- (yogi, yogini)Yoga is an ancient Hindu practice and belief system that aims at releasing the adept from the bonds of the endless cycle of birth and rebirth. The word yoga is derived from the root yuj, “to yoke,” probably because the early practice con-centrated on restraining or “yoking in” the senses. Later the name was also seen as a metaphor for “linking” or “yoking to” God or the divine.The earliest form of yoga may have been the Jain yoga (c. 900 B.C.E.), which involved severe sensual denial and restraint (see JAINISM). To free the soul from birth and rebirth Jains felt it was necessary to restrain the senses completely so as to be beyond both “love” and “hate,” or more accu-rately, beyond any positive or negative emotion. The early Jain monks and TIRTHANKARAS (perfected beings) would train themselves to ignore the body completely and to train the mind to ignore even the strongest positive and negative stimuli. The details of these ancient Jain practices are lost to us. Jain yoga today is focused more on restraining oneself to prevent injury to any living being, which was always a concern in that tradition.An element of worldly denial has always been part of all yoga, and even today yogis can be found who perform extreme feats of restraint. Yoga of this sort is ultimately about controlling all bodily functions, so that even the autonomic nervous system can be under the adept’s control. When SWAMI RAMA first traveled to the United States in the 1970s, he demonstrated such control by stop-ping his heart completely for more than a minute while being attached to a heart monitor.The BUDDHA’s yoga (c. 600 B.C.E.) was created specifically to counter the earlier push toward complete bodily denial. He declared that mental control was the final object of yoga and did not need to be accomplished by hurting the body. Central to his yoga were watching of the breath and observing of the sensations of the body.The UPANISHADS (c. 900–300 B.C.E.) do not dis-cuss yoga per se, but they point toward a mental practice that aims to realize the unity of one’s own self with the ultimate Self. This yoga is known as JNANA YOGA, sometimes called “the Yoga of Knowledge.” Nothing is said about postures and only one Upanishad speaks of sitting in a quiet place to meditate. A form of MEDITATION, however, seems to have been central to this type of yoga. A number of passages in the Upanishads imply both bodily denial and attention to the breath.The BHAGAVAD GITA (c. 200 B.C.E.) makes the first mention of a yoga that uses focus on God as the central practice (in the later YOGA SUTRA, a focus on God is an adjunct practice to the central disciplines). The yoga developed in the Bhaga-vad Gita was called “devotional yoga,” or BHAKTI YOGA. One focused one’s mind in the same yogic way as in other practices, but one used God as a focus point for all consciousness. Nowadays the chanting of the Gita itself or other texts will be part of the practice.The Bhagavad Gita also contains the earliest reference to KARMA YOGA—in which the focus is on good conduct in the world. One acts in a dis-interested way without regard to the fruits of one’s actions. This makes everyday life a form of yoga. MOHANDAS KARAMCHAND GANDHI considered this the most important yoga; he wrote extensively about this practice.The ASHTANGA (eight-limbed) YOGA of PATA N-JALI (c. second century C.E.) involved a sitting yoga, sometimes called raja yoga, which focused on breathing. As one observed the breath, one developed ways of concentrating the mind and eventually controlling the mind. ASANAS, or pos-tures, are well developed in today’s versions of yoga 511 JPATANJALI yoga, but his Yoga Sutra does not list any postures; these may have been later addi-tions to the practice, or they may have developed separately and then merged with the Patanjalian school. There are strong resemblances between the practices found in the early Buddhist texts and those found in Patanjali.HATHA YOGA is an amalgam of practices that may have emerged separately and were later combined. It includes the basic practices that can be found in Patanjali as well as postures. The term hatha origi-nally meant “violent,” and it is possible that this style of yoga originated in certain types of severe yoga that were softened for protection of the body.In some systems hatha yoga includes KUNDALINI YOGA as part of its path. The focus of breath con-trol becomes the “serpent” or “Goddess Energy” (kundalini) at the base of the spine, which must be awakened and forced upward to pierce the psychic centers or CHAKRAS that run parallel to the spine. The NADIS or subtle bodily channels are used to guide breath into the central spinal chan-nel to help the raising of the kundalini through the centers. Finally, the rising kundalini meets the god SHIVA at a point above the head called SAHASRARA CHAKRA. This meeting provokes absolute enlighten-ment. Kundalini yoga practice itself can vary; the kundalini methods used in hatha yoga are some-what different from those used in TANTRA yoga.Tantra is the most esoteric of all of the yogas. All yogas, and in fact all paths toward spiritual advance in the Indian tradition, depend upon the guidance of a GURU. However, the tantra yoga practices are so complicated and often danger-ous that a guru is of the utmost importance. The basic realization of tantra yoga is that the phenomenal world is nothing but the divine truth—the transcendent and the earthly divinity are one and the same. Whereas other yogas look toward a retreat from the sensual, tantra plunges into the dangers of the senses in order to reach the highest realization.This is true in particular of the notorious practices of “left-handed” tantra. In the process of worship the devotee (most often a male) drinks alcohol, eats the forbidden beef, and has sexual intercourse with a low-caste partner or “goddess.” The sexual union is seen as the union of the divin-ity in its transcendent form with the divinity in its mundane aspect. The practice aims to produce an understanding of the divinity in its totality. Alcohol too helps teach about the “bliss” of the infinite. Eating forbidden beef and other acts nor-mally thought as “polluting” teach that even the dirt and refuse in the world are essentially divine. “Right-handed” tantra yoga does not resort to these forbidden practices. It includes much ritual and chanting of MANTRAS to guide the conscious-ness to its chosen goal.Apart from these general categories of yoga, many specialized disciplines have emerged, including KRIYA YOGA and Integral Yoga (see Sri AUROBINDO).Further reading: S. N. Dasgupta, The History of Indian Philosophy (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975); Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions International, 1989); Trevor Leggett, Realization of the Supreme Self: The Bhagavad Gita Yogas (New York: Kegan Paul International, 1995); Robert Svoboda, Aghora: At the Left Hand of God (Albuquerque, N. Mex.: Brotherhood of Life, 1998); Ian Whicher and David Carpenter, eds., Yogas: The Indian Tradition (New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003); Sir John Woodroffe, Sadhana for Self-Realization: Man-tras, Yantras and Tantras (Madras: Ganesh, 1963); Viv-ian Worthington, A History of Yoga (Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982).
Encyclopedia of Hinduism. A. Jones and James D. Ryan. 2007.