The word yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj, means to yoke or bind, and is often translated as “union” or a method of discipline. Yoga is not a religion but rather a philosophy of wellbeing on all levels: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual, that began in India an estimated 5000 years ago. Yoga may at times weave in other philosophies but it is not necessary to study those paths in order to practice yoga. It is also not necessary to surrender your own religious beliefs to practice yoga.
The father of classical yoga is said to be Patanjali, who collected the practice of yoga into the Yoga Sutra an estimated 2000 years ago. The Sutra is a collection of statements that serves as a philosophical guidebook for most of the yoga that is practiced today. It also outlines the eight limbs of yoga: the yamas (restraints), niyamas (observances), asana (postures or poses), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawl of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation) and samadhi (enlightenment or bliss). The Sutras provide a framework for spiritual growth and mastery over the physical and mental body.
Today, most people practicing yoga are engaged in the third limb, asana, which is a program of physical postures designed to purify the body and provide the physical strength and stamina required for long periods of meditation.
While Yoga is often equated with Hatha Yoga, the well-known system of postures and breathing techniques, Hatha Yoga is only a part of the overall discipline of Yoga. Today, many millions of people use various aspects of Yoga to help raise their quality of life in such diverse areas as fitness, stress relief, wellness, vitality, mental clarity, healing, peace of mind and spiritual growth.
Hatha yoga refers to a set of physical exercises (known as asanas or postures), and sequences of asanas, designed to align your skin, muscles, and bones. The postures are also designed to open the many channels of the body—especially the main channel, the spine—so that energy can flow freely.
Hatha is also translated as ha meaning “sun” and tha meaning “moon.” This refers to the balance of masculine aspects—active, hot, sun—and feminine aspects—receptive, cool, moon—within all of us. Hatha yoga is a path toward creating balance and uniting opposites. In our physical bodies we develop a balance of strength and flexibility. We also learn to balance our effort and surrender in each pose.
Hatha yoga is a powerful tool for self-transformation. It asks us to bring our attention to our breath, which helps us to still the fluctuations of the mind and be more present in the unfolding of each moment.
Since the individual experience of Yoga is quite personal and may differ for each practitioner, there are a wide variety of approaches to its practice. Yoga has in recent times branched out in many new directions, some of which are quite different from its traditional emphases. All approaches to Yoga, however, are intended to promote some aspect(s) of wellbeing.
-Information adapted from Yoga Alliance & Yoga Journal