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What is Yoga?

The system of Yoga is one of the six fundamental religions of India. Patanjali Maharshi is the propounder of this system. There are many evidences supporting the fact that Yoga existed even before Patanjali Maharshi. But we can think of him as the person who standardized this system. There are different opinions on the time period when he was alive. We will put that aside for the present and focus on the meaning of the word Yoga. Its meaning is - to join. The process of joining Jivatma with Paramatma is the fundamental meaning of the word Yoga. This can be done in various ways, so we have many systems. Traditionally there are four systems – Hatha, Raja, Mantra and Laya Yogas. In addition to these, there are Karma, Bhakti, and Jnana Yogas too. Lord Buddha attained knowledge (Jnana) through Yoga, so many people consider Yoga as the fundamental concept of Buddhism. It is called Yogachara system. Patanjali Maharshi’s usage of terms like Asmita in his Yoga Sutras proves that he borrowed heavily from Buddhism, in addition to many older concepts of Yoga system proper to India.

The term Yoga is very broad. Many different methodologies come under this system. The method of ‘prayer’ practiced by different religions is also nothing but ‘Yoga’. The definition given by Patanjali Maharshi for the word Yoga is yōgaścitta vṛtti nirōdhaḥ. This means to overcome the various thoughts arising in mind and to reach the thoughtless state. This cannot be achieved overnight, so he defined the eight steps known as Ashtanga Yoga in order to attain the state called ‘Nirbija Samadhi’. It is noteworthy to remember that Lord Buddha’s path is also known as Ashtanga Yoga.

The eight steps of Yoga are

  1. Yama

  2. Niyama

  3. Asana

  4. Pranayama

  5. Pratyahara

  6. Dharana

  7. Dhyana

  8. Samadhi

Yama means the five vows - Non Violence, Truth, Non Stealing, Continence and Non Acceptance. Niyama means Purity, Happiness, Penance, Study of Scriptures, and Surrender to the Lord. This is how Patanjali Maharshi defined and clearly emphasized each and every step. For example, he defined asana as sthira sukhamāsanam. Pranayama means gaining control of the vital energy in the body. Pratyahara means internalizing the outgoing senses and mind. Dharana means to concentrate the mind on one single point for a long period of time. Dhyana means to have undivided concentration of mind like the continuous flow of oil and lastly there are two types of Samadhi, one with seed thoughts known as Savikalpa Samadhi, and the one without seed thoughts Nirvikalpa Samadhi. Nirvikalpa Samadhi is the final destination of Yoga. This is achieved as the result of sincere sadhana over many years. It takes many births to achieve this exalted state. Swami Vivekananda attained this state at the age of twenty three years. The credit for standardizing the various steps in the system of Yoga and giving it a definite shape goes to Patanjali Maharshi.

All rights reserved. This article has been translated by Akhila J, which was originally posted in on January 6, 2009. The content or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher.

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