The word yoga itself is derived form the root yuj, meaning ‘to join’, ‘bind together’, or ‘unify’. Dr. Matthew Clark – research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and author of The Origins And Practices of Yoga: A Weeny Introduction, notes that at its root, yoga is “an attempt to transform the individual’s consciousness through a variety of mental and practical techniques that work on the nervous system and brain chemistry”. He says that “yoga might also be described as ‘immersion’; in psychic space or an object of meditation. Deep states of immersion are perhaps best described as trance states, which may be experienced as a timeless union with something immeasurably larger than the individual practitioner”. The object of unity and what the practitioner decides to focus on in meditation is entirely up to them, but the basic focus is on disentangling the mind from illusions (i.e. what we think is real), and cultivating a connection to reality, truth, and essentially a life lived without filters. At a time when there is so much materialism, worry and false information, these ideas can provide clarity, calm and a fresh perspective.
Around 200BCE-200CE, a compilation of teachings was gathered and formally written, known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The word sutra means ‘thread’, and each of the ‘threads’ weaves together to create what is essentially an instruction manual or map to samadhi, meaning ‘bliss’, ‘enlightenment’, and the recognition of truth. In the very first pages of the text, the practice of yoga itself is described as ‘Chitta Vritti Nirodaha’, translated as ‘yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind’. The yoga sutras of Patanjali have now become one of the most widely recognised and translated yogic texts, and as author Alistair Shearer writes in his translation; “the Yoga Sutras are the most lucid and authoritative of all the texts that serve as maps for the inner journey… [they are] views from the mountaintop. Their purpose is to encourage and guide us, the climbers, to share their panoramic view”. The journey to this mountaintop exists in eight steps of ‘limbs’, including:
- Yama: Life’s moral guidelines
- Niyama: The ‘rules’ or advice for living
- Asana: Yoga and meditation postures
- Pranayama: Breathing techniques
- Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal
- Dharana: Deep focus
- Dhyana: Meditative absorption
- Samadhi: Bliss or enlightenment
Of these eight limbs, the first two of Yama and Niyama provide the basis from which all other yogic practices are based upon. They’re a little like the foundations of a house, and whether one practices yoga or not, they serve as useful instructions and suggestions to help guide each person through life.