Yoga is the most ancient system for physical, mental and spiritual well-being in the world. The Sanskrit meaning of the word is union of the individual self with the Supreme Self (Original Cause) in a loving, harmonious relationship. The aim of the different yoga processes or schools is to ultimately help the individual achieve complete harmony. The different systems of yoga have techniques and practices ranging from physical postures (asanas), to the deepest stages of meditation, all aimed toward helping a person achieve optimum physical, mental and spiritual well-being. A brief introduction to some of the main yoga systems follows:
Hatha yoga is a preliminary physical system beginning with asana (postures) and pranayama (breathing practices) that aims to bring about harmony between the physical body and the breath. Asana and pranayama clear the subtle energy channels enabling the practitioner to increasingly experience the prana (life force) within their body. It is the most well-known and most practiced of all the yoga systems in the west. Most of the different ‘styles’ of modern yoga widely available are based on the Hatha system.
Astanga Yoga (Raja Yoga)
This yoga system, practiced in previous yugas (ages), consists of eight parts (limbs). It begins with the ethical and moral guidelines of yama and the self-discipline of niyama, followed by asana (posture) pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (one pointedness), and dharana (silent meditation). It culminates with samadhi, the ultimate union between the the individual atma (self) and the Paramatma (Supreme Atma, or God).
Jnana yoga is the cultivation of transcendental knowledge. The purpose of jnana yoga is to bring about realisation of one’s eternal, spiritual essence, and therefore harmony (through understanding) between the individual atma and his mind, body, and the world. It culminates in the practitioner understanding his eternal identity as a tiny spark of the Supreme Atma. This understanding leads him to living in harmony with the Supreme Atma.
Karma means action – work done in a spirit of selfless loving service. It is the path of real happiness and freedom. Karma yoga means serving the Whole rather than just living for oneself. Living a life of karma yoga means to see oneself as a servant, not master; as a caretaker of others and our environment, not an exploiter. It is meant to purify one’s heart so that one’s natural spiritual love for the Supreme Atma will blossom.
The apex of yoga and the ultimate goal of life is to achieve pure bhakti, or spiritual love. Such love results in a state of harmony between the individual atma and the Supreme Atma. The yoga process can be thought of as a ladder. The first rungs of the ladder being the physical practices of postures and breathing, and the top of the ladder being the self-less service of karma yoga and the spiritual love of bhakti yoga. Although yoga’s physical exercises and breathing techniques are not essential to the perfection of yoga, they are extremely valuable in helping achieve optimum physical, mental and spiritual well-being. An individual can simultaneously apply all of these processes in their life in a holistic, integrated fashion. The aim of all these yoga practices is meant to help an individual achieve a life of harmony.