Vijay Krishna Gosvami
Yoga is a form of expression that has taken many forms over the years and often involves stretching or holding certain poses, deep breathing and meditation with aim of achieving physical, mental and spiritual wellness. Its origins lie within Hinduism. According to some Hindus it began as an effort to reverse creation and return to the perfect Oneness from which the world fragmented--- with the goal of "freeing the individual from illusion and achieving union with Brahma." The physical aspects of yoga are not an end to themselves but are an aid to “inner purification” aimed at “the dissolution of the ego.” The goal is samadhi , a union with nature and the consciousness of God.

Yoga means "union" in Sanskrit and has eight different elements of which hatha yoga (physical or active yoga), which Westerners most often use, is just one. Others include karma yoga (following a path of righteous action), raja yoga (meditation and concentration on the infinite), jnana yoga ( pursuit of mystical knowledge), siddhi yoga (awakening of mystical energies), and Shakti yoga (pure faith in a supreme being).

Some say yoga is 5,000 years old. The modern form is said to be based on the Sutras of Patanjali , which are purported to have been written by a famous sage named Patanjali in the 2nd century B.C. The classical manual on hatha yoga is said to date back to the 14th century. Purportedly, some of the ancient positions were discovered on ancient manuscripts made of leaves in the early 1900s but have since been eaten by ants. Some say this story is not true. They insist many of the positions were derived from British calisthenics in the colonial period.

Yoga, Gurus and Achieving Moksha

The true goal of atman is liberation, or release (moksha ), from the limited world of experience and realization of oneness with God or the cosmos. In order to achieve release, the individual must pursue a kind of discipline (yoga, a "tying," related to the English word yoke) that is appropriate to one's abilities and station in life. For most people, this goal means a course of action that keeps them rather closely tied to the world and its ways, including the enjoyment of love (kama ), the attainment of wealth and power (artha ), and the following of socially acceptable ethical principles (dharma).

From this perspective, even manuals on sexual love, such as the Kama Sutra (Book of Love), or collections of ideas on politics and governance, such as the Arthashastra (Science of Material Gain), are part of a religious tradition that values action in the world as long as it is performed with understanding, a karma-yoga or selfless discipline of action in which every action is offered as a sacrifice to God. Some people, however, may be interested in breaking the cycle of rebirth in this life or soon thereafter. For them, a wide range of techniques has evolved over the thousands of years that gives Indian religion its great diversity. The discipline that involves physical positioning of the body (hatha-yoga), which is most commonly equated with yoga outside of India, sees the human body as a series of spiritual centers that can be awakened through meditation and exercise, leading eventually to a oneness with the universe. Tantrism is the belief in the Tantra (from the Sanskrit, context or continuum), a collection of texts that stress the usefulness of rituals, carried out with a strict discipline, as a means for attaining understanding and spiritual awakening. These rituals include chanting powerful mantras; meditating on complicated or auspicious diagrams (mandalas); and, for one school of advanced practitioners, deliberately violating social norms on food, drink, and sexual relations. *

A central aspect of all religious discipline, regardless of its emphasis, is the importance of the guru, or teacher. Indian religion may accept the sacredness of specific texts and rituals but stresses interpretation by a living practitioner who has personal experience of liberation and can pass down successful techniques to devoted followers. In fact, since Vedic times, it has never been possible, and has rarely been desired, to unite all people in India under one concept of orthodoxy with a single authority that could be presented to everyone. Instead, there has been a tendency to accept religious innovation and diversity as the natural result of personal experience by successive generations of gurus, who have tailored their messages to particular times, places, and peoples, and then passed down their knowledge to lines of disciples and social groups. As a result, Indian religion is a mass of ancient and modern traditions, some always preserved and some constantly changing, and the individual is relatively free to stress in his or her life the beliefs and religious behaviors that seem most effective on the path to deliverance. *

Aims of Yoga

One of the primary aims of yoga is to improve mental and physical health by keeping the body clean and flexible. The postures are said to help harmonize mental energy flow by removing blockages. Correct breathing helps create calmness, mental equilibrium and focus energy. Practitioners of yoga are taught to breath using both their abdomen and thorax to maximum lung capacity, which helps release tensions, bring relaxation and increase oxygen to the brain.

