Yoga For Dummies

By Georg Feuerstein Larry Payne

John Wiley & Sons

Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-470-50202-0

Chapter One

Yoga 101: What You Need to Know

In This Chapter

* Debunking Yoga myths

* Deciphering the word Yoga

* Exploring the primary branches, styles, and approaches to Yoga

* Understanding the yogic principles of being

* Taking control of your mind, body, health, and life with Yoga

Three or four decades ago, some people still occasionally confused Yoga with yogurt. Today, Yoga is a household word. The fact that just about everyone has heard the word Yoga, however, doesn't mean they know exactly what it means. Many misconceptions still exist, even among those who practice Yoga, so in this chapter, we clear up the confusion and explain what Yoga really is and how it relates to your health and happiness. We also help you see that Yoga, with its many different branches and approaches, really does offer something for everyone.

Whatever your age, weight, flexibility, or beliefs may be, you can practice and benefit from some version of Yoga. Although Yoga originated in India, it's for all of humanity.

Understanding the True Character of Yoga

Whenever you hear that Yoga is just this or just that, your nonsense alert should kick into action. Yoga is too comprehensive to reduce to any one thing - it's like a skyscraper with many floors and numerous rooms at each level. Yoga isn't just gymnastics, fitness training, huffing and puffing, or a way to control your weight. It's not just stress reduction, meditation, or some spiritual tradition from India.

Yoga is all these things and a great deal more. (You'd expect as much from a tradition that's been around for 5,000 years.) Yoga includes physical exercises that look like gymnastics and have even been incorporated into Western gymnastics. These postural exercises help you become or stay fit and trim, control your weight, and reduce your stress level. Yoga also offers a whole range of meditation practices, including breathing techniques that exercise your lungs and calm your nervous system or charge your brain and the rest of your body with delicious energy.

You can also use Yoga as an efficient system of health care that has proven its usefulness in both restoring and maintaining health. Yoga continues to gain acceptance within the medical establishment; more and more physicians are recommending Yoga to their patients not only for stress reduction but also as a safe and sane method of exercise and physical therapy (notably, for the back and knees).

But Yoga is more than even a system of preventative or restorative health care. Yoga looks at health from a broad, holistic perspective that's only now being rediscovered by avant-garde medicine. This perspective appreciates the enormous influence of the mind - your psychological attitudes - on physical health.

Finding unity

The word Yoga comes from the ancient Sanskrit language spoken by the traditional religious elite of India, the Brahmins. Yoga means "union" or "integration" and also "discipline," so the system of Yoga is called a unitive or integrating discipline. Yoga seeks unity at various levels. First, it seeks to unite body and mind, which people all too often separate. Some people are chronically "out of the body." They can't feel their feet or the ground beneath them, as if they hover like ghosts just above their bodies. They're unable to cope with the ordinary pressures of daily life and collapse under stress, and they're often confused and don't understand their own emotions. They're afraid of life and easily emotionally hurt.

Yoga also seeks to unite the rational mind and the emotions. People frequently bottle up their emotions and don't express their real feelings, choosing instead to rationalize these feelings away. Chronic avoidance can become a serious health hazard; if people aren't aware that they're suppressing feelings such as anger, the anger consumes them from the inside out.


Here's how Yoga can help you with your personal growth:

  •   It can put you in touch with your real feelings and balance your emotional life.

  •   It can help you understand and accept yourself and feel comfortable with who you are. You don't have to "fake it" or reduce your life to constant role-playing.

  •   It helps you become more able to empathize and communicate with others.

    Yoga is a powerful means of psychological integration. It makes you aware that you're part of a larger whole, not merely an island unto yourself. Humans can't thrive in isolation. Even the most independent individual is greatly indebted to others. After your mind and body are happily reunited, this union with others comes about naturally. The moral principles of Yoga are all-embracing, encouraging you to seek kinship with everyone and everything. We say more about this topic in Chapter 20.

    Finding yourself: Are you a yogi (or yogini)?

    Someone who's practicing the discipline of balancing mind and body through Yoga is traditionally called a yogi (if male) or a yogini (if female). In this book, we use both terms at random. Alternatively, we also use the English term Yoga practitioner. In our book, practicing Yoga postures is a step in the right direction but doesn't make a person a yogi or yogini. For that, you'd have to embrace Yoga as a self-transforming spiritual discipline. A yogi or yogini who has really mastered Yoga is called an adept. If such an adept also teaches (and not all of them do), he or she is traditionally called a guru. The Sanskrit word guru means literally "weighty one." According to traditional esoteric sources, the syllable gu signifies spiritual darkness and ru signifies the act of removing. Thus a guru is a teacher who leads the student from darkness to light.

