What is the Essence of Yoga?
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“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind”, (Sage Patanjali, the Yoga Sutras - I.2). The word Yoga comes from Sanskrit and means ‘union’. Yoga is a spiritual science of self-realisation that has been developed in India thousands of years ago. Through Yoga we learn to master our body and mind to cultivate inner stillness and an ever growing realization of the innermost essence (soul).
The traditional practice of Yoga is holistic by nature and includes every aspect of life. These aspects include universal ethics (Yama), personal ethics for self-purification (Niyama), body cultivation through practice of postures (Asana), mastering of energy through breathing exercises (Pranayama), control over the senses of perception (Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), and meditation (Dhyana). The yogic journey guides us from the periphery/body to the center of our being/soul aiming to integrate and harmonize the various layers of our existence to achieve wholeness, health, and self-realization.
Yoga identifies five such layers of being that can be seen as Russian dolls nested within each other. The first layer is the physical body (annamaya kosa) that encompasses the following four subtle layers: energetic/organic body (Pranamaya kosa), mental body (Manomaya kosa), intellectual body (Vijnanamaya kosa), and ultimately our spiritual body or soul (Anandamaya kosa). Yoga teaches us that when we manage to bring those layers into harmony and alignment, fragmentation disappears, integration is achieved and unity is established.
The balancing effect of Hatha yoga
In the last 50 years Yoga has become widespread in the West mainly due to its appealing aspect of physical practice (asana), and what most of us know is in fact related to a form of Yoga that emphasizes the practice of Asanas more than any other: Hatha Yoga. Ha-Tha means Sun-Moon, representing the two major types of energy referred to in different cultures - the solar and the lunar energies, the Ying/Yang, or even the scientific left/right brain mechanics. Hatha yoga aims at maintaining equilibrium of the two on every level but with a clear and strong application of this principle on the body through Asana and Pranayama.
Exploring flow in Iyengar yoga. Image by Asaf Hacmon
In each aspect of our being, yoga offers great benefits. For example, on the physical level: Hatha Yoga is therapeutic by nature. The regular practice of Asanas and Pranayama makes the body strong, supple and healthy. Breathing becomes even and calm and the mind more balanced, quiet, and clear. Yoga has a profound effect on physiological circulation and on the functions of the inner organs, glands, and nerves. It promotes greater health and vitality, better concentration, and a happier life. Many common physical ailments can also be improved through the regular practice of Yoga.