Breathing, philosophy and meditation are important aspects of yoga. Practitioners are often told to concentrate on their breathing or meditate on the tip of their nose and learn to direct their body’s energy to “chakra centers” and “marma points.” Fasting, abstinence from sex, nonviolence and restraint are believed to go hand in hand with the pursuit of higher consciousness. Yoga meditation often features people chanting "om" and reaching towards the sky.

There have not been many Western medical studies on the effects of yoga but the ones that have been done have shown that yoga can help relieve everything from carpal tunnel syndrome to post-menopausal hot flashes to fat-clogged arteries. Breath exercise have been shown to relieve blood pressure and stress hormones. Stretching improves the drainage of the lymphatic vessels (the body’s waste disposal system). Holding the positions helps build muscle tone and strengthens joints

Some Yoga-like exercises are designed to anticipate death and to realize the liberation body in life. Some Tantric practices are similar and have the same aims as yoga.

Breathing is a key element of yoga. If a person is stressed out or anxious their breath is shallow, rapid and uneven. With the meditation the goal is to calm the mind so that breathing is slow, deep and regular. As one focuses one’s awareness on breath, the mind becomes absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation.

Asanas, Stages and Chakras

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chakras and the nervous system
There are 15 basic yoga asanas (positions). They were reportedly developed by Hindus to get warm after taking an early-morning ritualistic bath. They have names like the tree, the dead man, the cobra, the cow face. The plow position in yoga is said to be good for the spine and intestines. The corpse position involves lying on one’s back. Breathing techniques ( pranayama ) are also important.

Yoga is rooted in the principal; that enlightenment and good health are rooted on the free flow of the life force ( prana ) and the proper balance between the eight major energy centers ( chakras ) along channels called Nadi . The lower three chakras serve the body’s physical needs. 1) The navel chakra is associated with fire, personal power and storage of the life force. 2) The sacral chakra in the lower abdomen is linked with water and sexual energy. 3) The root chakra in the pelvis corresponds with the earth and lower limbs.

The upper five chakras serve an individual’s spiritual needs. They are: 4) the heart chakra associated with air, compassion and love; 5) the throat chakra, linked with ether, self-expression, energy, endurance; 6) the brow chakra, corresponding with the senses, intuition, telepathy, meditation; 7) the crown chakra, associated with intuition and spirituality; and 8) the aura, which surrounds the body and incorporates all the other chakras.

Patanjali, the ancient noble yoga sage, described eight stages of yoga: 1) Yama (universal moral commandments); 2) Niyama (self purication); 3) Asana (posture; 4) Pranayama (breath-control); 5) Pratyahara (withdrawal of mind from extreme objects); 6) Dharana (concentration); 7) Dhyana (meditation); and 8) Samadhi (state of superconciouness).

Types of Yoga

There are many different types of yoga. Among those known in the United States are: Jivamkti (a kind of yoga meant to be physically stimulating and intellectually stimulating); Sivananda (a kind of yoga that integrates movement, breathing and meditation and a healthy lifestyle); Kripalu (emphasizes deep compassion, deep movements and stretching without straining); shakti (emphasizes prayer and chanting); and tantra (emphasizes mysticism and sex).

Most types of yoga are based on Hatha yoga (the yoga of activity). Ashtanga has a reputation for being one the most difficult types of yoga to master and requires time and practice to become proficient. Ashtanga consists of six precisely-designed sequences that in turn consist of a series of postures linked through movements called vonyasas . Each change of position is accompanied by “breathing units.” The emphasis is one flexibility and flow. The methods were created by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, a strict Brahmin and Sanskrit scholar from Mysore.

Iyengar---whose name is derived from a yoga master who was still practicing in Pune at the age of 85 in 2002---is based on Hatha yoga and emphasizes process, actions of the body and maintaining the classic yoga positions. The goal is often is to master a position and then hold it for as long as possible. Teacher often walk around and helps students correct their positions.

Kundalini (meaning “coiled hair of the beloved”) is said to be one of the oldest forms of yoga. It is based in oral traditions, some say, which go back thousands of years. Not based on Hatha yoga, it focuses on channeling energy up through the spine and uncoiling it like a serpent. Practitioners learn to relax and meditate while holding the positions. Sessions involve the chanting of mantras, breathing exercises and even singing.

Yoga in India

Describing a class by the 84-year-old Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, Rebecca Mead wrote in The New Yorker, “Jois doesn’t teach in the manner of a Western aerobics class, by standing in the front of the room and yelling instructions. Instead each student shows up at an appointed time and works through the series of postures at his or her own place, while Jois, barrel-stomached in black Calvin Klein briefs and, and bare-chested except for his Brahmin stings performs what are known in the yoga business as adjustments---winching a leg into place or leaning heavily on a student’s back to stretch him or her further.”

