I        Introduction

Yoga (Sanskrit yuga, “union”), one of the six classic systems of Hindu philosophy, distinguished from the others by the marvels of bodily control and the magical powers ascribed to its advanced devotees. Yoga affirms the doctrine that through the practice of certain disciplines one may achieve liberation from the limitations of flesh, the delusions of sense, and the pitfalls of thought and thus attain union with the object of knowledge. Such union, according to the doctrine, is the only true way of knowing. For most yogi (those who practice yoga), the object of knowledge is the universal spirit Brahma. A minority of atheistic Yogi seek perfect self-knowledge instead of knowledge of God. In any case, it is knowledge and not, as is commonly supposed, feats of asceticism, clairvoyance, or the working of miracles, that is the ideal goal of all yoga practices. Indeed, yoga doctrine does not approve of painful asceticism; it insists that physical and mental training is not to be used for display but only as a means to spiritual ends.

II        The Eight Stages

Yoga practice forms a ladder leading to perfect knowledge. (1) Self-control (yama) involves truthfulness, abstinence, avoidance of theft, refusal of gifts, and not doing injury to living things. (2) Religious observance (niyama) embraces austerity, poverty, contentment, purification rites, recital of the Vedic hymns, and devoted reliance on the Supreme Being. (3) Postures (āsana), of which there are a great many, are regarded as basic to all the stages that follow. (4) Regulation of the breath (prānāyāma) includes altering its depth and rhythm, breathing through either nostril at will, and the virtual suspension of breath. (5) Restraint of the senses (prātyāhāra) means their withdrawal from external objects and the consequent turning of the mind upon itself. (6) Steadying of the mind (dhārāna) narrows attention to some one part of the body, such as the navel, the tip of the nose, or the middle of the brow, and in that way renders the practitioner insensitive to outside disturbance. (7) Meditation (dhyāna) fixes the mind on the object of knowledge, especially Brahma, to the exclusion of all other thoughts. (8) Profound contemplation (samādhi) is the perfect absorption of thought in the object of knowledge, its union and identification with that object. The achievement of samādhi liberates the self from the illusions of sense and the contradictions of reason. It is thought that has gone beyond thought, reaching its goal by its own negation. It leads to an inner illumination, the ecstasy of the true knowledge of reality.

III        Liberation

The final stage, in Yoga doctrine, rarely can be attained in one lifetime. Usually, several births are required to achieve liberation, first from the world of phenomena, then from thoughts of self, and finally from the spirit’s entanglement with matter. The separation of spirit from matter is Kāivalya, or true liberation.

As adept Yogi approach Kāivalya, they are supposed to acquire certain remarkable capacities. They become insensible to heat or cold, to injury, to pleasure or pain. They can perform supernatural mental and physical feats and even change the course of nature. They can distinguish the subtlest elements of matter and can, at the same time, see the universe as a whole, comprehending both microcosm and macrocosm in the same thought.

Such are the powers claimed or promised by Yoga. Few, if any, of these powers have been successfully demonstrated to disinterested observers. Nevertheless, extraordinary achievements have been reported by sober witnesses. Most impressive, perhaps, is the Yogi-sleep, in which animation is nearly suspended, enabling the Yogi to be buried alive for days. The Yogi-sleep has been explained by some authorities as a sort of cataleptic state induced by self-hypnosis and not essentially different from the cataleptic states that can be seen in mental hospitals.

IV        Various Systems of Yoga

Aspirants of yoga have a selection of practices to suit their capabilities and environments. Many of the wonder-working yogi and almost all occidental devotees are practitioners of Hatha (physical) yoga, the basic system which is concerned with developing those bodily controls from which all else follows. The other systems differ mainly in the varying emphases placed on the several phases of yoga practice. Perhaps the most popular system in India is Bhakti (devotional) yoga. This system emphasizes the first two stages of yoga discipline, that is, self-control and religious observance. Other important yogas are Mantra yoga, which devotes itself to uttering the name of Krishna and other incantations; Karma yoga, the path of work and service; and Jnana yoga, the way of intellect. The combined form of Bhakti, Karma, and Jnana yogas is called Raya (royal) yoga.

V        History

The doctrines and practices of Yoga date from the period of the Upanishads. The Maitrī Upanishad in particular outlines the essential practices of Yoga. These practices were elaborated and given a philosophical foundation in the Yoga Sūtra of the Indian scholar Patañjali (fl. 2d cent. bc?), who is traditionally regarded as the founder of Yoga. Patañjali derived his doctrine from Sāmkhya, the oldest of the classic systems of Hindu philosophy. In order to explain evolution, he departed from the system by grafting the concept of God (Iśvara) upon the atheistic outlook of Sāmkhya. The concept is not an integral part of Yoga doctrine; indeed, some authorities consider it actually in contradiction with the rest of the system. In any case, Yoga, unlike other systems of Hindu philosophy, has subordinated doctrine to the refinement of practice; in fact, the systematic study of Yoga doctrine has declined in recent centuries.

As a system of practice, Yoga has from the beginning been one of the most influential features of Hinduism. Yoga exerted a powerful attraction upon Hindus because of the wonders attributed to it and because it gives countenance to the performance of austerities, to which Hindus are so strongly inclined. The strong influence of Yoga can also be seen in Buddhism, which is notable for its austerities, spiritual exercises, and trance states. As knowledge of Yoga spread, it fascinated and won followers among Westerners. Among the students of Yoga are the British writers Major Francis Yeats-Brown (1886–1944), Aldous Huxley, and Christopher Isherwood; the Romanian-born writer on religion Mircea Eliade (1907–86); and the British violinist Yehudi Menuhin. In recent years Yoga exercises have been recommended by some physical fitness experts as a means of cleansing the body of impurities, of reducing weight, of toning up the nerves and muscles, and, generally, of improving health and prolonging life.


“Yoga,” Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005
http://uk.encarta.msn.com © 1997-2005 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

Yoga Links:

The British Wheel of Yoga – the governing body for Yoga in Great Britain.

Yoga Village UK – dedicated to the practice of yoga in the UK.

Yoga Pages – online yoga resource.

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