The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’ meaning ‘to yoke’ or ‘to unite’. This union is both at an individual level – body, mind and soul – and on a universal level – uniting subjective individual consciousness with objective universal consciousness.
In the dictionary, yoga is defined as ‘a system of exercises for mental and phisical health’, ‘a Hindu philosophy that teaches a person to experience inner peace by controlling body and mind’, ‘a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation’, ‘a system of exercises for attaining bodily and mental control and well-being’, and as ‘a set of physical and mental exercises which is intended to give control over the body and mind’.
According to Yogic philosophy, Yoga is the challenge of finding your true self (called ‘atman’ in Sanskrit). In an attempt to find the truth that underlies and pervades everything about us, we can begin to look at what we are not:
We are not the body. We are all in a state of delusion (called ‘Maya’ in Sanskrit). We wrongly identify our bodies as being part of our true self. We refer to the different components of our body as e.g.’ my hair’ or ‘my hand’, however, if you were to remove any body part, would you be less of a soul ? Yoga teaches us to break through this illusion and to search out who that entity saying ‘my’ is.
We are not the mind. The thoughts and emotions that you feel are constantly changing. They are the product of your experience and your environment.
By identifying ourselves with the body and mind we develop a delusional concept of separateness which can become a habitual way of thinking and feeling, bringing suffering. As we start peeling away these layers of ownership, what is left is our true self, our most inner being, our soul. This is what we are attempting to discover through the practice of yoga.
Through yoga, we are attempting to unite our subjective individual consciousness with an enlarged, objective, higher universal consciousness which in Sanskrit is called Brahman. This supreme universal consciousness is regarded as the absolute truth in Vedantic philosophy, the basis of everything – eternal, infinite and unchanging. We are part of Brahman and Brahman exists in us, too. When we refer to the Brahman within us, it is known as Atman.
A very famous quote in the Yoga community is ‘Yoga Chitta Vritta Nirodha’ written in Patanjali’s famous work on the Yoga Sutras, and the quote summarizes in one short sentence what the practice of yoga is all about. Translated, the sentence means that ‘Through the practice of yoga, we aim to stop and control the fluctuations of our mind’. In other words, during the practice of yoga we practice concentration and asserting our true will over both body and mind, hence finding inner peace and happiness in realization of our true being, our eternal and immortal soul.
The scientific process of yoga is one of systematically stripping away layers. It’s choosing to declutter your life. This process should take place in all aspects of your existence: your home, your body, your actions, your mind. You will feel an organic need to ‘clean up’ your life on a journey towards inner peace and stillness. It is not about accumulating, but rather about removing unnecessary elements.
Another vital aim of Yoga is to create a consciousness of being in the here and now. It is common for our mind or reevaluate events from the past, and project imaginary scenarios into the future, and when the future time projected arrives as present moment, the story repeats all over again. Yoga teaches us how to diminish these tendencies by asserting control over our mind and allows us to savour the present for longer and with more acknowledgment.
Of course, we need to mention the tremendous physical and mental health benefits that the practice of yoga offers to anyone regardless of their philosophical opinions or convictions. Yoga helps us keep an overall mobility in the body that otherwise would stiffen up with age. Maintaining a daily asana practice will assure supple joints, long muscles, prevent degenerative conditions, and act on the cardio-vascular and nervous systems, among many other proven benefits.
Pranayama (breathing exercises) and Dristi (focused gaze) are crucial to obtaining the above mentioned results. Through focus and intelligent breathing techniques our mind becomes calmer and our physiological panorama more harmonious, leading therefore to a healthier body and more content mind.