Yoga Practices through the Ages
Yoga is a 6,000 year-old comprehensive science, art and philosophy that has evolved many practices to work with the various levels of our being of body, mind and life-force or spirit. It’s purpose is to bring us into harmony with all of existence. The word “yoga” comes from the root word that also gives us our word ”yoke”, which means to join together. Although it includes our physical health and well-being, it’s emphasis is about embracing the joy and peace that are seen as our inherent nature. The core of yoga is the quest to know the inner reality of the universe, which is the same as our inner reality. Yoga is the integration of the individual being with the greater cosmic reality and in its largest sense the word yoga refers to man’s aspiration to achieve union or oneness with Supreme, or Cosmic Consciousness.
Yoga is a tradition that helps us achieve our ultimate well being, not only physical but also psychological and spiritual. For this purpose, it employs an entire array of practices relative to body, mind, heart, all based on developing our inner awareness. The following forms of yoga offer different paths for different personalities. Seven of the most practiced ones in order of their historical development are: Bhakti Yoga, Mantra Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Raja Yoga, Tantra Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. With some understanding of these schools, you can better understand the story of Yoga’s development from ancient times to the present. They aIl lead to the same goal and are fully described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first written compilation of yogic knowledge, which dates from around 200 B.C. The yoga sutras outlines a yoga of eight limbs, or Ashtanga Yoga. It is also called Raja Yoga or the royal path, because it provides a way to relate yoga to all aspects of life. Jnana Yoga is union through knowledge and study, and especially involves self inquiry. It is a path that aspires to develop discrimination to come to know what is true, eternal and joyful. Bhakti Yoga is union through devotion and selfless love. This path looks into the emotions, and sees the Beloved in the core of the heart. Karma Yoga involves union through selfless service to others, as well as work and action without thought of reward. Mantra Yoga is union through sound vibration and speech. This is done through the Sanskrit language, as it is a vibrational language. Tantra Yoga is the Yoga of energy control. Tantra means a thread or weaving of threads, relating to a lattice or matrix of interconnectedness. It also means to extend or stretch out and refers to the idea that knowledge and understanding are extended by its study. Tantra sees the Sacred in the Ordinary, so even our body is seen as a vessel that contains the life-force energy in the core of it. Many practices are done to open this central channel for the life-force to flow through us. Hatha Yoga evolves out of this practice and philosophy.
What all of these approaches to yoga have in common is a way of being in the world that acknowledges our unity and oneness with everyone and everything. One common thread that runs through all of the paths and practices of yoga is that they are begun in the present moment, beginning right where we are, right now. This is why many of the texts in the yoga tradition begin with the Sanskrit word, “atta”, which means ”now”.
About Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga, which is the yoga of physical well-being, usually begins the practice of this ancient science for most western students. The Sanskrit root word ‘ha* means sun or active, masculine aspect and “tha* means moon or the passive, feminine aspect. Consequently, hatha yoga is that part of yoga that seeks to unite our body, mind and spirit into a state of balance and harmony. Through its related series of exercises for both body and mind, hatha yoga techniques are intended to rejuvenate and bring into proper balance aII aspects of the body: endocrine, vascular, nervous, muscular and skeletal systems, as well as the mind. Hatha Yoga postures are very different from other forms of physical exercise. Unlike calisthenics and sports which emphasize stamina and vigorous muscular activity–often to the point of exhaustion–hatha yoga postures encourage concentration, perseverance and steady progress and most importantly, a great degree of focus or mindfulness. They can be practiced and enjoyed by young and old, healthy and unhealthy, strong and weak. People of aIl ages. nationalities, races, creeds, religions and of both sexes can benefit from hatha yoga. Gentle stretching exercises, rhythmic breathing and deep relaxation techniques are introduced in the beginning practice of yoga, along with good attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes instruction in nutrition and diet are included as well. Through continued practice of these techniques, the student of hatha yoga may experience the benefits of balanced energy, normalized blood pressure, relief of minor back problems, a balanced metabolism, increased relaxation, and stress reduction, which all promote physical and mental balance and well being. When combined with deep breathing exercises and meditation techniques these practices also bring the student a sense of emotional calmness and a feeling of mental peace.
As noted earlier, most students are Introduced to this ancient science of yoga through their encounter with Hatha yoga. To understand Hatha Yoga and its history, it is helpful to know that it is part of a bigger tradition with other approaches to aid our human search for deeper understanding of ourselves.
Styles of Hatha Yoga
The practice of Hatha Yoga has evolved over time and continues to evolve to this day. It is important to acknowledge the person who was instrumental in bringing forth this practice of Hatha Yoga. The man who is considered “the father of modern yoga,” Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989). Krishnamacharya was a renowned Indian yoga master, ayurvedic healer, and scholar who modernized yoga practice and whose students—including B. K. S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois, and T. K. V. Desikachar—dramatically popularized yoga in the West. As his serious students worked with a committed practice, the practice of Hatha Yoga expanded into many styles, which have similar ingredients in varying proportions with shifts in the emphasis of the practice. What follows is a brief description of some of the styles of Hatha Yoga, taken from an article in Yoga Journal Magazine. This is by no means a complete list, and more can be found by exploring the internet for additional information.
Ashtanga. The practice of Ashtanga is a fast-paced series of sequential postures practiced by yoga master K. Pattabhi Jois, who lives in Mysore, India.
The system is based on six series of asanas which increase in difficulty, allowing students to work at their own pace. In class, you’ll be led nonstop through one or more of the series. There’s no time for adjustments and you’ll be encouraged to breathe as you move from pose to pose. Be prepared to sweat.
