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A Brief Overview of the History and True Elements of Yoga


Shreekumar , Shyamala and Jay Vinekar

Over the past several decades, the practice of Yoga has become highly popularized as a sophisticated form of holistic exercise. However, mainstream practice of Yoga, around the world, incorporates only a certain few aspects of the complete philosophy behind the discipline. Moreover, Yoga is being practiced without giving the appropriate and, indeed, necessary attention to the science underlying the philosophy. These mainstream forms of Yoga, which are being taught and practiced in gyms and “Yoga clubs,” fall more into the classification of “healthy, low-impact work-out.” Furthermore, Yoga is commonly promoted by the inadequate definition as being simply “a stress-relieving exercise” in the context of "stress management" and lately the basics of Yoga psychology are watered down as "mindfulness."

However, in order to reap the full rewards that the science and philosophy of Yoga affords the body and the mind or "soul", it is necessary for the dedicated practitioner to understand two basic things: 1.) The practitioner must know the basic history behind the discipline; and 2.) The practitioner must comprehend the nature of all the aspects that encompass the discipline, as well as how these aspects work together, through proper practice, in order to provide the full benefit.

The following brief synopsis of the true history and aspects of this ancient discipline will give novice and intermediate practitioners a good foundation from where to begin the proper pursuit of Yoga.


Yoga is an ancient discipline which originated in the Vedic Sindhu-Saraswati Culture. This discipline or science was summarized in the form of aphorisms by the sage Patanjali. His work, Patanjala Yoga Sutras, or Patanjali’s Yoga Aphorisms are known as elucidating Ashtanga Yoga, meaning eight aspects of Yoga. They are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. The first five are known as the Bahiranga, meaning the external (body of knowledge) , and the latter three as Antaranga, meaning internal (body of knowledge). The reason for this classification is that the external techniques can be easily taught and the practices can be observed. The inner techniques are difficult to observe for an observer and difficult to teach or practice. The true inner transformations of the body-mind-spiritual system may take many years to accomplish the ultimate goal of Yoga and for a lucky few could be instant as in the case of Swami Vivekananda (who incidentally did not have to practice the Hatha Yoga techniques of Asana, Pranayama, etc. very long if at all, and considered these as dispensable never elaborating them in details in his writings with justifiable mild disdain for these ventures because he was a Vedanta oriented Yogi who emphasized the Antaranga - Jnana Yoga, though his guru Ramakrishna Paramahansa practiced bhakti yoga primarily initiating Vivekananda through a technique called Shaktipata, these aspects of Yoga are not relevant here in discussing
Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali)

Yama: Limits. These are ethical constraints in relating with the society. (e.g., society can mean family, friends, neighbors, fellow workers, fellow citizens, ultimately all living beings, giving a person a global view of humanity and the entire biosphere). The aspirant has to learn to practice these in his daily conduct. Ahinsa, Satyam, Asteyam, Brahmacharya, Asangraha (or Aparigraha). Simply speaking these are the inner attitudes of not harming others, being truthful, not taking anything that belongs to others, live in harmony with nature, and not be greedy and accumulate unnecessary things (example of Aparigraha: do not claim other's intellectual property and appropriate it as yours without acknowledgment). Travel light in your life journey and remain ethical, honest, and real in interacting or relating with the real world, people you relate with and other living beings, treating them with respect  to maintain harmony. If practiced correctly these attitudes will make a person feel at ease and give internal peace and balance to live at peace with oneself and one’s surroundings.

Niyama: Attitudes that will give a better quality of life. Shoucha, Santosha, Tapas, Swadhyaya, Ishwarapranidhana.

Inner and outer cleanliness, contentedness, striving for transformation for the better status (higher spiritual status) , study of Self and adhyatma (the science of transcending the mundane self or one's ego), and an attitude of surrendering to Supreme Being (accepting that not all events can be
controlled, leading to the ability to adapt to the environment experiencing minimal conflict with it, learning to let go.)

You will notice that there is no room for inducing guilt and shame in these Yamas and Niyamas.

Asana: Postures. Various isometric (exercises) postures, that are maintained with ease and stability, are described. The idea behind this is to ease the tensions between different muscle groups and train the organs or parts of the Brain to attain a balance so the body musculature and the brain circuits can be freed of the tensions created by the internal conflicts and traumatic experiences. The practitioner will in time get deeper experience of his/her awareness of the body and its processes leading to better control of neuromuscular system and one's attentional processes. (In other words better cortical and subcortical or pyramidal and extrapyramidal motor balance) These lead to breaking down of many usual tensions between opposing forces in the body, when unleashed experienced as tremors or vibrations in the body
(angamejayatvam). The asanas are designed to decrease and alleviate this angamejayatvam.