“All the men are stripped to the waist, the women are in spandex, and all of them are slick with sweat as they twist their bodies in unimaginable knots or deep into breathtaking backbends, seeming to hang suspended in the air they jump from one position to the next....The room is silent but for the subtle chorus of long, repetitive, nasal hisses, and occasional pigeon English command from Jois, who barks, “Nooooo! You go down!...It is a serenity born of concentration and pain---torture meets bliss.”

On her first 5:00am lesson Mead said that Jois “had alarmed me while I was attempting a forward bend by coming up behind me, grabbing my hips, and tipping me over so that my head hovered inches above the ground and my feet almost slipped out from under me: it’s hard to think about meditating when the only thing preventing your head from crashing on the concrete floor is the physical strength of an octogenarian.” Initiates often have castor oil smeared all their head an body, a process that is supposed make them more supple but often makes them physically sick.

“At Jois’s daily afternoon conference...students are invited to sit with him and ask questions about yoga theory and about his life...The atmosphere is more one of companionable comfort than pedagogical rigor: on many afternoons, Jois, who is known as Gurji, will settle in his chair in his tank top and dhoti...and immerse himself in the newspaper, while his students sit cross-legged in beatific silence at his feet.” Most of the participants in Jois’s classes are Westerners who engage in normal backbacker activities when they are not in the classes. Local Indians often have little time or little interest in yoga. Those that are interested in it are often in to it as way to make money from Westerners.

Aggressive Yoga

Guruji Golwalkar
Bikram (named after Bikram’s Yoga College in India) is one of the most extreme and physical forms of yoga. Practitioners do 26 positions twice, always in the same sequence, in 40̊C heat. The emphasis is on pushing yourself to a high, often painful, level. It is not unusual for practitioners to feel nauseous or pass out while doing the sequence.

Bikram Choudhury is the founder of Bikram yoga. He was has reportedly made an estimated $10 million from yoga and he apparently wants more. In the early 2000s, he began suing yoga teachers that he said were using positions that he had a copyright on. One yoga teacher that was served a letter from Choudbusry said the letter was nasty and had a long list of demands, including payment of $150,000 fines. Failure to meet the terms of the letter, he said he was told, would result in a lawsuit.

Choudhury came from India to the United States in 1971. He spread his “hot yoga” technique which became very fashionable. He bought a house in Beverley Hills and began collecting Bentleys and Rolls Royces. He has reportedly compared himself to Buddha and Superman and has led his classes from a throne, wearing only a Speedo swimsuit. In the early 2000s, he obtained a copyright for the series of 26 positions and began demanding that every teacher and studio that taught his techniques owed him royalties.

Yoga as a Fashion

Swami Saraswatiji
In the old days, teaching yoga was something that people did because they loved yoga and the basic, simplified lifestyle that went with it. Now there is a lot of money in it. According to the National Sporting Goods Association 6.7 million American practice yoga regularly. Many Indian yuppies and middle class families participate in pilgrimages and take yoga classes to explore their spiritual roots.

Yoga became very popular in the United States and Europe in the early 2000s. Health clubs and corporate retreats began offering it. Trendy television characters such as those in Sex and the City did it. Vacations centered around it were offered in Turkey, Spain, Hawaii and Peru. Companies marketed sexy “chakra” tank tops, disco yoga and yoga gold classes. Television commercials featured people doing yoga in front of SUVs and yoga classes that promised to lift breasts and increase success in business. . Purists found all this to be a real turn off.

Among the celebrities that swear by yoga are Jude Law, Angelina Jolie, Ricky Martin, Kate Moss, Sting, Meg Ryan, Stephen Spielberg, Dennis Quaid, Woody Harrelson, Gwentyth Paltrow, Christy Turlington. Kareem Abdul Jabaar, Julia Roberts, Shirley MacLaine, Raquel Welch, Uma Thurman, Penelope Cruz, John Cusack, the Beastie Boys, Sean Connery, Barbara Walters, and Marisa Tomei.

Courtney Love, Madonna, Cindy Crawford, David Duchovny and Rosana Arquette are into Kundalini yoga. Candice Bergen, Rachel Weisz, Ashley Judd, and Brooke Shields like Bikam yoga. For a while former United States Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Conner took regular classes.


