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What is Yoga?

Yoga is a tantric tradition that teaches mastery of the body.  This includes not only control of bones and muscles, not to mention the mind, but also, of subtle aspects or energies such as the "winds," "drops" and "channels."  In other words, it comprises much more than the stretching and breathing exercises usually called Hatha [practice] Yoga.   The most dramatic proof of accomplishment that the general public is likely familiar with is "raising Kundalini" , a feature of Hinduist tradition.

  ::  See also, Lotus "chakras."



Yoga and Buddhism

Himalayan Buddhism has strong links with the yoga tradition.  Indeed several contemporary Buddhist masters are yogis in their own right.  Also, the founders of many ancient lineages -- Buddhist or other -- were known, during their lifetimes, as mahasiddhas (Skt. for greatly accomplished) a description that means people able to perform wondrous activities through mastery of yoga.

The teacher of the great Tibetan Yogin, Milarepa, was Marpa the Tibetan translator, whose own guru was the Indian Naropa, and among his teachers was Tilopa, from Bengal.  The chain of transmission to those great Buddhist yogis undoubtedly included many masters (not all of whom were men) whose own teachers were not always exclusively Buddhist.


Legend of the Founder

The origins of yoga probably pre-date by thousands of years the life of sage Patanjali, who is generally estimated to have lived between the 5th and 2nd centuries BCE.   He is the one credited with codifying yoga in a 4-chapter work called Yoga Darshana, a sutra that comprises a mere 196 lines of Sanskrit.   

Patanjali had also written the Mahabhasya, a classical work on grammar and another on Ayurveda, the science of life and health.  On the strength of his expositions on yoga, grammar and ayurveda, Patanjali came to be regarded as the foremost thinker of his time.  Even today, Patanjali’s works are followed by yogis in their effort to develop a refined language, a cultured body and a civilized mind. 

~ BKS Iyengar. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Harper Collins, 1993. 

His name derives from Pata meaning he fell and anjali the kneeling posture with palms pressed that signifies supplication/worship.  It refers to his origins: 

Once, when Lord Vishnu was seated on his couch supported by Lord Adishesha (the king of all serpents,) and they were watching Lord Shiva's dance of enchantment (Skt. tandava nrtya,) Lord Vishnu became so absorbed in the movements of Lord Shiva that his body began to vibrate to the tandava rhythm.  The vibration made him heavier and heavier
causing a lot of discomfort to Lord Adishesha who, nearing the point of collapse, was gasping for breath.  

But as soon as the dance came to end, Lord Vishnu's body once again became lighter. 

Lord Adishesha was amazed at the transformation and asked his master the cause of the  changes.  Lord Vishnu explained about the emotional impact, the aesthetic and kinaesthetic effects that dance can have on the spectator.  Marveling at this, Adishesha was then inspired to learn to dance to do honour to his lord. 

Lord Vishnu reflected on that aspiration, and then made the prediction that soon Lord Shiva would request of Adishesha that he write a commentary on grammar.  At that time, he would also be able to devote himself to the art of dance. 

Hearing this, Lord Adishesha was filled with joy and eagerly looked forward to the future grace of Lord Shiva.  He meditated in order to ascertain the manner of his next incarnation, and then he had a vision of Gonika, a female ascetic adept (Skt. tapasvini, yogini) who was praying for a son to whom she could transmit her knowledge and wisdom. 

Now, Gonika, thinking that her life was about to end, had not yet found anyone to whom she could transmit her knowledge.  As a last resort, when her austerities had come to an end,  she called upon the Sun God, who is a witness to all on earth, and prayed that he fulfill her wish.   Taking a handful of water as a final offering, she closed her eyes and
concentrated on the Sun. 

Then, looking at her hands as she was about to offer the water, much to her surprise, she noticed a tiny snake moving in the cup of her palms.  As she looked, the snake assumed  human form, and prostrating to the yogini, he asked her to accept him as her son.  She was overjoyed and accepted, and for his act of devotion, she named him Patanjali

"The study of the eight limbs [Skt. ashtanga] of yoga leads to the purification of the body, the mind, the intellect.  The flame of knowledge is kept burning and discrimination is aroused." 

 ~ BKS Iyengar, the 20th-century Hindu master, who also said:

"Even though it has been suggested that the 196 Aphorisms attributed to him are in fact the collected works of more than one author, Patanjali is always referred to as svayambhu, an evolved soul who incarnated in order to help humanity. These uncertain details need not detract from the wisdom to be found in the Yoga Sutras which open with a code of conduct and close with a vision of man's true nature. 

