The Meaning and History of Yoga
Yoga, meaning 'yoke' in Sanskrit, is a family of ancient spiritual practices originating in India. The diversity within Yoga philosophy itself is traditionally classified into four main branches: Karma Yoga (Yoga of action/selfless service), Jnana Yoga (Yoga of knowledge), Bhakti Yoga (Yoga of devotion), and Raja Yoga (Yoga of meditation), but other classifications do exist. It remains a vibrant living tradition in which the common goal of all branches is attainment of enlightenment.
In the later half of the twentieth century, a co-movement of Yoga teachers to the West and travelers coming to India to study Yoga led to a great rise in teaching of Yoga in Western countries. As with Yoga itself, these teachings are incredibly diverse. Ancient Hindu texts establishing the basis for Yoga include the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and many others, which specify the criteria of having successfully mastered a particular yoga technique.
Within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the eight limbs (Ashtanga) of Yoga are listed and explained. They are Yama (ethical standards), Niyama (self discipline/observances), Asanas (postures), Pranayama (breathing), Pratyahara (withdrawal/sensory transcendence), Dharana (concentration), Dyana (Meditation), Samadhi (enlightenment or ecstasy). These eight steps basically 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.