Sree Shabarimatha
Meditation is the act of relaxing and clearing the mind through balancing mental, physical, and emotional states, getting rid of all thoughts about the past and present and focusing on the present. This is done by shutting out the outside world and focusing within often with the aid of sounds, words, images and/or breath.

Meditation is very important in Hinduism, yoga and Buddhism. It is thought of as a mental exercise that helps one tap into the infinite force of the universe, explore the true nature of existence, gain insights into true reality, see the insufficiency and unreality of sensory experience, and develop correct thoughts and actions. Meditation is usually taught by a meditation master and the methods vary from sect to sect and person to person. Some methods of meditation are based on discourses in the Pali language.

The Dalai Lama said, "The very purpose of meditation is to disciple the mind and reduce afflictive emotions." For centuries Buddhists and Hindus have used meditation as a tool to focus their energy inward to explore the mental state of joy, get rid of negative emotions and develop wisdom, compassion and improve well being on a individual and societal level. Buddhists sometimes say the key to happiness lies in controlling something sometimes called the “monkey mind”—“the undisciplined consciousness that scrambles from thought to thought, impelled by negative emotions and impulsive desires.”

Yogis and monks often meditate for hours at a stretch. They often begin their session by lighting candles or incense, sit on the floors, often in the lotus position, and focused their attention inward, seeking an inner self free of desire. Buddhists often focus their attention on an image of Buddha. Monks usually eat before they meditate and try not to fall asleep. Meditating Buddhists can hold a given image in their mind for hours, which has caused some psychologists to question their assumption about the limits of attention.

Types of Meditation

There are three basic kinds of meditation: 1) concentrative meditation which focus attention on breath and an image or sound for a log period of time to calm the mind and allow greater awareness and clarity to emerge; 2) companionate meditation in which practitioners ride themselves of negative energy and thoughts by focusing on compassion; and 3) mindful meditation, which involves becoming hyper-aware of sensations, feelings, images, thoughts, smells, sounds, without thinking of them or reacting, and simply sensing them as a parade that passes by. This type has also been described as “pure awareness” or “open-presence.”

The simplest form of meditation is sitting quietly and focus attention on one’s breath. Breathing is a key element of meditation. If a person is stressed out or anxious their breath is shallow, rapid and uneven. With the meditation the goal is to calm the mind so that breathing is slow, deep and regular. As one focuses one’s awareness on breath, the mind becomes absorbed in the rhythm of inhalation and exhalation.

The goal of compassionate meditation, Richard Davidson, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, told that the New York Times is to “voluntarily cultivate compassion.” For practitioners, “it is something they do every day and they have special exercises where they envision negative events, something that causes anger or irritability, and then transform it and infuse it with an antidote, which is compassion. They say they are able to do it just like that .

Meditation and Health

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Swami Trailanga
Monks and yogis have been able to lower their heart beats and body temperatures and stress markers like perspiration through meditation. Abhudharma describes a tradition of Buddhist scholarship in which inquiries of the mind and its connections and relations to the body. Central to this tradition is the belief that the mind and emotions can be changed through meditation.

Doctors in the United States have used “mindfulness meditation” and “nonjudgmental” awareness to reduce stress. Studies have shown that psoriasis sufferers who meditate heal four times faster than psoriasis sufferers who don’t; cancer patients who meditate have a more positive mental outlook than ones who don’t; and patients with chronic pain who meditated suffered less than with the same afflictions who didn’t meditate.

Among the scholars who are doing research on the impact of meditation on the long term health of brain and body are Richard Davidson, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin; Matthieu Ricardo, a French-born monk with a Ph.D. in molecular biology; Dr. Jon abat-Zinn, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical school; Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco; and Stephen Kossylyn of Harvard University

Ricardo has wired Buddhist monks to 256-electrode electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure brain activity and scanned their hands scanned by magnetic resonance imaging machines while when they were meditating and found that senior monks asked tomeditate on compassion had intense activity in their left prefrontal cortex---an area associated with positive temperaments (the right prefrontal cortex is associated with negative temperaments).

Another study by Ricardo found that mindfulness meditation can increase prefrontal cortex activity and boost the immune system of normal Americans. Non-Buddhist subjects who received eight weeks of meditation training displayed more activity in the “happy” left cortex and showed a healthier immune response to flu shots than subjects who did not receive meditation training.

