What is Yoga? | iHanuman


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What is Yoga?

“Yoga is a science which liberates one's mind from the bondage of the body and leads it towards the soul." – BKS Iyengar, Tree of Yoga

Many scholars have searched for the date of the first reference to yoga, but BKS Iyengar reminds us in The Tree of Yoga, that Yoga, like Ayurveda, is apauruseya, not given by man. "Brahma is the Founder of Yoga” and also "Lord Siva is the Founder of Yoga, which he first taught to his wife, Parvati." (156). Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy, which was organized by Patanjali, in his classical work, the Yoga Sutras.

“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”

Sutra I.2 defines yoga as, yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, which allows a yogin or yogi to reach samadhi, the eighth limb of ashtanga yoga.  Patanjali tells us the five causes of the fluctuations of the mind in Sutra I.6, "the fluctuations are caused by correct knowledge, illusion, delusion, sleep and memory “ (I.6). The prescription to still the fluctuations of the mind is through practice, abhyasa, and renunciation of the fruits of your practice, vairagyabham. (I.12) Or, Isvara pranidhanat, "the citta may be restrained by profound meditation upon God and total surrender to Him." (I.23)

Since total surrender to God is a lot to ask the average human being,many yogis embark on a journey through the eight limbs to still the fluctuations of the mind, even though this journey will take consistent practice over at least one lifetime. The first limbs are the ethical principles, the yama and niyama. niyama are prescribed to practice for the good of the individual and society, and yama describe what to avoid so as not to be harmful to the individual and society.  

The yama are non-violence (ahimsa), honesty (satya), non-stealing (asteya), moderation (bramacarya), and greedlessness (aparigrahah). Cleanliness (sauca), contentment (santosha), burning desire (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya) and surrender to god (isvara pranidhanani) are the niyama. In The Tree of Yoga, Mr. Iyengar describes the eight limbs of yoga like a tree. The foundation of the tree is the roots and trunk, the yama and niyama. Without the roots and trunk, the tree would not survive. Therefore we must consciously practice these principles every day to ensure that our foundation is strong.

The second stage of Yoga is sadhana, the practice of asana, pranayama and pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses.  In the Tree of Yoga, Iyengar describes the asana as the branches, the leaves where the tree transpire, pranayama, and the bark, the protective outer covering of the tree, pratyahara. Sutra II.1 states that "Burning zeal in practice, self study and study of the scriptures, and surrender to God are the acts of yoga." Most westerners find yoga through the practice of asana. There are now hundreds of yoga studios and hundreds of teacher training programs, most of which, focus on how to teach asana to the general public.

Many of us are introduced to yoga this way however, the Yoga Sutras offers only two of the 185 sutras to describe asana. Iyengar translates them, "Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit. (II.46) And "Perfection in asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached." (II.47). Likewise, there are only four sutras that discuss the practice of pranayama. But we learn the importance and power of the human body that through our disciplined efforts we can reach samadhi, or at the very least cleanse, purify and heal our unique individual temples of the body, mind and breath.

The third stage, what Mr. Iyengar calls the "Wealth of Yoga" is the fruit of our yoga practice. Continuing to follow Iyengar’s metaphor, concentration, Dharana is the sap, the juice that allows us to direct our energy consciously. Dhyana, meditation, is the flower that becomes the fruit of samadhi.  Iyengar says, "As the essence of the tree is in the fruit, so the essence of the practice of yoga is in the freedom, poise, peace & beatitude of samadhi where the body, the mind & the soul are united and merge with the universal spirit."(9)

My first experience with yoga was Kundalini Yoga. After a lifetime of dance, running and athletics, I was looking for a low impact practice after an injury I sustained during a dance class in West Africa. A group of friends would meet every week at the local YMCA. Our teacher would lead us through chants and then very active asana and pranayama practices like Urdhva Prasarita Padasana where we would beat on the floor with our fists to release anger or we would practice Kapalabhati pranayama while in Warrior II Pose. We would gather for dinner after class and inevitably we would all share about how the class felt completely directed to us individually and that we each received what we needed from the class. For me, it was a gift of serenity. Each week after class I was able to find a sense of peace, if only for the rest of the evening.

I took these practices and the book “The Spiritual Science of Kriya Yoga” with me on my next adventure in the United States Peace Corps. I practiced on my own on a grass mat in the jungle and also taught Sun Salutations to the Youth Group with whom I worked. When I left the Peace Corps, I discovered what I found out was the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series while attending a Silent Vipassana Meditation Retreat. Shortly thereafter I attended a private five-day yoga intensive in a small Iyengar studio in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2001 and thus began my practice of Iyengar Yoga.


“Yoga means Union or communion. Yoga is the true union of our will with the will of God.” – BKS Iyengar, Light on Yoga


Iyengar, BKS, The Tree of Yoga, 1988.

Iyengar, BKS, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 1993.

Iyengar, BKS, Light on Yoga, 1976

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