What is Yoga?

If you ask people around “what is yoga?”, a lot of them will tell you it’s a stretching practice, that’s it. It’s only recently that yoga is becoming a little better known but still the majority of the population has no clue on what it is truly. The other day I was thinking on what will be my answer to this question when I become a yoga teacher and one of my student ask me, what is really yoga and why should I practice yoga?
Yoga is the way you choose to live your life everyday. One major goal we all want to achieve is to be healthy. Healthy in our body, look physically good and healthy in our mind, feel happy and positive. Yoga is a healing system of theory and practice. It is a combination of breathing exercises, physical postures, and meditation that has been practiced for more than 5,000 years.
Yoga is believed to calm the nervous system and balance the body, mind, and spirit, by keeping the energy meridians open and life energy (Prana) flowing. Yoga has been used to lower blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve coordination, flexibility, concentration, sleep, and digestion.
In Indian philosophy, Yoga is the name of one of the six orthodox philosophical schools. Patanjali is widely regarded as the founder of the formal Yoga philosophy. Patanjali’s yoga is known as Raja Yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. The Raja yoga, also called the Classical Yoga, is often referred to Ashtanga (eight-limbed) yoga because there are eight steps to which one must attend. So before you even start practicing any physical postures you can start yoga by the way you choose to act in life.
The first two steps are high moral character and ethical conduct. They will help you to uplift and purify your mind for further practice of deep meditation. It’s an every day practice, at home with your family and friends, in your car when you want to abuse the person in front of you; instead, you remain calm and just notice that the only one who will feel and hear the anger is yourself. In the post-office queue after having waited for an hour a mother with a crying child arrives behind you when it’s your turn to go and you let her go first. By having a balanced diet and taking care of yourself, etc… Trying to practice the two firsts steps as much as you can will make you feel better and happier, as you will respect the nature, yourself and the others.

Yamas (code of conduct, self-restraints but not in a suppression way): Ahisma (non violence, non injury for yourself and the others), Satya (truthfulness, non-telling of lies), Brahmacharya (sexual abstinence unless intentionally procreating), Asteya (non-stealing, non-covetedness, lack of jealousy), Aparigraha (non-accepting of gifts or bribes). These 5 behavioral norms will help your eliminate your fears and tranquil your mind.
Niyama (religious observances, commitments to practice, such as study and devotion): Saucha (external or internal purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity, penance), Swadhyara (study of religious scripture), Ishwara-pranidha (worship of the Lord, surrender of the ego). Niyama, prescribes mental exercises to train the mind to control emotions.
The third limb or step is Asana, in the sense of 84 main postures one can hold for a period of time staying relax and with a normal breathing. The practice of asana will affect you in different ways; physically, on your blood circulation, inner organs, glands, muscles, joints and nerve system; psychologically, on the developing emotional balance, stability and harmony; mentally, it will improve ability to concentrate and the memory; consciousness, by purifying and clarifying your consciousness, your awareness. The more you practice asanas the more you feel the need to practice them. Today when I wake up in the morning and I can’t fit my practice into my day schedule I feel like I’m missing something. It becomes part of your daily routine like cleaning your teeth or eating.
The fourth limb of Raja Yoga is the practice of Pranayama. The word pranayama is comprised of two roots: Prana means the “vital energy” or “life force”, it is the force which exists in all things, whether animate or inanimate. It is closely related to the air we breathe but in a more subtle way. The word yama means control or ayama means extension or expansion. Learning how to control your breath through numerous techniques of pranayama, which utilizes 3 main aspects of breathing (inhaling, exhaling and breath retention), will bring you more awareness on your prana. Most people breathe incorrectly, using only a small part of their lung capacity. Irregularities in lifestyle, wrong diet and stress will obstruct the pranic flow. People will feel “drained of energy”, this will lead to deceases and metabolic dysfunction. The techniques of pranayama reverse this process. All pranayama practice ultimately works toward purification of the nadis (energy channels) and the awakening of kundalini shakti at the muladhara chakra. The awakening of kundalini energy (also described as the awakening of divine consciousness or wisdom), and its ascent to the crown chakra is the final goal of Raja Yoga.
Through the practices of yama, niyama, asana and pranayama, the body and its energy are mastered. The next stage, Pratyahara, achieves the conquest of the senses and mind. The mind frees itself from the senses and turns towards the soul to enjoy its spiritual heights. Through practice of these five stages of yoga, all the lyers or sheats of the self from skin to the consciousness are penetrated, subjugated and sublimated to enable the soul to diffuse evenly throughout. This is true sadhana (practice). Pratyahara forms the foundation for Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi (concentration, meditation and state of expanded or transcendental consciousness, where the activity of the mind ceases and the “The Knower and The Object of Knowledge Become One”).
As you can see, Yoga is far from simply being physical exercises. Yoga will help you to understand what is real, what is necessary and how to make the right choices in your life that will take both in consideration inner and outer realities. Yoga is not something you can intellectualize, you can only learn from practice and experience.