Chants and Mantras

Chants and mantras are a fixture of meditation, rituals and other religious activity. Technically they are not prayers but are reminders of the beneficence of The God. Hindus have traditionally used mantras to call their gods before prayers. Repeating chants is said to relax the body and refreshes the mind. Monks often chant in low moaning voices to the rhythm of sticks striking an instrument that looks like a wooden cowbell.

Most chants are in Sanskrit. Many mantras incorporate the word om , a powerful and mystical word. It is "a combination of three Sanskrit sounds that sum up the three-in-one nature of the universe. These chants are so sacred that just writing them or carving them in regarded as much more pious than putting up statues."

Beatles Learn Mediation at the Rishikesh Ashram

Pattie Boyd wrote in “Wonderful Today”: “The Beatles were enrolled on a Transcendental Meditation teachers' course, which consisted of 90-minute lectures from 3.30pm and 8.30pm, with the students describing their meditative experiences and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi answering their questions. Much of the time, however, was spent in a series of meditation sessions which became progressively longer. The two who were most engrossed in Maharishi's teachings were John and George. They would meditate for hours, and George was very focused. I loved meditating, but I can't sustain that sort of intensity for long. Sometimes I would leave George meditating and make a foray to Mussoorie and Dheradun, Tibetan trading posts. At that time China was slowly taking over Tibet, whose people were being pushed out of their country as their culture was destroyed. [Source: “Wonderful Today: The Autobiography of Pattie Boyd”, Headline Review, 2007, *^*]

Paul McCartney said: “ Ever keen to put his faith in others, John Lennon proved particularly eager to learn from Maharishi. One day Maharishi needed to get to New Delhi and back for something, so someone suggested a helicopter. When it arrived we all trooped down, a bouncing line of devotees, coming down a narrow dusty track to the Ganges, singing, being delightful. Very like the Hare Krishnas, marvellous, chatting away. We got down ot the Ganges, the helicopter landed and then they asked, 'Does anyone want a quick go before Maharishi takes off?' John jumped up. 'Yea, yea, yeah, yeah!' John got there first, and there was only room for one. So later I asked John, 'Why were you so keen? You really wanted to get in that helicopter.' 'Yeah,' he said, 'I thought he might slip me the answer!' Which is very revealing about John. I suppose everyone is always looking for the Holy Grail. I think John thought he might find it. I think it shows an innocence really, a naivety. It's quite touching really. [Source: “Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now” by Barry Miles, Holt Paperbacks, 1998 *^*]

“The Beatles' group was three weeks behind the other students, so they received extra tuition and lectures every afternoon. These were mostly held in the open air, sometimes on the roof of Maharishi's own bungalow, or inside if the weather was cooler. The meditation sessions were increasingly long, they were as long as you could handle. It was a very sensible thing. He basically said, 'Your mind is confused with day-to-day stress so I want you to try and do twenty minutes in the morning and twenty minutes in the evening.' That's what they start you on. Twenty minutes in the morning is not going to hurt anyone. You sit still, I suppose you regulate your breathing and, if nothing else, you rest your muscles for twenty minutes. It's like a lie-in. That's pretty good. The meditation helps your productivity that day. And then twenty minutes in the evening; I used to liken it to sitting in front of a nice coal fire that's just sort of glowing. That sort of feeling, that very relaxed feeling, a twilight feeling which I quite like. Are you dreaming or are you awake? There's a nice little state that they recognise halfway between it...

“After one of those sessions, I remember having a great meditation, one of the best I ever had. It was a pleasant afternoon, in the shade of these big tropical trees on the flat roof of this bungalow. It appeared to me that I was like a feather over a hot-air pipe, a warm-air pipe. I was just suspended by this hot air, which was something to do with the meditation. And it was a very very blissful feeling. It took you back to childhood when you were a baby, some of the secure moments when you've just been fed or you were having your nap. It reminded me of those nice, secure feelings. And I thought, Well, hell, that's great, I couldn't buy that anywhere. That was the most pleasant, the most relaxed I ever got, for a few minutes I really felt so light, so floating, so complete.

“The difficulty, of course, is keeping your mind clear, because the minute you clear it, a thought comes in and says, 'What are we gonna do about our next record?' 'Go away!' Meditate, mantra mantra mantra. 'I still want to know what we're doing on this next record.' 'Please go away, I'm meditating, can't you see?' There's inevitably all sorts of little conversations you can't help getting into.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

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