At this point we may profitably look at the principles which sustain Buddhist and Yogic practice. Both the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism and the Eight Limbs of Yoga provide a context in which meditation can take root. If we do not set meditation within the context of a whole life, we make the fundamental mistake of believing that we can simply add practice to daily live without truly making the space to incorporate and integrate its effects. 

There is some noteworthy similarity between The Noble Eightfold Path and The Eight Limbs of Yoga. In each case a moral framework precedes meditation practice. Both traditions establish clear moral ground rules which cover behaviour in all forms, social, moral and ethical. Buddhism sets out the Five Precepts: killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and taking intoxicants are expressly forbidden. Yoga commences with the Five Yamas: non-violence or non injury, truthfulness, not stealing, chastity and non acquisitiveness. Both traditions build the practice of meditation upon a period of moral and ethical preparation."

Tibetan Yoga

May 5/04, The (Houston) Chronicle, "Tibetan yoga found to help improve sleep," by Kate  Ramsayer:

East meets West in one corner of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, where researchers are using the techniques of Western medicine to examine the efficacy of Eastern practices.

Along with his colleagues, Dr. Lorenzo Cohen of M.D. Anderson recently published a report in the journal Cancer that found cancer patients who participated in a Tibetan yoga course noticed improvements in their sleep patterns.

"It was quite remarkable to us that we were actually able to have an impact on patients' sleep," said Cohen, the director of the integrative medicine center at M.D. Anderson and an associate professor in the behavioral science department.

"Cancer patients' sleep can be so disruptive, so to have designed a program that significantly improved their sleep seems quite beneficial."

The yoga that patients practiced was not the Hatha yoga that is familiar to many people, but is based on forms called Tsa lung and Trul khor, described in 11th century Tibetan texts.

Alejandro Chaoul-Reich, a doctoral candidate in the religion department at Rice University, is writing his dissertation on these texts and a 19th century commentary on them. The documents, he said, impart techniques of breathing, focusing the mind and movement.

"The main thing is that (practitioners) can find a way to tame what we call the 'monkey mind' that goes from here to there, emotion to emotion," he said. "Especially when (patients are) undergoing treatment, there are so many other things going on in their lives."

The study, conducted at M.D. Anderson's Place of Wellness, looked at a group of 38 patients who were undergoing cancer treatment or had recently completed treatment.

(The Place of Wellness provides services such as acupuncture, tai chi and workshops to cancer patients, their families and supporters who are interested in using other therapies.)

Half of the patients were randomly assigned to a group that attended Tibetan yoga classes once a week for seven weeks; the others were put on a waiting list for the program. All patients answered questions about their sleep patterns and state of mind before the program started and after the classes were completed.

The researchers found that while yoga did not make a significant
difference in the patients' level of anxiety or depression, it did
improve their sleep patterns. Also, the yoga practitioners reported that they found the course to be beneficial.

In fact, three years after the study was performed, Georgia Williams of Houston still takes 45 minutes or an hour out of her day to do the movements and breathing exercises she learned from Chaoul.

"Sometimes I would think, `Oh, I can't do this today,' but after I have done the exercises, there's a sense of well-being," said Williams. "You're more alert; it's invigorating."

This study is part of the research component in the integrative medicine program. Integrative medicine combines traditional Western medicine with other treatments such as acupuncture or herbal supplements, which may or may not have been proven to be effective.

Cohen and his colleagues are also interested in subjecting traditional Chinese treatments to the experimental protocols that American and European researchers use to test potential cancer drugs. M.D. Anderson and the Cancer Hospital, Medical Center of Fudan University in Shanghai, China, recently received a grant for such a study.

"We'll conduct rigorous research on the types of treatments they are currently using to treat cancer in China and see if some of these natural products should be brought to the U.S.," Cohen said.

The integrative medicine program also emphasizes education about the use of non-Western treatments and cementing communication between patients and their health care providers, Cohen said.


svayambhu:  self-manifested, taking form intentionally.

Tsa lung and Trul khor:  Prana and chakra are the corresponding Hindu terms.  The first refers to special breathing techniques that help direct "psycho-physical" energy to, and/or through, a system of nexuses (neural "wheels") experienced as part of our "aetheric" body.

visualization:  The example is not applicable to every case.  The syllables can depend upon the particular deity.  It is not recommended that you play around with this without guidance from a teacher.

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