Yoga is practiced to attain mind and body integration and live a peaceful life.

Some of us may have attended yoga classes or learnt a few yogic body postures. However, what exactly is yoga and how does it help us? Is it just a more relaxed exercise routine from India compared to aerobics? What is the origin, history, and meaning of yoga? Does it have any relevance at all to our modern day world? Can everyone practice it?

What is yoga?

Yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word yug, which means to join or integrate. It refers to the joining or integration of the individual human spirit to the universe inside an individual's self. This helps increase our self-awareness and consciousness of the present through mind-body control. Yoga recognises and almost insists on the interdependence of the body and mind. While modern medicine agrees that the mind plays a significant role in certain illnesses such as psychosomatic and nerve disorders, Yoga goes a step further.

Yoga Master G. Krishnan who runs two yoga schools in Aathur and Salem, Tamil Nadu, says, "The mind plays an important role not only in illness, but also in all ordinary, everyday events that lead to illness. By mind-body integration, yoga refers to both means and end.

"The end is a reference to the integration of the body and mind and the means refer to the ways to attain this goal. Therefore, yoga can be defined as a system of practices or exercises that help one attain complete mind-body integration."

Therefore, yoga is holistic and doesn't divide a person into parts such as mind, body and soul and seek relief for each separately as the psychologist takes care of your mind, the physician/surgeon takes care of your body and the priest takes care of your soul.

Does this mean yoga is a religion? Yoga Master G. Krishnan says, "No, for it has no religious affiliation or content." Do you have to be of a certain age to practice yoga? "No, you can start anytime, as age is not a factor," says Krishnan.

Because yoga doesn't need any fancy gadgets or clothing, it can be practiced by almost anyone. Yoga is a practice based on ancient, scientific discoveries in India for a happy, disease free and peaceful life.

Origin of yoga

Sage Pathanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutras, is acknowledged as the father of yoga. These sutras became the basis of the yogic practices today. Pathanjali is considered the first Siddhar — enlightened beings in Southern India who left behind works in verses after attaining siddhi.

However, details about their lives are scarce as they took to living in seclusion and secrecy, in their pursuit of samadhi. As most Siddhars attained jeeva samadhi (or living tomb, which is how the last resting place of the physical remains of the saints are referred to) inside temples, the authorities refuse forensic personnel permission to dig up and date the physical remains.

The jeeva samadhi of Sage Pathanjali is located inside the Brahmapureeswar Temple in Thirupattur village, which is situated in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Classical dance

Other works credited to Pathanjali are the Naatiya Sastra and Varma Kalai. Naatiya Sastra lays the basis for the Indian classical dance, Bharatanatyam, still performed in Southern India, especially Tamil Nadu. Varma Kalai is believed to be the world's first martial art form and its offshoot, namely Kalari Payattu taught in Kerala. Pathanjali's disciple, Pullikaal Munnivar also attained jeeva samadhi in Thirupattur.

Pathanjali's yoga teaches an eightfold path that begins with the achievement of a balanced psychological attitude, through practices of breath control and asanas designed to concentrate without having his/her mind distracted by superfluous thoughts and concludes in transcendental meditation. It advocates a preventive method for a healthy body and peaceful mind by mastery of the individual self.

According to Pathanjali, the mind is the king of all our senses and attaining control over it will help an individual attain complete mastery over oneself.

Types of yoga

Pathanjali's three disciples took up the Yoga Sutras and taught it. Through the centuries, and in different parts of the world, followers adapted, interpreted and redefined it. As a result, today we have various systems of yoga. The three main types of yoga are:

Hatha yoga

Hatha Yoga is the best known form of yoga in the world today and is more physical in nature because of its breathing exercises and body postures. This type lays great emphasis on body control from which everything else flows.

Mantra yoga

Mantra yoga lays emphasis on chanting, be it a single word or a mantra repeatedly to attain mental focus and eventual control over the mind and body. This type lays more emphasis on meditation than body exercises. This is also known as Tantric or Laya yoga. This is more common among Tibetans.

Raja yoga

This is a toughest system of yoga where the person devotes his/her entire life to the pursuit of service to others, meditation and self discipline to attain complete control of mind over matter.

One will find practitioners of this form in the Himalayan mountains where yogis (hermits) manage to survive in extreme cold without food or water and often in scanty clothes.

Relevance of yoga today

The socio-economic structures of today's world dictate that we work all day, both mentally and physically at an inhumane speed. This takes a heavy toll on both our mental and physical health. As a result, we become easily prone to stress and this weakens our immune system. The mind, when disturbed or stressed is not only prone to depression but makes our body easily prone to diseases. This is where yoga helps as it tends to strengthen our immune system.

Modern medicine has proved that when one is under stress, co-ordination between the various organs of the body is poor. This makes people susceptible to injury and lowers the functional effectiveness of our body. Every disturbance, be it physical or psychological interferes with the tonic rhythm of our muscles, blood vessels and even our respiration. Yoga, through its breathing exercises and postures, helps practitioners maintain a positive mental attitude. This in turn helps them retain good mental health, which in turn keeps people's body fit. This makes the immune system stronger.

Yoga, an ancient way of living, has become more relevant than ever before in today's world, which lives on the mantra of more. Irrespective of one's age, religious affiliation, social status, or physical stature, if one is seeking to close the gap between what an individual is and what that person believes she/he is, yoga is the answer. As a result, yoga is for everybody.