An Introduction to Yoga

 I spent the weekend reviewing some favorites from my yoga library and came across my copy of Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.  This book is great.  When it first arrived in the mail, I regarded it from the corner of my eye because, well, it's a little bit old school.  The paperback cover is fiery orange.  The illustrations are strangely drawn and some of the Ayurvedic practices explained are scary (such as rinsing the sinus passages with urine, or "flossing" the sinuses with a piece of string), but lately I've been returning to this book, and I'm finding a lot of valuable information.  The section on pranyama is especially thorough and clear.

But what I've enjoyed most about this book is the Introduction to Yoga.  It is the most thorough yet concise explanation of the origin, history, and purpose of the practice that I've found.  I was surprised that I didn't remember reading it before, and it got me so excited that I decided to post it here for all to learn and enjoy.

Introduction to Yoga
an excerpt from Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati.

Yoga is the science of right living and, as such, is intended to be incorporated in daily life.  It works on all aspects of the person:  the physical, vital, mental, emotional, psychic and spiritual.

The word yoga means 'unity' or 'oneness' and is derived from the Sanksrit word yuj, which  means 'to join.'  This unity or joining is described in spiritual terms as the union of the individual consciousness with the universal consciousness.  On a more practical level, yoga is a means of balancing and harmonizing the body, mind, and emotions.  This is done through the practice of asana, pranayama, mudra, bandha, shatkarma, and meditation, and must be achieved before union can take place with higher reality.

The science of yoga begins to work on the outermost aspect of the personality, the physical body, which for most people is a practical and familiar starting point.  When imbalance is experienced at this level, the organs, muscles, and nerves no longer function in harmony; rather they act in opposition to each other.  For instance, the endocrine system might become irregular and the efficiency of the nervous system decrease to such an extent that disease will manifest.  Yoga aims at bringing the different bodily functions into perfect coordination so that they work for the good of the whole body.

From the physical body, yoga move on to the mental and emotional level.  Many people suffer from phobias and neuroses as a result of the stresses and interactions of everday living.  Yoga cannot provide a cure for life, but it does present a proven method for coping with it.

Swami Sivananda Saraswati of Rshikesh explained yoga as an "... integration and harmony between thought, feeling, and deed, or integration between head, heart, and hand."  Through the practices of yoga, awareness develops of the interrelations between the emotional, mental, and physical levels, and how a disturbance in any one of these affects the others.  Gradually, this awareness leads to an understanding of the more subtle areas of existence.

There are many branches of yoga: raja, hatha, jnana, karma, bhakti, mantra, kundalini, and laya to name but a few, and many texts explain them in detail.  Each individual needs to find those yogas most suited to his/her particular personality and need.  In the last half of the twentieth century, hatha yoga had become the most well known and widely practiced of the systems.  However, the concept of what constitutes yoga is broadening as more people take it up, and this knowledge is spreading.  In the ancient texts, hatha yoga consists of the shatkarms, cleansing practices only.  Today, however, hatha yoga commonly embraces the practice of asana, pranayama, mudra, and bandha as well.

History of yoga

The yoga we know today was developed as a part of the tantric civilization which existed in India and all parts of the world more than ten thousand years ago.  In archaeological excavations made in the Indus Valley at Harappa and Mohenjodaro, now in modern Pakistan, many statues have been found depicting deities resembling Lord Shiva and Shakti performing various asanas and practicing meditation.  These ruins were once the dwelling place of people who lived in the pre-vedic age before the Aryan civilization started to flourish in the Indus subcontinent.  According to mythical tradition, Shiva is said to be the founder of yoga and Parvati, his first disciple.

Lord Shiva is considered to be the symbol or embodiment of supreme consciousness.  Parvati represents supreme knowledge, will, and action, and is responsible for all creation.  This force or energy is also known as kundalini shakti, the cosmic force which lies dormant in all beings.  Parvati is regarded as the mother of the whole universe.  The individual soul is embodied and bound to the world of name and form, and also liberated from the bondage of the world and united with supreme consciousness through her grace.  Out of love and compassion for her children, she imparted her secret knowledge of liberation in the form of tantra.  The techniques of yoga have their source in tantra and the two cannot be separated, just as consciousness, Shiva, cannot be separted from energy, Shakti.

Tantra is a combination of the two words, tanoti and trayati, which mean 'expansion' and 'liberation' respectively.  Therefore, it is the science of expanding the consciousness and liberating the energy.  Tantra is the way to attain freedom from teh bondage of the world while still living in it.  The first step in tantra is to know the limitations and capacities of the body and mind.  Next it prescribes techniques for expansion of consciousness and liberation of energy whereby individual limitations are transcended and a higher reality experienced.

