Hatha yoga attempts to balance the mind and body through physical postures (asanas), purification practices (kriyas), controlled breathing (pranayama), and the calming of the mind through relaxation and meditation (dhyana). Asanas teach poise, balance and strength and are practiced to improve the body's physical health and to clear the mind in preparation for meditation.
Many people first come to yoga perhaps due to an injury or because of the physical benefits that a regular practice of the postures brings – increased flexibility and muscle tone, reduced muscle pain and stiffness in the joints. The postures also work on internal organs, glands and nerves and there is evidence to suggest that the deep breathing during practice can improve heart rates and blood pressure. Others come for the mental benefits – a sense of calm and stillness of the mind, reduced stress levels, increased energy levels and better sleep to name but a few.
The ancient yogis, however, who lived thousands of years ago in India, believed that yoga was a holistic practice which re-united the Self (jiva) with the Absolute (Brahman). Their aim was to free their spirits from the false sense of separation from God and in doing so discover their own truth and salvation.
Whatever brings you to yoga – be it the lofty ideals of the ancient yogis or rather more modest ambitions – yoga has something to offer. To understand yoga is to try it out. The more you practice, the more you go beyond the physical postures. Understanding the philosophy behind yoga, including the principles that guide our own behaviour (namas) and how we engage with the world (niyamas) helps us move towards individual spirituality and collective social justice.
"Yoga restrains the oscillations of the mind" Pantanjali’s yoga sutra 1.2