The stress-ridden lifestyle that drives the American Dream has led many to seek non-Western approaches to attain better health and well-being. Acupuncture, massage therapy and herbal remedies, to a name a few, are increasing in popularity throughout the United States. Of all these, yoga has won the largest and most dedicated following among health and fitness enthusiasts. Where other trends in health and weight-loss result from the latest scientific research, yoga dates back to antiquity, originating in the Hindu tradition.
Yoga arrived in the United States some fifty years ago, but it has only recently found widespread popularity. As it is commonly practiced, the spiritual side of yoga is largely subdued, and most people know little of its origins. We might compare the interest in yoga in our country to the observation of religiously inspired holidays because both may be practiced with a totally secular mindset.
There does not seem to be any consensus on the precise origin of yoga. Yoga-style positions appear in the archaeological record that date as far back as 3000 BC. Some Hindus say that, as the divine science of life, yoga emerged at the dawn of human civilization from the meditation of sages.
The Hindu scholar Patañjali is attributed with formalizing yoga in written doctrine. Although Patañjali’s ideas deviated from his classical Hindu sources, this has not been of great consequence because yoga emphasizes practice over doctrine. And perhaps it is the lack of doctrinal emphasis that allows so many non-Hindus to accept the practice while discarding the foundational beliefs.
While doctrine may not be rigorously studied, without it there is no understanding of the original purpose of yoga. Distinct from the five other systems of classical Hindu philosophy, yoga is known for strict self-control and the potential for supernatural powers in the most advanced yogis.
The goal of yoga is to achieve union with Brahma, the universal spirit and object of knowledge. One must advance through eight stages that free the spirit from the body and all physical reality.
- Self-control: the practice of truthfulness, abstinence, and respect for all life.
- Religious observances: the practice of sobriety, poverty, contentment, purification rites, hymns, and devotion to the Supreme Being.
- Postures of the body: the basic foundation to all stages that follow.
- Regulated breathing: breathing with alternating depth and rhythm through either nostril at will, or the virtual suspension of breath.
- Control of the senses: withdrawing inward into one ’s self and become unaware of the outside world.
- Mental focus: focusing on one point of the body in order to become insensible to outside distractions.
- Meditation on Brahma: exclusion of all thought except, Brahma, the object of knowledge.
- Profound contemplation: union and identification of thought with Brahma, self-realization through negation, and the feeling of ecstasy that comes from true knowledge.
According to Hindu teaching, the final stage can rarely be attained in one lifetime, but usually requires several rebirths before the spirit achieves total liberation from the physical world. The adept yogi advances to the final stages to possess extraordinary mental powers. Though rare, witness accounts have testified to the yogi-sleep, more popularly called suspended animation, where the yogi is unresponsive to sensory stimuli and the limbs remain in a rigidly fixed position.
Of those who practice yoga, the spiritually disinterested will identify with only three or four of the above mentioned stages. When the religious elements are toned down, the abbreviated form that remains is Hatha. Hatha yoga is the most popular style in the West, which includes an extensive set of poses, strict mental focus, and controlled breathing.
Hatha Yoga aims to tune the body and the mind to a state of relaxed equilibrium and increased energy. Health and fitness experts also recommend yoga for cleansing the body of toxins, strengthening concentration, losing weight, toning muscles, and increasing flexibility.
For all its spiritual depth, the simplified practice of Yoga is exceptionally user friendly. Whatever shape you may be in, you can get acquainted with the fundamental positions with only a beginner’s video, a padded surface, and enough room to stretch out. Naturally, the benefits increase with time, but even after the first 10 minute session, beginners experience a sense of calm composure.