    Very few Westerners have achieved complete mastery of Yoga, mainly because Yoga is still a relatively young movement in the West. So please be careful about those who claim to be enlightened or to have been given the title of guru! However, at the level at which Yoga is generally taught outside its Indian homeland, many competent Yoga teachers or instructors can lend a helping hand to beginners. In this book, we hope to do just that for you.

    Considering Your Options: The Eight Main Branches of Yoga

    When you take a bird's-eye view of the Yoga tradition, you see a dozen major strands of development, each with its own subdivisions. Picture Yoga as a giant tree with eight branches; each branch has its own unique character, but each is also part of the same tree. With so many different paths, you're sure to find one that's right for your personality, lifestyle, and goals. In this book we focus on Hatha Yoga, the most popular branch of Yoga, but we avoid the common mistake of reducing it to mere physical fitness training. Thus, we also talk about meditation and the spiritual aspects of Yoga.

    Here are the seven principal branches of Yoga, arranged alphabetically:

  •   Bhakti (bhuk-tee) Yoga: The Yoga of devotion

  •   Hatha (haht-ha) Yoga: The Yoga of physical discipline

  •   Jnana (gyah-nah) Yoga: The Yoga of wisdom

  •   Karma (kahr-mah) Yoga: The Yoga of self-transcending action

  •   Mantra (mahn-trah) Yoga: The Yoga of potent sound

  •   Raja (rah-jah) Yoga: The Royal Yoga

  •   Tantra (tahn-trah) Yoga (including Laya Yoga and Kundalini Yoga): The Yoga of continuity

    To this list we must add as a branch of its own Guru (goo-roo) Yoga, the Yoga of dedication to a Yoga master.

    The seven branches and Guru Yoga are described in the following sections.

    Bhakti Yoga: The Yoga of devotion

    Bhakti Yoga practitioners believe that a supreme being (the Divine) transcends their lives, and they feel moved to connect or even completely merge with that supreme being through acts of devotion. Bhakti Yoga includes such practices as making flower offerings, singing hymns of praise, and thinking about the Divine.

    Hatha Yoga: The Yoga of physical discipline

    All branches of Yoga seek to achieve the same final goal, enlightenment (see Chapter 21), but Hatha Yoga approaches this goal through the body rather than through the mind or the emotions. Hatha Yoga practitioners believe that unless they properly purify and prepare their bodies, the higher stages of meditation and beyond are virtually impossible to achieve - such an attempt would be like trying to climb Mt. Everest without the necessary gear. We focus on this particular branch of Yoga in this book.


    Hatha Yoga is very much more than posture practice, which is so popular today. Like every form of authentic Yoga, it's a spiritual path.

    Jnana Yoga: The Yoga of wisdom

    Jnana Yoga teaches the ideal of nondualism - that reality is singular, and your perception of countless distinct phenomena is a basic misconception. What about the chair or sofa that you're sitting on? Isn't that real? What about the light that strikes your retina? Isn't that real? Jnana Yoga masters answer these questions by saying that all these things are real at your present level of consciousness, but they aren't ultimately real as separate or distinct things. Upon enlightenment, everything melts into one, and you become one with the immortal spirit.

    Karma Yoga: The Yoga of self-transcending action

    Karma Yoga's most important principle is to act unselfishly, without attachment, and with integrity. Karma Yoga practitioners believe that all actions, whether bodily, vocal, or mental, have far-reaching consequences for which they must assume full responsibility.

    Mantra Yoga: The Yoga of potent sound

    Mantra Yoga makes use of sound to harmonize the body and focus the mind. It works with mantras, which can be a syllable, word, or phrase. Traditionally, practitioners receive a mantra from their teacher in the context of a formal initiation. They're asked to repeat it as often as possible and to keep it secret. Many Western teachers feel that initiation isn't necessary and that any sound works. You can even pick a word from the dictionary, such as love, peace, or happiness, but from a traditional perspective, such words are, strictly speaking, not mantras.

    Raja Yoga: The Royal Yoga

    Raja Yoga means literally "Royal Yoga" and is also known as Classical Yoga. When you mingle with Yoga students long enough, you can expect to hear them refer to the eightfold path laid down in the Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, the standard work of Raja Yoga. Another name for this yogic tradition is Ashtanga Yoga (pronounced ahsh-tahng-gah), the "eight-limbed Yoga" - from ashta ("eight") and anga ("limb"). (Don't confuse this tradition with the Yoga style known as Ashtanga Yoga, which we discuss in "Getting The Scoop on the Prominent Styles of Hatha Yoga" later in this chapter.) The eight limbs of the prominent traditional approach, designed to lead to enlightenment or liberation, are as follows:

  •   Yama (yah-mah): Moral discipline, consisting of the practices of non-harming, truthfulness, nonstealing, chastity, and greedlessness (for an explanation of these five virtues, head to Chapter 20).

