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10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered

3

How Is Hinduism Related to Yoga?

kids doing yoga in India
Young students of a Sanskrit school practice their daily yoga on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India, 2015. The Western practice of yoga has very different aims than that of yoga in Hinduism. Pascal Mannaerts/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

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Yoga is one of the six schools of thought in Hinduism that originate from different interpretations of the Vedas, the most ancient of Hindu texts. But yoga as it's traditionally understood and practiced in Hinduism is very different from what's been popularized in the West. The original Hindu yoga wasn't intended as an exercise regimen for increasing flexibility and strength, but as a path to enlightenment through focusing the mind and controlling the senses.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit for "union" and is broadly defined as any practice that helps an individual experience God. Yoga is not just a set of physical postures and breathing exercises, but includes moral values, ethical practices, focused awareness, scriptural study and worship of the Divine.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna describes four kinds of yoga, each representing separate but interdependent paths to achieving moksha:

  • bhakti yoga (devotion)
  • jnana yoga (knowledge)
  • karma yoga (selfless action)
  • raja yoga (meditation)

With the help of a guru, individuals can learn what type of yoga is best for their personal spiritual growth, though the different types of yoga are not mutually exclusive. Of the four mentioned by Krishna, raja yoga is closest to what Westerners would recognize as yoga. The Bhagavad Gita describes it like this:

There, having the mind actively focused upon a single point, with thought and sense activity controlled,
Sitting on a seat, one should practice yoga for purification of the self.
With an aligned body, head, and neck – keeping these steady, without movement;
Focusing the vision toward the tip of one's nose without looking about in any direction.

In the West, yoga has mostly been reduced to a series of poses known as asanas. And while those poses absolutely have their physical benefits, including lowering stress levels and blood pressure, the practice of yoga is less about strengthening the body than strengthening the mind and changing our very being. "While practicing asana for improved health is perfectly acceptable, it is not the goal or purpose of yoga," says the Hindu American Foundation website.

"Yoga in its broadest sense is a spiritual path and practice with the ultimate goal of allowing us to calm our minds, control our senses, and go inward to recognize our divine nature and how that divine nature is shared across all of existence," says Shukla. "Which then would, in turn, create a shift in our behavior toward others. A shift toward being more compassionate, loving and kind toward everyone and everything."

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