Yoga is the common name for that form of meditative practice which aims at uniting subject and object. The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit word “yuj” which in English means “to yoke” or “to unite.” It is believed that yoga originated in India almost 26,000 years ago. Some say it is 10,000 years ago, but I don’t think dates really matter at this point. There are many forms of yoga, and apparently, each form can be defined exclusively. To make it simple, however, let’s just say that yoga is any kind of discipline or systematic practice that allows you to be united with your true self.
To give you a good picture of what I have just said, take the look at the image above. This picture represents a map of human consciousness, a model based on Carl Jung's individuation process (of course, there are many other models out there that you can use). Now, you can see that the persona or social masks ― e.g. lawyer, doctor, blogger, mother, employee, etc. ― form the outermost shell of the psyche while the true self is at the center. The ego, shadow, and male/female principles are the aspects that rest in between the outer layer and the core.
The problem that we humans face today is that majority of us can only consciously navigate through the layers of the persona and the ego. Figuratively speaking, a vast portion of the mind is left unexplored, especially the one at the center. Due to this, we usually commit the error of indentifying ourselves entirely with our characters, personalities, and objects like when you say, “I am this” or “I own that” or “I do this.” The same is true when we classify people using all sorts of terms like “she’s nice and pretty” or “he’s brave and strong” or “you’re a psycho.”
Yoga, in my humble opinion, basically allows you to penetrate the deeper layers of the mind, which ultimately enables you to know more about the nature of your true self. Once you accomplish this, you can also shift, at will, into different states of consciousness (see transpersonal experiences).
Controlling The Body And Mind
Before you can explore the realms of consciousness, as well as experience the higher states, you must first be able to integrate your body and mind by being in command of the activities of both these elements. If you ask why, here’s the answer.
First, let’s separate the body from the mind.
On one hand, if you picture your body as an organism, you will see that it has programs that allow it to perform basic survival functions like eating, sleeping, defecating, avoiding danger, self healing, and so on. Other than that, there is also a program which is activated at a certain age that tells the body to replicate via sexual reproduction. When we are born in this world, all of us are wired with these programs so that the organism of the body can do what it is supposed to do, i.e. to live. In other words, the instructions come with the package and there is nothing else we can do about it.
On the other hand, we also have something we call the mind. Now the mind is said to be divided into two domains (conscious and unconscious) and "rests on a foundation of chemical machinery" (McKenna 1991) found in the nervous system of the body. Similar to the body, the mind also has its own programs which are provided courtesy of our culture and environment. A whole bunch of these programs are stored in the unconscious, and that includes the programs I mentioned earlier when I referred to the functions of the body.
Naturally, we only need the programs that run the body in order to live, but because the mind tends to do more than this by generating a variety of thoughts, it overshadows the basic functions of the organism. Hence, instead of just living our lives in harmony with nature (like plants and animals), we tend to do all sorts of crazy things because we have all sorts of crazy ideas. But if you will notice, this ability of the human mind to generate and receive complex ideas is exactly what separates us from animals. While animals only have instinctive programs, we have these fancy abilities called logic, reasoning, creativity, social awareness, morality, and so on.
This is where yoga comes in.
Because the body and the mind always want to do their own thing, the human being, which is you, is at a complete loss. Yoga helps to improve your condition by allowing you to unite your mind and body, which consequently allows you to become united with your true self.
Yoga or Psychedelics?
In meditative traditions, people do yoga to explore the mind and study consciousness. In shamanic traditions, people prefer to use plants containing psychoactive substances that produce altered states of consciousness. You may choose one over the other or you may choose to use both, but regardless of what path you take, there is one thing that you are doing for sure ― you are altering the chemical processes in your body.
You see, a person who practices yoga aims to control the body first, so it would be easier for him/her to later concentrate on the mind. However, I mentioned earlier that the mind rests on a foundation of chemical machinery found in the human nervous system. Hence, controlling the body is already, in itself, a way of controlling the mind. Anything you do with your body somehow affects the processes of the nervous system, whether you control your breath, chant mantras, limit your movements, and so on. The same is true for people who use psychoactive chemicals such as entheogens. The only difference is that with taking these substances, the effects may be direct and immediate, but the experience is limited to a certain amount of time depending on how long the drugs take effect.
