Yoga is commonly known as a generic term for a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline originating in ancient India and found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Specifically, Yoga is one of the six orthodox schools in Hindu philosophy. It is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and aims to use meditation to attain spiritual insight and tranquility.
The aim of yoga is varied and ranges from improving health to achieving moksha. Within the Hindu monist schools of Advaita Vedanta, Shaivism and Jainism, the aim of yoga takes the form of moksha, which is liberation from all worldly identification and the cycle of birth and death (samsara), at which point there is a realization of identity with the Supreme Brahman. In the Mahabharata, the aim of yoga is variously described as entering the world of Brahma, as Brahman, or as perceiving the Brahman or Ātman that pervades all things. For the bhakti schools of Vaishnavism, ‘bhakti’ or service to Svayam Bhagavan itself may be the ultimate aim of the yoga process, where the aim is to enjoy an eternal relationship with Vishnu. The aim of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility through meditating on the Hindu concept of divinity or Brahman.
A serious practitioner of Yoga (someone pursuing the higher spiritual and religious aims of Yoga) takes upon themselves a life of austere self-discipline common to nearly all forms of mystical and religious life. The practices at the foundation of this self-disciplined life are called in yoga yama and niyama. This self-discipline is the ‘yoke’ that one puts upon oneself for the purpose of attaining moksha. An alternative definition is that Yoga is the method of yoking, or unifying, the “lower” (egoistic) personality (those inclinations that in Hellenistic philosophy and Christianity are called passions) to the “higher” via a process of sublimation.
In Hindu philosophy, Yoga is the name of one of the six orthodox (which accept the testimony of Vedas) philosophical schools founded by Patanjali. Professor Karel Werner writes that the process of systemization of Yoga which began in the middle and Yoga Upanishads culminated with the Yoga sutras of Patanjali Werner also notes the influence of Buddhist ideas on the sutras. The Yoga school accepts the Samkhya psychology and metaphysics, but is more theistic than the Samkhya, as evidenced by the addition of a divine entity to the Samkhya’s twenty-five elements of reality. The parallels between Yoga and Samkhya were so close that Max Müller says that “the two philosophies were in popular parlance distinguished from each other as Samkhya with and Samkhya without a Lord.”
Patanjali’s writing also became the basis for a system referred to as “Ashtanga Yoga” (“Eight-Limbed Yoga”). This eight-limbed concept derived from the 29th Sutra of the 2nd book, and is a core characteristic of practically every Raja yoga variation taught today. The Eight Limbs are:
- Yama (The five “abstentions”): Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (Truth, non-lying), Asteya (non-covetousness), Brahmacharya (non-sensuality, celibacy), and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness).
- Niyama (The five “observances”): Shaucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul), and Ishvara-Pranidhana (surrender to God).
- Asana: Literally means “seat”, and in Patanjali’s Sutras refers to the seated position used for meditation.
- Pranayama (“Suspending Breath”): Prāna, breath, “āyāma”, to restrain or stop. Also interpreted as control of the life force.
- Pratyahara (“Abstraction”): Withdrawal of the sense organs from external objects.
- Dharana (“Concentration”): Fixing the attention on a single object.
- Dhyana (“Meditation”): Intense contemplation of the nature of the object of meditation.
- Samadhi (“Liberation”): merging consciousness with the object of meditation.
In the view of this school, the highest attainment does not reveal the experienced diversity of the world to be illusion. The everyday world is real. Furthermore, the highest attainment is the event of one of many individual selves discovering itself; there is no single universal self shared by all persons. Yoga is nothing but Art of Living.