The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to yoke, and as a result, yoga is said to mean union or intimacy. Archeological evidence suggests yoga was practiced as early as 2500 BCE (approx.), thought some suggest that yogic traditions span as far back to the third or fourth millennium BCE (with the Rig-Veda/Indus-Sarasvati civilization). Historical literature, such as the Bhagavad Gita, Shiva-Samhita, and Yoga Sutras refer to yoga as “skillful dispassionate action”, “a skillful and subtle process of calming the mind”, “union of the individual self with the universal self”. The goal of any yoga is “to crack open the cosmic egg” (Tantra: the Path to Ecstasy, 29), i.e. psychic liberation, transcendence of space-time and ideas of duality and separation.
“It is within the microcosm (body-mind) that, according to the Tantras, we find the doorway to the outer cosmos” (Tantra: the Path to Ecstasy, 61; note the reference to unity of the inner and outer worlds, as well as the connection of the body to the universe)
Much of what is practiced today is derived from Tantra yoga, which viewed the body as a tool to enhance awareness rather than being an obstacle to enlightenment. Tantra yoga recognizes a subtle, energy body, referenced in the chakra and nadis system (essentially energy wheels and energy channels, containing prana or life force), which can be utilized for rousing dormant energies (kundalini) as well as spiritual wisdom and evolution. Kundalini and Hatha yoga are forms of Tantra yoga.
Within yoga, there is often a reference to the 8 limb path, which comes from Patanjali (approx. 400CE). These limbs are essentially ethical and practice guides for the yogi/yogini (yogi is a male yoga practitioner, yogini is female). The limbs are:
- Yamas (“restraints”: non harming truthfulness, non-stealing, control of lifestyle, non-possessiveness)
- Niyamas (“observances”: purity, contentment, self-discipline, self-study, surrender)
- Pratyahara (sensory withdrawl)
- Dharana (concentration)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (self-realization)
Historically, asana (posture) was not emphasized like they are today western yogic practices. It wasn’t until the 1920s/30s that asana took primacy as a combination of yoga, gymnastics, and martial arts meant to train the body in physical fitness. Prior to that, there was a stigma against contortionist postures because of wandering yogis performing extreme poses for money. Indeed, eighty-four asanas are referenced but only 15 yogic postures were described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (approx. 1400CE), and included feet against perineum for pressure to this energized area. Additional historical practices focused on breath retention and breath practices (pranayama) as well as karmans, or purifying practices, such as swallowing wet clothes and inserting a tube into the anus while belly deep in water. Yogis practiced austerities, such as living in secluded huts, limiting interactions with women and fires, and were to avoid over-eating, over-exertion, and travel. Today’s yoga, practiced largely in fitness facilities with limitless posture possibilities, hardly reflects yogic traditions, some of which would be seen as uncomfortable or odd by many western practitioners.
Yoga works by uniting breath and body. Regardless of the postures being more modern and the lack of practicing karmans and austerities, the unity of breath, body, mind is the essence of yoga and how it “works”. Often, practicing yoga forces new practitioners into their body for the first time in recent memory. Being IN your body, IN the moment is mindfulness – a tool used by mystics spanning across spiritual traditions (yoga, Hinduism, Buddhism, shamanism for just a small example). It is this mindfulness, essentially meditation, that allows healing, brain changes, improved emotional, physical, spiritual wellbeing (see my post on mindfulness here: http://wildwomaninthesuburbs.com/what-is-meditation/ It should be stressed that yoga is not a religion but a mindfulness tool and may be used as a spiritual practice). The physicality of yogic practices offers benefits to the body, which is why yoga can be a therapeutic exercise or fitness tool. Skillful application of yoga for benefits to the physical body include improved balance, strength, and flexibility as well as assisting with specific medical concerns such as high blood pressure or urinary incontinence.
Any and all bodies can practice yoga – people of various physical and cognitive abilities, people of limited flexibility, people of various body size, people across the age spectrum (babies to elders). I have taught yoga to people with brain injuries, people with spinal cord injuries, people with cancer, people with MS, and people of all ages, in both the healthcare settings and fitness-oriented gyms. Depending on your specific needs or circumstances, finding an experienced teacher in your area of need might be the best first-step into a yoga practice.
Written by Dr. Allison Mitch, PT (DPT)
RYT 500, reiki master
Interested in one-on-one or small group yoga sessions and are within the Chicago metro area?: feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please do not copy this material. All writing is protected by copyright.
References and Resources
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. An English translation by Brian Dana Akers
Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards by William J. Broad
Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy by Georg Feurstein
The Shambhala Guide to Yoga by Georg Feurstein
NIH’s Complementary and Integrative Health yoga page: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/yoga
PubMed: searchable database for scientific, including medical, studies
The International Association of Yoga Therapists: https://www.iayt.org/default.aspx (I have training as a yoga therapist but did not complete my certification because of limited client hours specific to yoga therapy)
Yoga Alliance: https://www.yogaalliance.org/ (I am an RYT500 registered here)
Dr. Mitch's article in Natural Awakenings Chicago on Adaptive yoga as a tool of resilience: https://www.nachicago.com/CHI/September-2019/Adaptive-Yoga/