Yoga is so much more than some form of physical activity that helps us stay in shape. Contrary to popular belief, Yoga is actually a wide range of spiritual practices that accelerate the evolutionary process of the soul.

The literal meaning of Yoga, which is derived from Sanskrit, is “to yoke,” “to join” or “to unite.” In the esoteric sciences this refers to the union between what is known as the personal soul (jivatman), and the cosmic soul (paramatman). It is believed, in various esoteric schools, that a human being is a soul containing different vehicles that include physical, emotional and mental bodies. A human being can be compared to an inverted tree that rises with its roots upward, rooted to the higher soul at another level and ultimately towards God.

When we refer to Yoga facilitating the union of mind, body and spirit, we are literally referring to yoking or joining them in a mindful or conscious way. It’s the foundation of Yoga, whether it was specifically defined that way or not. With its roots in India, since over 5,000 years ago, it was essentially passed down from generation to generation through verbal tradition. Around 200 B.C. the Indian sage known as Patanjali compiled all of the teachings into what’s known today as the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”.

The Yoga Sutras are the basis of current yoga philosophy, and they also state practical instructions on how to achieve the benefits of yoga. The same were also illustrated in about 500 B.C. by the sage, Vyasa, who also wrote the famous Bhagavad Gita. These two popular literary works contain the first and most important written definitions of Yoga.

The Yoga Sutras describe the eight-limbed path to enlightenment, to a meaningful life. The eight limbs are:

The Yamas- Ethical standards or behavior patterns regarding the people around us; these describe how we should live our lives. They talk about: Ahimsa (non-violence “do no harm”), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (self-restraint) and Aparigraha (non-covetousness).

The Niyamas- An attitude, or behavior that we adopt toward ourselves when it comes to self-discipline. This path states the guidelines for good, clean and healthy living. They are: Saucha (cleanliness), Samtosha (modesty, contentment), Tapas (heat/cleansing the body keeping it fit/healthy), Svadhyaya (self-inquiry) and Isvara pranidhana (surrender to God).

Asanas- The physical postures we practice in yoga. The body is a vessel, viewed as a temple of the spirit, and thus, we should take care of it as it is an essential stage of our growth spiritually. As we develop a habit of disciplined practice of the Asanas (postures), we go through a process of detoxification and purification, and enhance our ability to concentrate and meditate.

Pranayama- Control of breath or the extension of life force. Several breathing exercises are practiced to move this energy (prana) within us and rejuvenate the body, with a possibility of extending our lives.

Pratyahara- The withdrawal of the senses, directing our focus inward. It provides us a unique opportunity to look at ourselves realistically. This journey allows us to observe cravings and habits, and thus distancing ourselves from our negative traits.

Dharana- Complete concentration of the mind with a directed mental stream of energy and mental focus, trained on a single thing or a sound. This precedes Dhyana.

Dhyana- Meditation or contemplation. An undisturbed flow of concentration with an unstirred or ‘still’ mind.

Samadhi- Super-consciousness, or a state of ultimate bliss or ecstasy. A peace beyond all comprehension, enlightenment. Yoga has become popular in the West due to its beneficial effects to those who practice it with dedication. When a ‘practitioner’ (someone who engages in the regular “practice” of yoga) becomes devoted, they view yoga as an incredible gift in their life. It is not a religion, although most yoga practitioners may realize that it enhances and deepens their own religious or spiritual beliefs. ‘Hatha’ Yoga has been translated, from Sanskrit, as “sun” (heating postures) and “moon” (cooling postures), and it refers to the physical form of yoga, yoga of the body. Any form of yoga in which you practice the physical postures is Hatha Yoga. There are several different styles and branches, not all of which can be mentioned in one setting.