The origin of Yoga as we know it, is shrouded in the mists of history. Probably it is as old as man himself. The word Yoga is derived from the word in Sanskrit for yoke, or control. Perhaps it began as a method of controlling the breath and went on to include the physical and mental exercises required to control oneself. For long, the sages considered man as a container of spirit or atman and both body and mind were to be yoked in harmony. Yoga evolved primarily as a discipline or path, which was taken to achieve nirvana or salavation from suffering. Two disciplines gained prominence in the early ages: karma yoga, the path of action or ritual, and jnana yoga, the path of knowledge or intense study of scripture. Both these paths were said to lead to liberation or enlightenment.
The Maitrayaniya Upanishad defines yoga as a means of controlling the breath and mind by chanting Om. The oneness of the breath and mind, and the senses, and the renunciation of all conditions of existence is defined as yoga. On find in the Maitrayaniya a description of the actual method or discipline for joining with the Atman within all beings. This six-fold yoga path includes controlling the breath (pranayama), withdrawing the senses (pratyahara), meditation (dhyana), concentration (dharana), contemplation (tarka), and absorption (samadhi). These elements of the six-fold path were expanded and resurfaced in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.
The most famous and most beloved of all yoga texts, the Bhagavad Gita provides the most comprehensive description of yoga at that time. After inclusion into the canon of the Mahabharata, the Gita brought together moral teachings and mystical lore. While the Maitrayaniya Upanishad outlined a six-fold path to liberation, the Gita advocated a three-pronged approach: karma yoga, the path of service; jnana yoga, the path of wisdom or knowledge; and bhakti yoga, the path of devotion.
In the Bhagavad Gita, jnana yoga signified meditation, or the path of wisdom, much as it did in the Upanishads. Using this type of yoga, a practitioner would try to discriminate between real and unreal, in an attempt to separate the Self from the non-Self. Karma yoga of the Gita was still a yogi’s path of action, what Krishna called Arjuna’s sva-dharma. As a warrior, Arjuna’s dharma or obligation is to fight the forces of evil, under all circumstances.
In fact, failing to do ones duty accumulates better karma than doing someone else’s well. Buddhi yoga, which is the coming together of karma and jnana yoga principles, teaches us that one must never be attached to the fruits of his actions. What matters is not whether we have won or lost in battle, only do ones duty and then offer up the fruits of his actions to Lord Krishna.
Yoga has lots of names for the concept of universal consciousness, or Brahman like Atman, the transcendental Self; the Divine, isvara, purusha, pure awareness, the seer, the witness, and the knower are but a few of the more popular ones. Some schools of yoga and Hindu philosophy taught that this universal consciousness manifested itself in everything, beginning with the grossest, most visible realm of the five bhutas (air, fire, water, earth, and ether) and moving into the subtlest realm of the soul or Atman.
The mainstream yoga philosophy felt that renunciation alone was not enough. Yogis should practice karma yoga and jnana yoga (knowledge or meditation) to achieve true liberation. According to Kapila, nature and, in fact, all of creation was separate and distinct from the universal consciousness. Suffering occurred when the yogi became attached to things that were not the Self, and when he mistakenly identified those things with pure consciousness.
There are two distinct forms of reality or existence purusha (the pure, transcendental spirit, which is male) and prakriti (matter or nature, which is female).
Purusha is all-knowing, without beginning and without end. It simply exists as pure consciousness. It is the seer. Prakriti, on the other hand, is in constant motion, creative, active, distinct, but unconscious. She is all that is seen. She has, in fact, created everything in the universe by manifesting herself in three ways: sattva, rajas, and tamas. These three manifestations of her nature are called gunas. They exist simultaneously, but in varying degrees of prominence, in everything in the cosmos. Prakriti dynamically creates these phenomena; purusha passively illuminates them.
The most famous proponent of this view was Patanjali. Nearly every yoga teacher is familiar with the Yoga Sutra. Patanjali clearly codified the concepts of an ancient, oral tradition. His collection of 195 sutras provides the first practical treatise on daily living, beginning with how to conduct oneself in society and culminating in the act of final liberation or enlightenment.
Today, as the number of yoga institutes proliferate, the yoga masters are present everywhere, you have the best chance ever to partake of this wonderful nectar called yoga right at your doorstep. It is a healthy activity no doubt, but it does wonders to your spirit, your mind and your family and friends.