Introduction to Yoga

Yoga is a scientific approach to transformation.  Transformation means re-ranging patterns: adapting behaviors, actions, and thoughts that serve us and the world around us and removing things that no longer work.  Change is not easy, but it is possible!  Yes, we can be our best possible selves based on the innermost antenna that exists in every one of us, as we express our unique talents, personalities and shine with life.  So, when we embark on the yogic path, we can shift our perspective and change our reality.  Everything we need is already inside.  Yet, there is so much noise that we forget to listen.  Yoga is not something that you read about.  Instead, we must practice, study and keep at it.  Yoga works on many different planes: we practice physical postures to keep the body strong and flexible, breathing helps us clear our minds and cultivate attention.  While chanting, meditation, and studying the ancient text give us a better understanding of our nature and the world around us.

Brief  Origins of Yoga (Written Text)

Yoga is a part of six darśanas (philosophies, world views, teachings):

  1. Samkhya
  2. Yoga
  3. Nyaya
  4. Vaisheshika,
  5. Mimamsa
  6.  Vedanta

Katha Upanishad is one of the earliest texts that mention yoga.  Like many similar texts, the concept of yoga is explained in the form of a story.  So, we learn the path towards freedom and transformation as we listen to Yama (the deity of death) explaining to the boy (Nachiketa)  how to leave behind joy and sorrow and to overcome death itself (about third-century B.C.E).

The later text called Maitri Upanishad (late fist millennium B.C.E.) describes a six-fold yoga method which consists of:

  1. Breath control (pranayama)
  2. Withdrawing of the senses (pratyahara)
  3. Meditation (dhyana)
  4. Sustained concentration (Dharana)
  5. Philosophical inquiry (Tarka)
  6. Absorption (samadhi)

These six elements  (except for the Philosophical inquiry) become the subject of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.

While the section of the Mahābhārata (between the third century B.C.E and the third-century C.E) known as Bhagavad Gita lays out four paths of yoga:

  1. Karma yoga – the path of action
  2. Jnana yoga – the path of knowledge
  3. Bhakti yoga – the path of devotion
  4. Dhyana yoga – the path of meditation (also the subject of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.)

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali

Sage Patanjali's intro to yoga

The Yoga Sūtras (250 CE?) of Patañjali was conducted by a sage called Patanjali.  It consists of 196 concise aphorisms or sutras, loaded with meaning.  These aphorisms are divided into four chapters outlining methods to attain the goal of yoga.  However, this is not your typical philosophy textbook.  Traditionally, a qualified teacher decodes the text for a student ready to receive the teachings.  The student must learn how to recite sutras prescribed by a teacher.  Also, a student must practice these concepts in their daily life.  In addition, a student is inspired to question the text.  Likewise, a good teacher encourages a student to find answers within.

Yoga is a precious aid for human evolution.  It suggests a reflective behavior, a responsible and peaceful way of acting in the world with harmony.

All students must study the sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and some Upanishadic texts in our lineage.

Chapter I: Samadhi Pada (51 sutras)  – Intense Concentration

The first chapter is for a student with a refined or yogic mind; it focuses on intense concentration (samadhi).  Further, Patanjali gives us a definition of yoga in this chapter.

Chapter II: Sadhana Pada  (55 sutras) – Practice Path

The second chapter is for a student with an unsteady and easily distracted mind.  Most of us (including yours truly) start with the second chapter.  The sadhana chapter, as titled, is a prescription for practice.  Patañjali gives us a system on how to bring our mind into the state of yoga or the state of equanimity and sustained attention.  We will be spending some time here, so let’s elaborate a bit.

Firstly, Patañjali tells us that all our actions can be considered yogic when these actions have an intensity or focus (tapas), awareness (svadhyaya), and the attitude of acceptance or not focusing on the results (Ishvara Paranidhana).  In contrast, we suffer when our actions are not yogic.  The unfocused mind causes suffering.  The text further elaborates on the cause of this suffering and suggests various solutions.  Secondly, the author introduces the eight limbs of Yoga or Astanga Yoga.  The first two limbs are social (Yama) and personal (niyama) ethics.  They were followed by practices of physical fitness (asana), breathing disciplines (pranayama), and different stages of meditative practice.  So, we clean up our act practice strengthening the body clearing the noise,  while meditation to bring the mind to the state of equality or sustained attention.  And, this is yoga in a nutshell.

Chapter III: Vibhuti Pada (56 sutras) – We’ve Got the Power!  You’ve got a Yogic Mind, And Here is What You Can Do.

The third chapter continues to explain Ashtanga yoga.  Here, Patañjali presents yoga’s internal limbs – a concentration, meditation, and complete absorption.  The systematic repetition of these practices leads to wisdom.  Also, it gives special skills or powers (siddhis) to a student.  But, of course, the attainment of extraordinary powers is not the goal of yoga.  Therefore, a yogi is not attached to these abilities.  Instead, a yogi keeps their mind focused on the clarity of mind or the goal of yoga.

Chapter IV: Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras) – Delving Deeper.

The fourth chapter is on liberation (Kaivalya).  In addition, Patañjali explains the differences between yoga and other Vedic and non-Vedic philosophical systems.  Finally, it delves deeper into the “reality” of things.  In other words, this chapter outlines the process of liberation and the reality of the transcendental ego.   In the final chapter, we are introduced to the concept of the “observer with a luminous and clear mind.  So, the yogin is released from the obstacles, and wisdom is gained.

So, my friends, I hope you find it helpful and inspiring to embark on the path of yoga.  The most beautiful part of the yogic path is that it welcomes you and accepts you whenever and wherever you are.  So you can have a fresh start at any time!  You don’t need any fancy equipment of a certain race, shape, or form.  Instead, all you need is a willingness and desire to be the best you can be.

How Yoga Transformed My Life

Anna Sheinman atop of the mountain in warrior 2 pose

Some time ago, I was smoking, drinking, and eating junk. Then, inspired by an urge not to die, I embarked upon a new regime: with determination, I quit smoking, replacing that nicotine fix with exercise that included running and working out in the gym.  But, all that drinking, smoking, and physical idleness took its toll on my poor body.  In fact, in my attempt to improve my health, I ruined my knees, and the discs in my back gave out.  Luckily, I saw one of the best physical therapists in New York.  So, he recommended doing yoga.  He said yoga would help the healing process with physical therapy.

With this in mind, I took my first yoga class in a bit of yoga studio named Jivamukti sometime in 2000.  Consequently, I’ve completed 800 hours of yoga teacher training.  I was fortunate to study with world-leading teachers like Chase Bossart, Edwin Bryant, Gary Kraftsow, A.G. Mohan, to name a few, in T. Krishnamacharya’s tradition.  My training included anatomy, body movement, breathing, and meditation.  However, the study and application of the yoga philosophy have had an enormous impact on my life.

 

Stay tuned for more!

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