Yoga arose at the beginning of human civilization when humankind first realized their spiritual potential and began to evolve the techniques to develop it.  The yogic science was slowly developed by ancient sages all over the world.  The essence of yoga has often been shrouded in or explained by different symbols, analogies and languages.  Some traditions believe that yoga was a divine gift revealed to the ancient sages so that humankind could have the opportunity to realized its divine nature.

In ancient times, yoga techniques were kept secret and were never written down or exposed to public view.  They were passed on from teacher or guru to disciple by word of mouth.  In this way, there was a clear understanding of their meaning and aim.  Through personal experience, realized yogis and sages were able to guide sincere aspirants along the correct path, removing any confusion, misunderstanding, and excessive intellectual contemplation.

The first books to refer to yoga were the ancient Tantras and later the Vedas, which were written about the time the Indus Valley culture was flourishing.  Although they do not give specific practices, they allude to yoga symbolically.  In fact, the verses of the Vedas were heard by rishis, seers, in states of deep yogic meditation or samadhi, and are regarded as revealed scriptures.  It is, however, in the Upanishads that yoga begins to take a more definable shape.  These scriptures collectively form Vedanta, the culmination of the Vedas, and are said to contain the essence of the Vedas.

Sage Patanjali's treatise on raja yoga, the Yoga Sutras, codified the first definitive, unified and comprehensive system of yoga.  Often called the eight-fold path, it is comprised of yama (self restraints), niyama (self-observances), asana, pranayama, pratyahara (dissociation of consciousness from the outside environment), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (identification with pure consciousness).

In the 6th century BC, Buddha's influence brought the ideals of meditation, ethics and morality to the fore and preparatory practices of yoga were ignored.  However, Indian thinkers soon realized the limitations in this view.  The yogi Matsyendranath taught that before taking to the purifying practices of meditation, the body and its elements need purifying.  He founded the Nath cult and the yogic pose matsyendrasana was named after him.  His chief disciple, Goraknath, wrote books on hatha yoga in the local dialect and in Hindi.

Indian tradition previously required that original texts be written in Sanskrit.  In some cases they clothed their writings in symbolism so that only those qualified to recieve a teaching would be able to understand it.  One of the most outstanding authorities on hatha yoga, Swami Swatmarama, wrote Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or 'Light on Yoga,' in Sanskrit, collating all extant material on the subject.  In doing so, he reduced the emphasis on yama and niyama, thereby eliminating a great obstacle experienced by many beginners.  In Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Swatmarama starts with the body and only later, when the mind has become stable and balanced, are the yamas and niyamas (self-control and self-discipline) introduced.

The relevance of yoga today

Today, in the 21st century, a spiritual heritage is being reclaimed of which yoga is very much a part.  While yoga's central theme remains the highest goal of the spiritual path, yogic practices give direct and tangible benefits to everyone regardless of their spiritual aims.

Physical and mental cleansing and strengthening is one of yoga's most important achievements.  What makes it so powerful and effective is the fact that it works on the holistic principles of harmony and unification.  According to medical scientists, yoga therapy is successful because of the balance created in the nervous and endocrine systems which directly influences all other systems and organs of the body.

For most people in the 20th century, yoga was simply a means of maintaining health and well-being in an increasingly stressful society.  Asanas do remove the physical discomfort accumulated during a day at the office sitting in a chair, hunched over a desk.  Relaxation techniques help to maximize the effectiveness of ever-diminishing time off.  In an age of mobile phones, beepers, and twenty-four hour shopping, yogic practices make great personal and even business sense.

In the 21st century, beyond the needs of individuals, the underlying principles of yoga provide a real tool to combat social malaise.  At a time when the world seems to be at a loss, rejecting past values without being able to establish new ones, yoga provides a means for people to find their own way of connecting with their true selves.  Through this connection with their real selves, it is possible for people to manifest harmony in the current age, and for compassion to emerge where hitherto there has been none.

In this respect, yoga is far from simply being physical exercises.  It is an aid to establishing a new perception of what is real, what is necessary, and how to become established in a way of life which embraces both inner and outer realities.  This way of life is an experience which cannot be understood intellectually and will only become living knowledge through practice and experience.  However, the renaissance has begun.


  1. Big fan of that book, in fact most of the Bihar books in general having studied for quite a while under the teachings of Satyananda.

    This and Desikachar's "heart of yoga" are my go-to guides to life really!

  2. Rachel - I've heard lots of good things about "Heart of Yoga," but have not read it. Always looking to add to the yoga bookshelf.

    Rachel B - You're welcome. Thanks for commenting. :)