What is Yoga?
Yoga is a scientific, time-tested, 6000 year-old system of self-improvement. The heart of yogic teachings lies in the belief that a self-fulfilled person is a healthy person, free from disease caused by stress and improper living habits. The practice of yoga is designed to lead the student to an ever-increasing knowledge of him- or herself and the needs of his or her body and mind in order to achieve and maintain good physical and mental health and spiritual harmony.
Hatha Yoga, which is the yoga of physical well-being, usually begins the practice of this ancient science for most Western students. (The Sanskrit root, “ha,” means sun, or positive aspect, and “tha” means moon, or negative aspect. Yoga comes from the root that also gives us our word “yoke.” Consequently, Hatha Yoga is the part of yoga that seeks to unite our polarities and conflicts into a state of harmony.) Through its related series of exercises for both body and mind, Hatha Yoga techniques are intended to rejuvenate and bring into proper balance all aspects of the body: endocrine system, vascular system, nervous system, and musculature.
Hatha Yoga postures are very different from other forms of physical exercise. Unlike calisthenics and sports which emphasize stamina and vigorous muscular activity – often to the point of exhaustion – Hatha Yoga postures encourage concentration, perseverance, and steady progress. They can be practiced and enjoyed by young and old, healthy and unhealthy, strong and weak. People of all ages, nationalities, races, creeds, religions, and of both sexes can benefit from Hatha Yoga.
Gentle stretching exercises, rhythmic breathing, and deep relaxation techniques are stressed in the beginning practice of yoga, along with instruction in nutrition and diet that promotes physical and mental health through positive living and attitudes. Through continued practice of these techniques, the student of Hatha Yoga quickly experiences the benefits of increased relaxation, normalized blood pressure, the relief of minor back problems, and a steadied metabolism. When combined with deep breathing exercises and meditation techniques, this practice also brings the student a sense of emotional calmness and feeling of mental peace.
As noted earlier, most students are introduced to the ancient science of yoga through their encounter with Hatha Yoga. There are other forms of yoga though, for in its largest sense the word yoga refers to man’s aspiration to achieve union with Supreme or cosmic consciousness. The following forms of yoga offer different paths for different personalities. They all lead to the same goal and are fully described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first written compilation of yogic knowledge, which dates from around 200 BC: