Classical yoga is a system of training involving the body, mind, and spirit, the origin of which can be found in Indian antiquity. As a diamond has many facets, so yoga has many paths that will ultimately lead to the same goal. Hatha yoga, raja yoga, mantra yoga, kundalini yoga, karma yoga, bhakti yoga, Gnana yoga, Likita yoga are some of the better-known paths. The practice of any path of yoga will automatically involve aspects of the others, the work of the center is predominantly with Hatha and Raja yoga. The goal is cosmic consciousness.
Classical yoga is based on Patanjali’s eight limbs, which provide a foundation for personal and spiritual growth.
The eight limbs Classical Yoga are composed of:
1. Yamas (abstinence)
2. Nyamas (observance)
3. Asanas (postures)
4. Pranayama (breath control)
5. Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (contemplation/meditation)
8. Samadhi (self realisation/absorption)
Yamas and Niyamas
The Yamas and Nyamas are rules of conduct, which in conjunction with the other 6 limbs lead to that state of self-realization or union, Samadhi. The word Yoga is derived from the root Yuj, which means to join or to yoke. In this case, it means the mystical union between Atman (the individual spirit) and Brahman (the universal spirit). This union comes about when the aspirant is established in the seven limbs and the eighth limb of samadhi is achieved. Samadhi has been described as the fourth state of consciousness, the others being waking, sleeping and dreaming.
Asanas or postures prepare the body for the practice of meditation. During meditation the body is placed in a seated position with an erect spine, this position may be maintained for extended periods. The practice of Hatha yoga involves both mental and physical disciplines, which cleanse and purify, bringing the body into a state of readiness for the classical postures. The classical postures in addition to working on and improving the body structure and nervous system stimulate the endocrine glands to work at optimum efficiency. The nature of the postures also awaken the psychic centers known as the chakra system. The development of mental poise and the increase in strength and flexibility enables the aspirant to develop the ability to sit in one position for long periods of time, without distraction. It is during this time that the practice of Pranayama is established.
Pranayama has been called the science of breath. By various breathing exercises one endeavors to control the movement of prana or life force in the body. Prana is the energy found within all things, it is in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink
In the body, prana assumes different functions, just as in a home, electricity supplies lights on one circuit, power sockets on another and cooker or shower on yet another. Prana becomes ‘Apana prana’ and deals with elimination, ‘Samana prana’ digestion, ‘Udhana Prana’ the throat and voice and ‘Vyana prana’ the circulation.
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Prana manifests as both positive and negative energy in the body. The brain is known as the northern center and deals with both positive and negative aspects of the nervous system, while the heart is the southern center and deals with both aspects of the blood. Both northern and southern centers are interactive during the circadian rhythm of day and night and there is an alternating cycle within the respiratory system approximately every two hours throughout day and night. The latter cycle means that in the healthy individual the breath is to be found predominantly in either left or right nostril once every two hours (approximately). The left nostril is known as ‘Ida’ or moon breath (cooling) whilst the right is known as ‘Pingala’ or sun breath (heating). The alternation of breath via the olfactory bulb nerves and the hypothalamus controls the temperature of the body.
It is claimed in raja yoga that when the mind moves, prana follows, whereas in hatha yoga the reverse is true, either way, mind, and prana are intimately connected. Through breathing exercises the mind becomes calm and a state of detached observation develops bringing the aspirant to pratyahara (sense withdrawal).
Pratyahara is the state of mind during which bodily sensation is put on hold and the mind enters a state of detached awareness. In this state, the scattered energies of the mind are brought into sharp focus, often called one-pointedness. Many will be familiar with the idea of the little boy and a magnifying glass on a sunny day, focusing the suns’ rays on a piece of paper which will ignite when the rays come into sharp focus. So it is with the human mind, all mundane thought ceases and the ability to concentrate intensifies. The aspirant becomes engrossed in the object of concentration to the exclusion of all else.
Many people can do this when reading a good book or when absorbed in a project. They fail to hear when spoken to and lose all track of time. This is an example of concentration and absorption but it is not pratyahara. The body in such instances is not usually in a state of complete stillness or control, neither could the state be maintained for an extended period of time.
Dharana is a true concentration. The focus of concentration is examined from every angle. The subject can be viewed externally with eyes open or visualized internally with eyes closed, and can be real or imaginary, an object or abstract. In yoga there are many exercises to develop concentration including Tratakam (candle gazing), counting Om with the breath, raja yoga, affirmations, mantra, and chanting. When the mind is thus concentrated with all extraneous thought suspended and all avenues exhausted, the aspirant then seeks to suspend all thought in connection with the focus, and hold it in its entirety in mind. This leads naturally into a state of contemplation or meditation. This state is known as dhyana.
Dhyana can be likened to even deeper concentration, there is only that which is observed and the observer. It is a state of ‘no thought’, only awareness remains during which the observer and the observed merge and become one. Atman and Brahman become one and a state of Samadhi is attained.
Samadhi is the state of cosmic consciousness or ‘bliss’ state. Samadhi can be experienced either totally or partially. In the former, it is permanent whereas in the latter it is touched and experienced. Such an event is life-changing and the unity once experienced can never be forgotten nor really adequately explained in words.
Although yoga has its origins in the Indian culture it is essentially a system of psycho-physiological training and can be safely practiced by anyone regardless of sex, age or religion. Everyone can benefit from the practices of Hatha and Raja yoga.
In the West, we are more familiar with the postures of hatha yoga which, if practiced on a regular basis will result in improved physical health and relaxation. Combine that with the discipline of Raja yoga bringing mental control and peace of mind, and you have the antidote for many of the ills that plague the western world.
The practice of yoga will bring a reduction of stress and result in more abundant living, with a greater appreciation and joy of nature.