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Introduction to Yoga

The word ‘Yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ which, depending upon the usage, can either mean ‘to join/yoke’ or ‘samadhi (total mental absorption). In the classical yoga text “Yoga Sutras by Patanjali”, yoga is defined as “the ability to control the fluctuations of the mind-field”. In this context the meaning ‘samadhi’ is more appropriate since one can experience the state of Samadhi only when mind’s fluctuations have been fully arrested. Traditionally, however, the word "yoga" is taken to mean the union between the individual self (the ‘jeeva’ or ‘atma’) and the universal consciousness (‘paramatma’).

Patanjali emphasizes practicing concentration and meditation in order to achieve a calm and peaceful mind. The need to maintain a steady and comfortable seated posture for meditation for long periods of time necessitates a body that is healthy and free of disease and a mind that is free of worry and fear. The art and science of hatha yoga was developed to achieve such a mind-body complex. Several great yogis, including Yogi Matsyendranath and Yogi Gorakhanath, are considered to be the 'forefathers' of hatha yoga. However, it is Yogi Swatmarama who compiled the wisdom of Hatha Yoga in his Hatha Yoga Pradeepika (HYP) which expounds the techniques such as asana, pranayama, mudra (hand and body gestures) and shatkarma (the six-fold cleansing techniques). Through regular practice of these techniques, the body is purified of all the toxins, the nadis (channels of subtle energy) are opened for free flow of prana (vital energy), and kundalini shakti (the dormant serpent power) gets awakened. Through control of prana, the mind is automatically controlled and one can achieve a deeper experience of meditation.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, has defined an 8-fold path called Ashtanga Yoga which is prescribed as a means of ‘sadhana’ (individual endeavor) to achieve the objectives of yoga. It is unfortunate, however, that most people, and especially those in the West, associate the word yoga only with asana (physical postures) which is only one of these eight limbs. Even though asana is an important component of the practice of yoga, it needs to be integrated with other components of yoga to achieve full benefits from the practice. A traditional yoga class consists of asana, pranayama (breathing techniques), relaxation (yoga nidra) and meditation.

A common misconception among people is that they need to be flexible to practice yoga (I often hear statements like, “I can’t do yoga because I am not flexible”). Nothing could, in fact, be farther from the truth. As stated earlier, the objective of yoga is to attain a state of mind which is peaceful and stress-free. Flexibility happens to be a natural by-product of a regular yoga practice. Yoga is suitable for people of any age, gender, and physical condition.