Pranayama: These are various breathing techniques. These are designed to ease the disturbances of breathing that come about when facing stress. It is claimed that the emotional brain is linked closely with breathing, for example with crying, sighing, fast breathing, breath holding or hyperventilation, etc. By increasing the conscious control of this semi-autonomic function of breathing, the practitioner indirectly trains the parts of the brain that organize and control the feelings and emotions (called manas); thus he/she can  experience that his breathing as well as his emotions can be brought under more conscious control. It is recommended (by Dr. S. L. Vinekar) that a practitioner not engage in many of the advanced Pranayama techniques until he/she has prepared the body musculature to attain a relaxed state so it will not make extra demands for oxygen from the lungs. This can be attained by the previous three techniques, by changing mental attitudes and avoiding conflict with the environment, resolving inner conflicts and tensions, and balancing the body musculature and the brain circuits

Pratyahara: Withdrawing the sensory orientation of “attention” from external to internal focus. This is a technique primarily practiced through Shavasana. (This technique of yoga was initially investigated scientifically for stress management and was introduced as a technique in the composite prescription of Psycho-physiological Therapy in 1962 in the Department of Psychiatry and Department of Cardiology at the KEM Hospital of the University of Bombay in Mumbai, India. The results of this research were later reported in the "British Journal of Psychiatry" in Nov. 1966 and the journals "Angiology" and "Biofeedback and Mind Control" in 1968 both directed by late Dr. S. L. Vinekar, Joint Director of Research at Kaivalyadhama Yoga Institute, Lonavla, (Pune), India, who worked with two different teams of clinical investigators to conduct the clinical trials in his capacity as the Honorary Consulting Physician at K.EM. Hospital who designed and developed the clinically applicable version of Psychophysiological Therapy which he had previously published about in detail in the book "Yogic Therapy" published in 1961 by the Ministry of Health, Government of India - authors "Swami Kuvalayananda and Dr. S. L. Vinekar." The text of this book was primarily written by the second author with proper acknowledgement of the status of his Guru and guide as the primary author, as is a common practice in Indian ethos and tradition.)

The Antaranga is inner change of focus to turn attention toward the Purusha or Atman. In order to do so the first prerequisite technique is to develop the ability to maintain a one-pointed attention, Ekagrata. The attention is focused on one object and the process of such one-pointed attention and also the object upon which the attention is focused are called Alambana. (This process can be a special meditative technique but can be generalized to living in the present with Samadhi - balanced Dhee - recently modified or combined with the Zen Buddhist techniques designed to achieve the state of Satori - promulgated in the recent Western folk literature and also by scientific investigators as "mindfulness." "Mindfulness" is a newly coined English word that did not exist in wide usage in 1950s and 60s when the original clinical research on yoga and the book Yogic Therapy was published. An astute reader will recognize that it is a fascinating old wine in new bottle.)

Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are together called Sanyama.

This process entails increasing inner absorption to the relative exclusion of awareness of outer reality perceived through sensory apparatus. It is not just self-imposed sensory deprivation but pleasant or pleasurable relative sensory isolation.

Dharana: holding attention. Inward Dharana will be difficult and therefore the beginner is encouraged to focus on outer object perceived through one sensory organ (this technique of Dharana is a beginning of Antaranga, when directed to outer objects can be compared to "mindfulness"). The outer object can be a “yantra” or “Ishta-devata,” “Omkara” or  a flower, even a musical note, anything that can be pleasing to hold one's attention. For that matter whatever interests the aspirant can be chosen for "Dharana." (recently re-named under the rubric of "mindfulness")

Dhyana: The process of dhyana is deeper concentration, inwardly directed. Ultimate result of Dharana is considered to be blurring of the psychological (ego) boundary and a feeling of (as if) oneness with the object of attention. Dhyana is associated with gradual ease with which the mind or attention is permitted to focus on something and all other things gradually vanish from awareness.

Samadhi: Inner balance. The absorption then leads to internally focused attention and awareness with total absorption in the “themes” or contents of awareness. In this state the awareness of external reality nearly or totally vanishes. The internal contents of awareness or contents illuminated by Chitta are qualitatively or categorically described as Vichara, Vitarka, Asmita, Ananda, Vikalpa, Nirvikalpa, etc.

The goal is to divert the awareness (Chitta) away from its own contents. These contents are described as Chittavrittis (waves or impulses that lead to thoughts, feelings and actions). When all the chittavrittis are inhibited in the awareness, the true nature of pure consciousness (That True Consciousness - Purusha or Atman - which truly illuminates Chitta) lurks in the awareness of the subject, who automatically and with ease identifies himself or herself as that Consciousness which is the Ultimate Reality and not as the identity one carries in the "real world."  It has a profoundly beneficial effect, mainly in giving the inner peace and bliss the individual values the most. This is the state of true Happiness that the Yogis, Buddha included, aspired for, and once attained gradually started loosening the bonds of Karma that tie the individual to this world, making it possible to have special loving relationships that are simultaneously dispassionate (viraga) and Patanjali says this process or this state weakens the binding forces of Karma -  karmabandhanaani shlathayati).

Thus the process of Sanyama starts with the practice of dharana a preliminary step of Chittavritti Nirodha or in modern parlance "mindfulness" and progresses to the ultimate state of Nirvikalpa
Samaadhi, a state of consciousness in which all mental activities are momentarily inhibited
leading to an experience of pure Consciousness (Shiva, Shuddhatma, Brahman, Sat-chid-ananda, etc.) Thus the process of Samyama starts with "controlling" one and only one vritti as object of attention
in the technique of ekagrata moving on to holding and occupying one vritti as occupying the mental space (in Dharana as in "mindfulness" in modern parlance), leading to total absorption and identification with the object of meditation in the stage of Dhyana which when deepens eases one's mind into Samadhi where in all vrittis gradually dissipate attaining the true and complete
chittavritti nirodha meaning attenuation and inhibition of all chittavritties necessary to get the glimpse of the undifferentiated ultimate Consiousness (Purusha). This is a transcendental experience that transforms the individual into a state of Samadhi in every living moment ultimately manifesting the Union of individual consciousness with the Universal Consciousness implied in the word Yoga.

So, one can see that the Yogic techniques are purely psycho-physiological in nature and can be universally practiced by any mature human being regardless of class, color, caste, sex, religion or national origin.

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