  •   Niyama (nee-yah-mah): Self-restraint, consisting of the five practices of purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and devotion to a higher principle.

  •   Asana (ah-sah-nah): Posture, which serves two basic purposes: meditation and health.

  •   Pranayama (prah-nah-yah-mah): Breath control, which raises and balances your mental energy, thus boosting your health and mental concentration.

  •   Pratyahara (prah-tyah-hah-rah): Sensory inhibition, which internalizes your consciousness to prepare your mind for the various stages of meditation.

  •   Dharana (dhah-rah-nah): Concentration, or extended mental focusing, which is fundamental to yogic meditation.

  •   Dhyana (dhee-yah-nah): Meditation, the principal practice of higher Yoga (this practice and the next are explained in Chapter 21).

  •   Samadhi (sah-mah-dhee): Ecstasy, or the experience in which you become inwardly one with the object of your contemplation. This state is surpassed by actual enlightenment, or spiritual liberation.

    Tantra Yoga: The Yoga of continuity

    Tantra Yoga is the most complex and most widely misunderstood branch of Yoga. In the West and in India, Tantra Yoga is often confused with "spiritualized" sex; although sexual rituals are used in some (so-called left-hand) schools of Tantra Yoga, they aren't a regular practice in the majority of (so-called right-hand) schools. Tantra Yoga is actually a strict spiritual discipline involving fairly complex rituals and detailed visualizations of deities. These deities are either visions of the divine or the equivalent of Christianity's angels and are invoked to aid the yogic process of contemplation.

    Another common name for Tantra Yoga is Kundalini Yoga (pronounced koon-dah-lee-nee). The latter name, which means "she who is coiled," hints at the secret "serpent power" that Tantra Yoga seeks to activate: the latent spiritual energy stored in the human body. If you're curious about this aspect of Yoga, you may want to read the autobiographical account by Gopi Krishna (see the appendix) or my (Georg's) Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy (Shambhala). Note: Kundalini Yoga is also the name of a Hatha Yoga style; we discuss it in "Getting The Scoop on the Prominent Styles of Hatha Yoga" later in the chapter.

    Guru Yoga: The Yoga of dedication to a master

    In Guru Yoga, your teacher is the main focus of spiritual practice. Such a teacher is expected to be enlightened or at least close to being enlightened (see Chapter 21 for more about enlightenment). In Guru Yoga, you honor and meditate on your guru until you merge with him or her. Because the guru is thought to already be one with the ultimate reality, this merger duplicates his or her spiritual realization in you.


    But, please, don't merge too readily! This Yoga is relatively rare in the West, so approach it with great caution to avoid possible exploitation.

    Getting The Scoop on the Prominent Styles of Hatha Yoga

    In its voyage to modernity, Yoga has undergone many transformations. One of them was Hatha Yoga, which emerged around 1100 AD. The most significant adaptations, however, were made during the past several decades, particularly to serve the needs or wants of Western students. Of the many styles of Hatha Yoga available today, the following are the best known:

  •   Iyengar Yoga, which is the most widely recognized approach to Hatha Yoga, was created by B. K. S. Iyengar, the brother in-law of the famous T.S. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) and uncle of T.K.V. Desikachar. This style is characterized by precision performance and the aid of numerous props. Iyengar has trained thousands of teachers, many of whom are in the United States. His Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, founded in 1974 and dedicated to his late wife Ramamani, is located in Pune, India.

  •   Viniyoga (pronounced vee-nee yoh-gah) is the approach first developed by Shri Krishnamacharya and continued with his son T.K.V. Desikachar. The emphasis is on the breath and practicing Yoga according to your individual needs and capacities. In the United States, Viniyoga is now associated with Gary Kraftsow and the American Viniyoga Institute (AVI); Desikachar has expanded his approach in conjunction with his son Kausthub under the new umbrella of The Krishnamacharya Healing and Yoga Foundation (KHYF), headquartered in Chennai (formerly Madras), India. As the teacher of well-known Yoga masters B.K.S. Iyengar, K. Pattabhi Jois, and Indra Devi, Professor T.S. Krishnamacharya can be said to have launched a veritable Hatha Yoga renaissance in modern times that is still sweeping the world.


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