What is Yoga? Asana in the Context of the Six Yogas System

Here in the United States, on the cusp of 2006, just about everyone has heard the word “מורת יוגה.” For many if not most, the word conjures images of scantily-clad beings with expanding and twisting limbs: a well-worn “scene” in health clubs, retreat centers, and yoga spaces throughout the country. In other words, it brings to mind the practice of asana ~ sequences of physical movements and postures ~ which, as it turns out, represent just a tiny slice of the entire “pie” that is the Yoga Tradition(s) of the larger world (universe, cosmos).

Now there’s nothing wrong with the practice of asana (I do it myself, and find it quite wonderful!), but it might be useful to be able to place this particular aspect of yoga onto its larger “map” ~ to have a sense of the tradition(s) from which it arises and to which it returns, and to understand asana to be just one of many possible entry-points into this vast and beautiful territory. So let’s explore …

The word Yoga originates from the Sanskrit word Yuj (literally, “to yoke”) and is generally translated as “union” or “integration” — to yoke, attach, join, or unite. The “union” referred to here is that of the individual soul with the cosmos, the Supreme; of the small “self” of ego/individual identity with the larger “Self” or “Spirit” of which we’ll all a part. But what does this mean? And how to we get there?! It is in the quest to answer these questions that the various Yoga traditions have arisen.

Perhaps the broadest categorization within the world of Yoga is along the lines of the great spiritual traditions of the world, and in particular, their mystical wings/branches: Those within these traditions who identify as “mystics” are seeking yoga, or direct (unmediated) union, with the Divine. Examples of Yoga at this level include: Buddhist Yoga (e.g. the “six Yogas of Naropa”); Taoist Yoga (commonly known as Qigong ~ the basis for all of the martial & healing arts with origins in China); and the Yogas associated with the so-called “Hindu” traditions of India.

The practice of asana, as it’s best known in this country, falls into the last of these categories: the Hindu Yoga traditions. But this tradition itself has numerous aspects. One way of looking at it is through the lens of “The Six Yoga Systems,” which can be understood as six different doorways, entry-points, portals, or vehicles through which a practitioner might approach, engage with, and enter the territory of Yoga.

1.Hatha Yoga is the category under which asana falls. One way of translating the word “Hatha” is to break it into two parts: “ha”=sun and “tha”=moon. Sun and moon, in this context, refer to the two opposite currents that regulate all processes in our body: the “masculine” and the “feminine,” or ~ in terms of subtle anatomy, the pingala and the , the two nadis, or channels of energy, whose union within the central channel of the shushumna nadi is ~ for those practicing in this tradition, the very definition of Yoga. Aside from being, in the way described above, a vehicle for mystical union, the asanas ~ on a more mundane level ~ are great for improving health & strengthening the nervous system … and this is understood to be the first and a necessary step along this path. Forms of Hatha Yoga being practiced in the United States today include: Ashtanga Vinyasa, Iyengar, Kripalu, Bikrams, and Anusara (to name just a few!).

2.Raja (royal) Yoga is often referred to as the “crown of Hatha Yoga.” What makes it the “crown” is its addition ~ to the physical practices of Hatha Yoga ~ of a kind of mental training intended to improve concentration to the point at which it flows into meditation and, finally, samadhi (which is, for this tradition, the ultimate definition of Yoga). Raja Yoga is known also as Ashtanga (eight-limbed) Yoga. These eight limbs include:

3. Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of Devotion, of love for the Divine in its embodied forms. Radha and the other Gopis are ~ in their relationship to Krishna ~ the archetypal, quintessential Bhaktas, for it is through their love and devotion and delight in the presence of Krishna that they come to know themselves as Divine. Selfless love, compassion, humility, and purity, along with this desire and serious intention to merge with God, are qualities which are cultivated along this path. (Amachi, Shree Ma, and Karunamayi are three contemporary Teachers of this path.)

4.Jnana Yoga (the Yoga of Knowledge) is a Yoga that uses the intellect as a tool to understand that our true Self is behind and beyond our mind. It is, in other words, a path which uses the power of the intellect to ~ ultimately ~ free us from conceptual elaboration of all sorts, and allow us to relax within the space beyond all concepts of mind. For the purpose of this sort of Self-discovery, Jnana Yoga probes the nature of the Self through the question “Who am I?” Thus Jnana Yoga is sometimes called the Quest for the Self or the Inquiry into “who we are.” (Shankara ~ a yogi “claimed” by the Buddhist as well as the Hindu traditions ~ and, more recently, Ramana Maharshi are two well-known practitioners of Jnana Yoga.)

5.Kriya Yoga is a yogic system covering a wide range of techniques, including mantras and techniques of meditation for control of the life-force (prana). The term “Kriya” is often used in reference to (intended or spontaneous) actions which free the body and/or mind of obstructions. The goal ~ as in all forms of Yoga ~ is to unite with pure Awareness (God). Since pure Awareness is our original condition, it is also, within this system, referred to as Self-awareness. (Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship is one example of a modern organization devoted to this form of practice.)

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