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What Is Yoga?

The word yoga in Sanskrit translates as “yoke” or “union.” It describes the integration of mind and body to create a greater connection with one self.

The origins of yoga are Indian and can be traced as far as 4500 BC. Yoga is considered one of the six branches of classical philosophy and is referred to throughout the Vedas. The Vedas is amongst the oldest texts in existence.

At this time people relied on dedicated Vedic Yogis to teach them how to live in harmony. These Yogis were gifted with the ability to see truth through their practice.

The Vedas, and later, the Bhagavad Gita praised yoga as an important spiritual element, however, the first “yoga manual” was not written until c.200 BC-the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

It is composed of 195 or 196 aphorisms or sutras which describe the eightfold paths which literally means eight limbs" (ashta=eight, anga=limb). These eight steps act as guidelines on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one's health; and they help us to acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.

The period that followed Patanjali yoga sutras is known as postclassical period. In prior years yoga had focussed on meditation and contemplation. During this period, yogis began to probe the hidden powers of the body. Yoga masters designed advanced yogic practices that would rejuvenate the body and prolong its life. This led to Hatha Yoga.

All throughout these 5000 years yoga has been changing and evolving but the biggest transformation has occurred in the last two centuries, initially used as a medium to reach spiritual enlightment, in the 21st century, the main focus has turned more towards physical benefits.

In fact posture orientated forms of yoga only began around 1920, as before that asana were looked down as distasteful.

Probably the most influential person to draw attention to Yoga in the West was Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), the main disciple of Paramhansa Ramakrishna (1836 – 1886). Vivekananda travelled and lectured in the USA and also Europe introducing for the first time a different concept of yoga emphasising physical experience.

But the man that began the spread of yoga in the west never travelled outside India. He was a pioneer in refining postures, sequencing them optimally, and ascribing therapeutic value to specific asanas. He particularly stressed the importance of combining breath work (pranayama) with the postures (asanas) of yoga and meditation (dhyana) to reach the desired goals. His name was Krishnamacharya.

Not only was he a great innovator but in his shala in Mysore he taught many of the men who would popularise yoga across the world including Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, BKS Iyengar, the creator of Iyengar yoga and TKV Desikachar, his son and founder of Vinyoga.

Current yogis owe a debt of gratitude to the Maharaja of Mysore. Not only did the Maharaja fund the school at which Krishnamacharya taught he also paid for these talented yogis to travel around India demonstrating yoga.

People from the West began traveling to Mysore to study with these masters, and the gurus began going west themselves, starting in the late 1890s, however, it wasn't until the 1960s that yoga really becomes more widely known in the west.

The Beatles were certainly quite influential in this process. In 1965 they met Swami Vishnu-Devananda, the founder of Sivandana Yoga and this encounter gave birth to their interest for yoga and Eastern philosophy. A number of yoga teachers such as BKS Iyengar, Sri K Pattabhi Jois and Swami Vishnu-devananda began travelling to the west, raising awareness of yoga. Yoga enjoyed a second boom in the 1980s driven as much by its effectiveness as a way of maintaining health as its spirituality.

More recently celebrities such as Madonna, Sting and Gwyneth Paltrow have helped to increase its popularity. Professional athletes such as Ryan Giggs, Lebron James, John McEnroe and even Evander Holyfield.

It is estimated that around half a million people practice yoga regularly in the UK and the figures is more than 16m in the US.

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