, note Krishna had also specified devotion itself was action similar to above.
- Jnana yoga: The yoga of knowledge.
In Chapter 2 of the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna about the essence of Yoga as practiced in daily lives:
योगस्थ: कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनंजय ।
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्यो: समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते ।।
(yoga-sthaḥ kuru karmani sanyugam tyaktvā dhananjay
siddhy-asiddhyoḥ samo bhutvā samatvam yoga ucyate)
– Bhagavad Gita