Iyengar. From his home in Pune, India, B.K.S. Iyengar has reigned as one of the most influential yogis of his time. With this style, there is an intense focus on the subtleties of each posture.
In an Iyengar class, poses (especially standing postures) are typically held much longer than in other schools of yoga, so that practitioners can pay close attention to the precise muscular and skeletal alignment this system demands. Also specific to Iyengar yoga, is the use of props, including belts, chairs, blocks, and blankets, to help accommodate any special needs such as injuries or structural imbalances.
Viniyoga. As we travel through life, it’s no mystery that we are constantly evolving on all levels – physically, emotionally, and intellectually. So why not tailor a yoga routine that will help address and integrate these transitions? Viniyoga, in fact, is an empowering and transformative practice designed to do just that.
In this gentle practice, created by T.K.V. Desikachar, poses are synchronized with the breath in sequences determined by the needs of the practitioner. According to Gary Kraftsow, owner and teacher at The American Viniyoga Institute, Viniyoga is a methodology for developing an integrated practice for each person’s needs as they grow and change.”As children, our practice should support balanced growth and development of the body and mind. As adults, it should protect our health and promote our ability to be productive in the world. And as seniors, it should help us maintain health and inspire a deeper quest for self-realization,” says Kraftsow.
Sivananda. At its core, Sivananda Yoga is geared toward helping students answer the age-old question “Who am I?” This yoga practice is based on the philosophy of Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh, India, who taught disciples to “serve, love, give, purify, meditate, realize.” In order to achieve this goal, Sivananda advocated a path that would recognize and synthesize each level of the human experience including the intellect, heart, body, and mind.
In 1957, his disciple Swami Vishnu-devananda introduced these teachings to an American audience. A few years later, Vishnu-devananda founded the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers, summarizing Sivananda’s system into five main principles: proper exercise (asanas); proper breathing (pranayama); proper relaxation (Savasana); proper diet (vegetarian); and positive thinking (Vedanta) and meditation (dhyana).
There are more than 80 centers worldwide, as well as ashrams and teacher-training programs, all of which follow a hatha yoga practice emphasizing 12 basic postures to increase strength and flexibility of the spine. Chanting, pranayama, and meditation are also included, helping students to release stress and blocked energy.
Integral. In 1966, the Reverend Sri Swami Satchidananda introduced an entire generation of young people to his yogic philosophy: “an easeful body, a peaceful mind, and a useful life.” His goal was to help people integrate yoga’s teachings into their everyday work and relationships, which he hoped would promote greater peace and tolerance worldwide.
“Integral Yoga uses classical hatha postures, which are meant to be performed as a meditation, balancing physical effort and relaxation,” says Swami Ramananda, president of the New York Integral Yoga Institute in Manhattan. In addition to a gentle asana practice, classes also incorporate guided relaxation, breathing practices, sound vibration (repetition of mantra or chant), and silent meditation.
Ananda. For those who aspire to loftier goals than simply building a hard body, Ananda Yoga provides a tool for spiritual growth while releasing unwanted tensions. During the 1960s, Swami Kriyananda developed Ananda as a particular style of yoga after returning to California following a period of intense yoga training under Guru Paramhansa Yogananda (author of Autobiography of a Yogi). “The most unique part of this system is the use of silent affirmations while holding a pose,” says Rich McCord, director of Ananda Yoga’s teacher-training program at The Expanding Light retreat center in Nevada City, California. McCord explains that the affirmations are intended to help deepen and enhance the subtle benefits of each asana, providing a technique for aligning body, energy, and mind.
In a typical class, instructors guide their students through a series of gentle hatha postures designed to move energy upward to the brain, preparing the body for meditation. Classes also focus on proper alignment, easeful posture transitions, and controlled breathing exercises (pranayama) to facilitate an exploration into the inner dimensions of yoga and self-awareness.
Kundalini – Kundalini Yoga, stemming from the tantra yoga path, at one time remained a closely guarded secret practiced only by a select few. In 1969, however, Yogi Bhajan decided to change this tradition by bringing Kundalini to the West. Yogi Bhajan’s reasoning was based on the philosophy that it’s everybody’s birthright to be “healthy, happy and holy,” and he believed Kundalini would help spiritual seekers from all religious paths tap into their greater potential.
The practice of Kundalini Yoga incorporates postures, dynamic breathing techniques, and chanting and meditating on mantras such as “Sat Nam” (meaning “I am truth”). Practitioners concentrate on awakening the energy at the base of the spine and drawing it upward through each of the seven chakras.
Anusara – Anusara means “to step into the current of divine will.” Anusara Yoga is an integrated approach to hatha yoga, developed by John Friend, in which the human spirit blends with the precise science of biomechanics. It is a new system of hatha yoga that can be both spiritually inspiring and yet grounded in a deep knowledge of outer and inner body alignment. It can be therapeutically effective and physically transformative. The central philosophy of this yoga is that each person is equally divine in every part, body, mind, and spirit. Each student’s various abilities and limitations are respected and honored. Anusara Yoga differentiates itself from other hatha yoga systems with three key areas of practice:
Attitude – The practitioner balances a grateful opening to the inherent gift grace of life we are given, with an aspiration for awakening to our true nature.
Alignment – Each pose is performed with an integrated awareness of all the different parts of the body in a optimal balanced connection.
Action – Each pose is performed as an artistic expression of the heart in which muscular stability is balanced with an expansive inner freedom.
A longer article can be found online at http://www.yogajournal.com/newtoyoga/165_1.cfm from the Winter 1999-2000 issue