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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Yoga - The essence of life

Everywhere we look today people are practicing yoga. From celebrities to local gyms and exercise centers, yoga is the hottest fitness trend these days. But where did yoga stem from? Exactly how old is it? How has yoga changed to evolve into a more modern idea?

The word yoga is derived from the root yuj, which means unite or to join together. The practice of yoga may lead to the union of the human with the divine all within ones self. Yoga spans from four to eight thousand years ago to the current day. While some historians may have say it hinted in earlier Indus Valley Civilization, it mostly dominated in the Vedic Civilization. The beginnings of the history of yoga can be found in the first elucidations in Vedic shastras, Hindu religious texts. David Frawley, a renowned Vedic scholar, writes that "Yoga can be traced back to the Rig Veda itself, the oldest Hindu text which speaks about yoking our mind and insight to the Sun of Truth. Great teachers of early Yoga include the names of many famous Vedic sages like Vasishta, Yajnavalkya, and Jaigishavya (characters in Hindu mythology)." However the most proficient discourse about yoga is found in the Vedanta philosophies written in the Upanishads, sacred Hindu scriptures.

The basic background of all this essentially is that Vedanta is one of the world's most ancient religious philosophies and one of its broadest. Based on the Vedas, Vedanta affirms the oneness of existence, the divinity of the soul, and the harmony of religions. Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism; but while Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is universal in its practice and is equally cognate to all countries, all cultures, and all religious backgrounds. Vedanta mainly consists of ranyakas and Upanishads. The Arayaka ("of the forest") details meditative yogic practices, contemplations of the mystic one and the manifold manifested principles. The Upanishads are spiritual contemplations of the Vedas, their alleged end and essence. The Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit text from the Upanishads, deals mostly with the idea of yoga. A quick synopsis of the Bhagavad Gita explains that Krishna, a supreme god in Hindu religion, is teaching Arjuna, a hero in a Hindu epic, his moral duties during a climactic war and elaborates on numerous Yogic and Vedantic philosophies. In this, Krishna enlightens Arjuna on that true knowledge comes from growing beyond identification with the ego, the False Self, and that one must become familiar with the true self, the soul or Atman. Through detaching the actual sense of ego, the yoga follower, is able to transcend mortality and attachment to the material world and enter the world of the divine. Though for anyone unfamiliar with the Hindu religion and sacred scriptures this may seem irrelevant to the practice of yoga it is all this history and more that exudes just how necessary yoga is to achieve enlightenment.

In the Maitrayaniya Upanishad yoga is explained as "Shadanga-Yoga - The uniting discipline of the six limbs (shad-anga), as expounded in the Maitrayaniya-Upanishad:
(1) breath control (pranayama),
(2) sensory inhibition (pratyahara),
(3) meditation (dhyana),
(4) concentration (dharana),
(5) examination (tarka), and
(6) ecstasy (samadhi)."

Pranayama is loosely translated as prana or breath control. The ancient yogis developed many breathing techniques to maximize the benefits of prana. Pranayama is used in yoga as a separate practice to help clear and cleanse the body and mind. It is also used in preparation for meditation, and in asana, the practice of postures, to help maximize the benefits of the practice, and focus the mind.
Pratyahara means drawing back or retreat. The word ahara means "nourishment"; pratyahara translates as "to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses." In yoga, the term pratyahara implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects.
Dhyana is the main feature of yoga. Meditation is necessary (even for the gods) to find moksha, release from samsara. It is imperative for all to achieve meditation in order to become one with themselves and one with Brahman, Hindu concept of god. Tarka examines the mind within itself. Samadhi is a Hindu word that means non-dualistic state of consciousness, in which the mind becomes still. Hindus have numerous different types of properly labeled religious practices such as Karma Yoga (Hindu ethics).

Karma is an enormous aspect of Hindu religion. Bhakti Yoga (Hindu devotions), Hatha Yoga (Hindu worshipful postures), Raja Yoga (Hindu meditations) and Jnana Yoga (the Hindu understanding of Enlightenment), to name a few. "I will now shut my eyes, stop up my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will also blot out from my thoughts all images of corporeal things, or rather since the latter is hardly possible, I will regard these images as empty, false and worthless. And as I converse with myself alone and look more deeply into myself, I will attempt to render myself gradually better known and more familiar to myself.'' While this may sound like the words of a yogi it is actually a direct quote from the opening lines of Descartes' Third Meditation (on First Philosophy). Meditation is the most essential part of any yoga practice. While it originated from the Hindus in India as an intellectual exercise it has been used in almost every religion since then as a form of contemplation, such is found in Christianity's "meditations on the sufferings of Christ"; as well as a more modern western philosophy, hence the quote from Descartes, systematically analyzing the reality of nature.

The Hindu form of meditation was mainly practiced as Raja Yoga, a philosophy that uses eight limbs of spiritual discipline half of which could be classified as meditation. The underlying assumption of Raja Yoga is to still the flow of the mind: yogash chitta-critti-nirodah, which may be translated into "Yoga is the cessation of agitation of the consciousness."

Today, practices of meditation have been introduced in almost every country as the Gnostic modern movement. Gnosis is Greek for knowledge but suggests a personal experienced knowledge rather than belief or theory. While Hindus practice yoga and meditate to hopefully end the rebirth of life and become one with Brahman, "yogis" today meditate to acquire the knowledge of the mysteries of life and death. There are many forms and degrees of meditation from a basic concentration to incredibly skillful techniques such as Zen and Transcendental Meditation. Meditation, as previously mentioned, has taken on a more secular understanding.

Today meditation and yoga are practiced more as an exercise regimen then as a religious custom. In the West it has grown popular as a physical exercise and gradually departed from religious aspects it originated with. The majority of people who practice yoga today are completely devoid of Hinduism or incorporating spirituality into their practice and use it solely as a way of keeping a trim shape and for physical well being. Currently yoga has grown into many subdivisions of its original practice. Hatha yoga, one of the most commonly practiced in the West, takes its name from a spiritual path. Presently there are hundreds of different kinds of yoga for all different tastes and styles. Since the public perception of yoga has changed from mind enhancement to body enhancement a lot of arguments have arose in detest against western yoga.

Lacking most or all spiritual connection, what is called modern yoga is being considered as not really yoga. In case, authentic yoga practices are taught only by experienced Hindus, and authentic yoga classes would never charge a fee. Yoga businesses and weekend training centers have paralyzed the essence of "real yoga." Those this dispute may never be resolved, it will hopefully motivate people to find the true yoga and practice it with spiritual mind and healthy body. Along with giving us many other religions and ideas, Hindus have shared an extraordinary theory that uniting the mind with breath and movement will surely bring inner peace. Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung once described yoga as one of the greatest things the human mind has ever created.' As with all religious ideas and beliefs, yoga originated thousands of years ago. Assisting in the breaking of samsara, yoga was a prominent force in everyday life. After time the practice of yoga has changed and evolved, to many a negative change, however it will always have the same idea of achieve inner peace.