Yoga is an age-old practice that originated thousands of years ago in the heart of India. There are many, many different schools and styles of yoga, but what is typically practiced in the Western world is known as the eight-limbed path, or traditional Ashtanga Yoga. The path is a prescribed method of practice written in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (one of the most famous works of literature on yoga) that is said to help a practitioner reach enlightenment.
The restraints are listed in the Yoga Sutras as the activities that yogis should abstain from. The restraints (or “don’ts”) written are: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Brahmacharya (celibacy), Asteya (non-stealing), and Aparigraha (non-covetousness and non-acceptance of gifts).
The observances are listed in the Yoga Sutras as the activities that yogis should do. The observances (or “dos”) written are: Saucha (purity and cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (self-study or study of the scriptures), and Ishvara-Pranidhana (surrender to God or the Absolute).
The asanas or the physical postures are what are most commonly known today from the Ashtanga eight-limbed path. In a typical yoga class now, the practice is usually designed and structured around the physical asanas moving the body through a series of postures.
Prana is defined as the “life force” of the body and pranayama is control over the breath. There are many different practices and techniques to build the power of the breath as well as hold the breath to control the “life force” within the body.
Pratyahara is preparation for the body for deep meditation. Withdrawing all the senses of the body to allow the meditator to exist solely in the mind and focus solely on the mind.
Dharana is preparation for the mind for deep meditation. Creating a state of complete concentration and pure focus, allowing all distractions to disappear for a clear mind.
The state of pure and true meditation when all previous steps are engaged is dhyana. A clear, focused, and concentrated mind and a body withdrawn from all senses allows the practitioner to reach a deep state of meditation.
Samadhi is said to be a super-conscious state within meditation when the practitioner reaches enlightenment or nirvana or bliss. It can be long lasting or it can be short, fleeting moments. It is said to be the state when the yogi becomes one with all else. If all steps are respected sequentially, according to Patanjali (who is known as the modern father of yoga), following this eight-limbed path of Ashtanga Yoga will lead one to enlightenment, or to connection with the universe or the “Whole.”
In recent years in the Western world, yoga has been molded to become more of a physical exercise practicing just the asanas. However, historically, the physical practice of yoga was simply used to prepare the body to sit in meditation for long periods of time. Meditation was the goal and the physical postures were used to attain that goal.
Historically, meditation is the driving force of a yogi’s practice. Meditation is considered one of the highest forms of yoga. Mantras are often used to reach meditative states. Mantras are phrases, words or syllables that are said to have psychological as well as spiritual significance when sung, chanted, or meditated upon. They are written and spoken in the ancient language of Sanskrit. Many yogic traditions use mantras to harvest spiritual powers and cultivate internal connection as well as external connection with all beings everywhere.
The most common and recognizable mantra is the syllable/word Om (or Aum). This mantra is said to represent and connect its speaker to the vibrational hum of all beings everywhere. It is sometimes said to represent the sound of God and the many stages of life and existence, in general. The mantra of Om is widely used throughout the world by yogis and non-yogis alike.
Similar to hypnotizing, mantras can often be sung or silently repeated to oneself over and over again to produce a deep meditative state.
Yoga and its mantras date back millennia and have been greatly influenced and adapted throughout the years. The ancient practice of yoga and chanting mantra is very widely used today, and as the popularity of these practices continues, it is important to remember the history and ultimate purpose of the practices to keep true to their roots and their intended goal: enlightenment of the practitioner.