The practice of Yoga has evolved over many thousands of years. The tradition, founded in ancient Indian philosophy, dates back to at least 3,000 BC. Because the teachings of Yoga were for millennia passed on from teacher to student, the precise origin of Yoga is not known. About 2,000 years ago, the sage Patanjali systematized the science of Yoga and wrote it down in the form of aphorisms, short statements that capture the essence of Yoga philosophy and practice. Patanjalis Yoga Sutras (meaning threads in Sanskrit) is one of the most important Yoga texts and has been interpreted by many Yoga masters since its writing.
An Indian Yogi named Swami Vivekananda first brought yoga to the United States in 1893. Over the last century, many Indian Yoga masters and their students have established schools in this country. Among them are Paramhansa Yogananda (Ananda Yoga), Swami Vishnu Devananda (Sivananda Yoga), Swami Satchidananda (Integral Yoga), Yogi Desai (Kripalu Yoga), Swami Rama (Himalayan Institute), Swami Muktananda (Siddha Yoga) and B.K.S. Iyengar (Iyengar Yoga). Although from the same tradition, these different styles of Yoga reflect the unique interpretation and voice of their founders.
What is Yoga? Most people think of Yoga as a physical practice of stretching the body in different ways. To some, Yoga evokes images of seemingly impossible contortions accomplished only by the adept. But the physical practice of Yoga is only one facet of a holistic system that addresses all aspects of our experience. The Sanskrit word Yoga literally means to yoke, bind, focus ones attention; it also means union or communion. The ancient Yogis sought to experience our essential nature, beyond the bounds of body and mind. Through practice and discovery using the instruments of our very existence- the body, breath, senses and mind- they reconnected with the universal of which we are all an expression. This is the essence of Yoga. By moving into stillness through the layers of the body, emotions and thoughts, we find at our core a sense of deep peace and connection.
The science of Yoga is a guide to that peace. Recognizing the multifaceted nature of human beings, the system of Yoga addresses our complex relationship with the external and internal worlds. This system, called Astanga Yoga or the Eight-Limbed Path, encompasses Yama (ethical observances), Niyama (personal disciplines), Asana (physical postures), Pranayama (control of the breath), Pratyahara (drawing in of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (higher consciousness). These Eight Limbs are like rungs on a ladder; each one is an important step on the path and leads naturally to the next.
While it takes many years of dedicated practice to reach the highest rung, the beauty of Yoga is that the means and ends are one; the benefit is in the practice, in the present. Postures, breathing practices and meditation restore equilibrium, promote health, agility and vitality, develop concentration and cultivate a sense of well-being. By consciously bringing together body, breath and mind in the practice, we experience our own integrity. Yoga ultimately is an act of self-love and self-healing; only through self-acceptance can we truly open our hearts to the love that surrounds us.