The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj, which means ‘yoke’ or ‘union’. Practicing the asanas (postures) and pranayama (regulation of breath) helps unify the mind, body and spirit, moving us toward integration. When asked to describe his teaching, B.K.S. Iyengar told Yoga Journal:
“I just try to get the physical body in line with the mental body, the mental body in line with the intellectual body, and the intellectual body with the spiritual body so they are balanced. It’s just pure traditional yoga, from our ancestors, from our gurus, from Patanjali.”
Patanjali was a sage and scholar who lived in India over 2,200 years ago. He wrote classical texts on Sanskrit grammar and medicine, as well as his Yoga Sutras, the first codification of yogic philosophy, which prior to that time was passed on orally from teacher to student.
In 196 aphorisms (the word sutra is related to the word suture or thread) Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe the workings of the mind and emotions, and the path to enlightenment or “samadhi.” In the first “pada” or chapter, yoga is defined as “the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind” in order that the practitioner may rest in his or her own true nature.
Patanjali provides us with a number of means to still the fluctuations of the mind but the most familiar are the “eight limbs’ (astanga) or stages of yoga” which are interwoven. The first two limbs, yama and niyama, provide ten social and personal disciplines such as non-violence, truthfulness and contentment. Even devoting oneself to the practice of one of these precepts (like Mahatma Gandhi) can be profoundly transformative.
The next two components, asana (postures) and pranayama (regulation of the breath) prepare the student to move deeply inward to the last four limbs: pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and finally samadhi (freedom, enlightment, self-realization).