The good thing about yoga is that by practicing control of the body and the mind, you can willfully induce different states of consciousness anytime you want. You can even stay in those states for an indefinite period if you have great deal of control of your body and mind. Dying is also not an issue (according to the great yogis) because once you leave your body after death, you know exactly what you are, who you are, and where you want to go. However, you can only achieve this through years and years of intense practice. Like they say in body building, “No pain; No gain.”
From Samsara To Moksha
If you are new to yoga or totally clueless about Indian philosophy, I’m sure the letters "WTF" just popped into your head. Ok, samsara is a Sanskrit word that refers to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, while moksha is also a Sanskrit word that means “release.” For the Hindus, they believe that yoga allows the follower to be “released” from samsara. It is close to the Buddhist view of attaining Nirvana or enlightenment.
There are many philosophical views regarding this process and I don’t think they will all fit here, so let me just explain this figuratively in order to make it simple.
Sometimes, when I think about the world we live in, I see it as a huge manufacturing/recycling plant just like Coca-Cola. However, instead of producing soft drinks and recycling aluminum cans, the world creates human beings so that they can be used again and again for a specific purpose. In this world, our soul is the soft drink and the beverage can is the body.
Now, just like the brands of soft drink that have their own mix of ingredients, souls have their own karma (consequences of past actions). When we are manufactured (reincarnated), our karma tells us what kind of life we will have just like how a can of soft drink is labeled depending on its flavor, its nutritional value, its calorie content, and so on. After that, we get distributed depending on where we need to go.
The problem with this process is that, after being recycled and given a new body, the person again experiences all the beating that life has to offer, grows old, and becomes useless when the purpose has been fulfilled. All this happens to a person, but the person doesn't realize what it is really all about.
Does it always have to be like that? Should you spend the rest of eternity like a small can of soda?
Well, according to many religious traditions, both in the east and west, it doesn’t have to be like that for everyone. You can get yourself out of that cycle. However, not everyone is spiritually mature to realize this truth since everyone is in their own stage of spiritual development. That is why the esoteric (hidden) knowledge, like the teachings of yoga, is only available to those who are spiritually ready to grasp its true meaning. Indeed, even if the information is available, you will not understand it unless you are already capable of receiving it.
Main Branches of Yoga
The yogis in India say that there is always a particular path best adapted to the requirements of each individual soul who seeks to attain higher consciousness. This means that any person may take a different path, but all paths lead to the same road which leads to only one place - the union with the divine spirit.
If you try to observe everyone around you, you will notice that almost all of the people you know or do not know have dedicated their lives to a certain purpose. For example, some people like soldiers, charity workers, doctors, housewives, and so on have chosen to serve others unselfishly; some people like scientists, philosophers, explorers, etc. have chosen a life dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge; and some people like priests, nuns, monks, and the like have chosen to devote themselves to worshipping God.
As you can see, everyone seems to be doing their own thing. However, no matter what the case may be, we are all here to learn from our experiences, and it is the knowledge and wisdom that we get from these experiences that enriches our being.
1. Raja Yoga (classical yoga)
Raja Yoga is the path followed by those who feel inclined to develop spiritual powers that are latent in all of us. However, it is not only about that. Raja yoga, to be more exact, is about the gaining of the control of the mental faculties by the will, the attainment of the mastery of the lower self, and the development of the mind. Its end is to aid the individual towards illumination. There are eight phases that an individual must observe in practicing Raja yoga which includes: abstentions, observances, postures, breath control, abstraction, concentration, meditation, and finally liberation. The list of articles at the end of this introduction are entirely dedicated to this branch of yoga.
2. Karma Yoga (selfless action)
The word "Karma" comes from the Sanskrit word "Kri" meaning "to do" or "to act." The spiritual law of cause and effect is known in the east as Karma. Karma yoga is the yoga of work or the path of action. Basically, those who follow this path take part in the great game that we call "life" by going through its motions and by doing the best thing possible but all the time remembering that they should not allow themselves to become attached to the fruits of their work. They care little for results although they may feel a keen interest in the game while it is being played.
