Physical exercise, meditative practice or alternative therapy, the benefits of yoga cannot be underestimated
The word ‘yoga’ instantly conjures tranquil images of surya namaskar, an obeisance to the life-giving forces of the universe.
Integral to Hindu identity, yoga is the ancient practice of attaining physical and spiritual discipline through the natural turbulence of our restless thoughts, thereby discovering inner peace. According to Hindu philosophy, yoga is also a way of life – involving perception, inference and reliance on guru or textual guides. Although better known today as a form of physical practice, yoga has a deep meditative core that seeks to explore the inner self. Deriving from root word jog, (to unite, attach) yoga has taken on many modern connotations, however, its fundamental goal is to attain samaadhi or concentration and ultimately moksha or liberation. Traditional yoga seeks to provide plausible answers to profoundly existentialistic questions – Who am I? Whence do I come? Whither do I go? What must I do? It is these questions about self-awareness that lead to better understanding of life and its myriad complexities.
Teaching techniques to control the mind and the body, yoga is a carefully regimented method of reaching one’s goal through rising consciousness. Although there is much debate about the exact origins of yoga, historians agree that this way of life was born in the Sindhu-Saraswati era, several thousand years ago around 3000 BC. Among the ruins of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, archeologists have found depictions engraved on soapstone seals that resemble yogi-like figures. Historians have mapped the growth of yoga over the millennia as broadly falling into four phases.
At the very beginning, firmly rooted in Rig Vedic times is Vedic yoga. It is interlinked with the ritualistic ceremonies of the era that sought to connect the material world with the spiritual, thereby gaining higher realisation of the fabric of existence.
Relying on teachings of the Bhagvad Gita, pre-classical yoga, which followed, developed many techniques for yogis to transcend the body and achieve true spiritual enlightenment.
This led to classical yoga, which refers to Raja yoga or Ashtanga yoga, based on the teachings of Patanjali, which posited that each individual is a composite of matter (prakriti) and spirit (purusha). He understood the process of yoga as being used to bring about their separation, thereby restoring the spirit in its absolute purity. His formulation is generally characterised as philosophical dualism. In contrast, postclassical yoga affirms the ultimate unity of everything.
Modern day practitioners eventually began to probe the hidden potential of the body as well. Previously, they had experimented with leaving the body and becoming one with the formless reality of the spirit. The new breed of yoga gurus created a system of practices designed to rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. They regarded the body as a temple of the immortal spirit, not merely as a vehicle to be discarded at the first opportunity. They even explored through advanced yogic techniques the possibility of energising the physical body to such a degree that its biochemistry is improved and even its basic matter is reorganised to render it immortal. This led to birth of Hatha yoga.
Today, the well-known Hindu schools of yoga are Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, Karma yoga, Laya yoga and Hatha yoga as well as the yoga sutras of Pantajali, constituting classical Ashtanga yoga, also called Raja yoga.
The history of modern yoga however began with Jnana yogi, Swami Vivekananda and the Parliament of Religions in 1893. Hatha yoga entered America and eventually, the rest of world. Today the practice is better known for its physical emphasis and profound health benefits. Many acknowledge its efficacy as an alternative therapy.
The health benefits of yoga cannot be underestimated for both young and old, particularly for breathing, mindfulness, relaxation and ultimately stress relief. Its three-pronged focus on exercise, breathing and meditation has positive influence on musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems besides of course mental health. Yoga as a complementary intervention for acute cancer sufferers is also gathering momentum.
The yoga rishis of the past observed some of the various qualities humans can learn from our animal friends and applied these merits when drafting their yoga syllabus. Today we have positions mimicking the physical movements of various members of the animal kingdom including the peacock, cobra, cow, tortoise, lion, monkey, and even the humble cat and dog!
In September 2014, in his maiden address to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for an International Yoga Day. Recognising its far reaching impact and influence, in December, the UN formally adopted a resolution declaring the northern summer solstice (June 21) as World Yoga Day.
Across Australia, various yogis will be taking part in the celebrations. The Hindu Council of Australia is co-hosting workshops, yoga sessions and lectures in each of the major capital cities – Parramatta and Bondi in Sydney, Seabrook in Melbourne as well as Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth. As well, the Consulates and High Commissions of India across the states will be marking the occasion with free public events programs.
The aim of the Day is to unite all forms of yoga from hatha to hot, purist to laughter, for a global celebration of an ancient tradition that promotes heightened awareness of body and mind for perfect harmony.