3. Jnana Yoga (knowledge/wisdom)
The word Jnâna is a Sanskrit word that means “knowledge." Jnana yoga is the yoga of wisdom or can also be called “the path of knowledge.” Those who are attracted by metaphysical reasoning and speculation, subtle intellectual research, philosophy, science, and similar lines of mental effort, turn naturally to Jnana yoga. However, you need not be skilled in any particular school of thought to avail yourself of the lessons that this branch of yoga provides. As long as you wish to know the "why" of life and as long as you are, by nature, called upon to seek knowledge of the esoteric, you are doing Jnana yoga.
4. Bhakti Yoga (devotion)
Bhakti yoga is the yoga for those who prefer to grow into an understanding and union with the "Absolute" or "God." In other words, anyone who recognizes the love and worship of any conception of God is performing Bhakti yoga. We all know that people have varying beliefs regarding God and this may seem to be a hindrance because of the fact that there are certain individuals who take advantage of other people's ignorance (like what we see in most religions of today). However, it is believed in the philosophy of Bhakti yoga that no matter what kind of deity you worship, underneath it all you are still obeying the religious instinct that will in time lead you to the knowledge of the highest attributes of the one and absolute God.
There you go. I hope you enjoyed this somewhat brief introduction to yoga. If you want to take this path towards higher consciousness, please feel free to study the articles below.
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and your discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.” — Patanjali
The System of Raja Yoga
Raja Yoga: The Royal Path Of Yoga
(The system of yoga used to develop unique abilities of both mind and body.)
- YAMA: The Five Abstentions
- NIYAMA: The Five Observances
- ASANA: The Yoga Postures
- PRANAYAMA: Extension Of The Life Force or Breath
- PRATYAHARA: Withdrawal Of The Senses
- DHARANA: One-Pointedness or The Perfect Concentration Of Mind
- DHYANA: Meditation or Perfect Contemplation
- SAMADHI: Meditative Absorption or Full Meditation
7 Chakras: The Spiritual Energy Centers Of Man
(The subtle energy centers of the body needed to be meditated on for the abilities to emerge.)
- Root Chakra (Muladhara)
- Sacral Chakra (Swadhisthana)
- Solar Plexus Chakra (Manipura)
- Heart Chakra (Anahata)
- Throat Chakra (Vishuddha)
- Third Eye Chakra (Ajna)
- Crown Chakra (Sahasrara)
Spiritual Power or "Siddhi"
(The list of unique abilities mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.)
- Precognition & Retrocognition: Knowledge Of The Past And Future
- Clairaudience: Knowledge of the Sounds-Language of All Beings
- Knowledge Of Past Lives Or Previous Births
- Telepathy: Knowledge Of The Minds Of Other Beings
- The Ability To Make The Body Invisible (Invisibility)
- Foreknowledge Of The Time Of Death
- Strength Of Any Attitude (Such As Friendliness)
- Super Strength (Such As That Of An Elephant)
- Clairvoyance: Knowledge of Subtle, Hidden, & Remote Things
- Knowledge Of Other Worlds, Realms, And Universes
- Knowledge Of The Arrangement Of Stars And Planets
- Knowledge Of The Movement Of Stars And Planets
- Full Knowledge Of The Systems Of The Body
- Freedom From Hunger And Thirst
- The Power Of Steadiness Or Immobility
- Visions of Siddhas (Perfected Beings)
- Intuitive Knowledge or Spontaneous Illumination
- Knowledge Of The Nature Of The Mind
- Knowledge Of Pure Consciousness (Spirit/Purusha)
- Extra Sensory Perception: Activating Your Psychic Abilities
- Entering And Controlling The Bodies Of Others
- The Power Of Levitation (Laghima)
- Radiating Light Around The Body (The Luminosity of Auras)
- Super Hearing (Hearing At Vast Distances)
- Ability To Travel Through Space (Teleportation)
- Vision Of The Light Of The Universal Mind
- Mastery Of The Elements (Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Ether)
- Making The Body Atomically Small, Indestructible, Perfect
- Perfection Of The Body In Beauty, Strength, And Brilliance
- Mastery Over The Five Senses Of The Body
- Quickness Of The Mind (Instantaneous Cognition)
- Omnipotence & Omniscience: Mastery Of All States Of Existence
- Knowledge Born Of The Awareness Of Ultimate Reality
- Intuitive Discernment: Ability To Distinguish or Differentiate All Things
- Higher Knowledge And Wisdom
- Absolute Freedom: The Perfect Spiritual Life