The ancient system of Yoga: Introduction

The true origins of the ancient system of Yoga go beyond civilizations. The present shape of it was developed from Vedic texts and Buddhist influences. Its earliest mention is found in the texts of Rigveda. From the 20th century onwards, yoga became available to a greater number of people due to newly published books, discourses, recordings, and practitioners. The United Nations (UN) declared 21st June of every year as International Day of Yoga which is symbolic of yoga’s truly globalized status. The yoga which is practiced today has been adapted to the social and cultural environment of different regions across the globe. The quality is even more compromised in developed countries to make yoga adapt to capitalist money-driven models.

He alone is a yogi, he [alone] is a teacher, he [alone] is worthy of service whose gaze is steady even without an object, whose breath is steady without effort [and] whose mind is steady without support.

– Haṃsavilāsa, Page No. 47, Chapter 2,15–18


Yoga is a Sanskrit word which is derived from the root yuj (युज्) (i.e. to join, harness or yoke). As per Pāṇini (fourth century B.C.E.), the term yoga can be derived from either of two roots, yujir yoga (to yoke) or yuj samādhau (“to concentrate”). In the context of the Yoga Sutras, the root yuj samādhau (to concentrate) is considered by traditional commentators as the correct etymology.

The one who practices yoga or follows its philosophy with a high level of commitment is called a yogi (may be applied to a man or a woman) or yogini (a woman). The practice of Yoga is called yogābhyāsa, a Sanskrit word formed from a combination of yoga and ābhyāsa (meaning practice in English). The term yogāṅga (a compound of word yoga and aṅga), loosely translated as “limb of yoga”, but is better rendered “auxiliary of yoga” when yoga means the goal rather than the method. There, while the aṅgas (meaning parts in English) may be indispensable for reaching the goal, they may themselves not be considered as yoga but rather as auxiliary methods for attaining yoga, and maybe subsidiary to other methods.

Success cannot be attained by adopting a particular dress (Vesa). It cannot be gained by telling tales. Practice alone is the means to success. This is true, there is no doubt. Asanas (postures), various kumbhakas (breathing techniques), and other divine means, all should be practised in the practice of Hatha Yoga, till the fruit – Raja Yoga – is obtained.

– Hatha Yoga Pradipika


  1. ādhāra : A “support” for meditation, a feature of the yogic body ;(adhāra) “the Base”, a specific focus for meditation at the bottom of the central channel
  2. Āgama : A category of text, especially in tantra
  3. Akula : The transcendental aspect of divinity in Śaiva tantra.
  4. aṅga : “Limb”; an auxiliary division of a body of knowledge or practice
  5. Apāna : One of the five principal breaths
  6. ariṣṭa : A sign of approaching death
  7. āsana : Seat or posture
  8. ātman : Self
  9. Āyurveda : An Indian system of medicine
  10. bandha : “Lock”; in haṭhayoga referred as bodily constriction
  11. bhāṣya : A commentary to a text
  12. bindu : “Drop” or “point”; a tantric tattva and focus for meditation, sometimes located in the body; in haṭhayoga, ‘semen’
  13. Brahman : The absolute, the supreme principle of Vedānta (in Sanskrit, brahman); a member of Hinduism’s priestly caste (in Sanskrit, brāhmaṇa)
  14. brahmarandhra : “The aperture of Brahmā/Brahman”; the fontanelle, through which the vital principle of the yogi exits at death
  15. chakra : “Wheel”; a focus for visualization in the yogic body
  16. chitta : The mind, the activity of which is to be suppressed in Patañjali’s and other yoga traditions.
  17. dhāraṇā : “Fixation”; a meditative practice often included among the auxiliaries of yoga
  18. dharma : Law, justice, religious observance, societal or caste duty.
  19. dhyāna : “Meditation”
  20. doṣa : One of three bodily substances (kapha, pitta and vāta), which, according to Āyurveda, need to be kept in balance in order to maintain health
  21. granthi : “Knot”; a blockage in the yogic body that must be pierced by means of the breath or Kuṇḍalinī
  22. guṇa : In the Sāṃkhya system, one of the three qualities that are present in varying proportions in all things (see rajas, tamas and sattva); guṇa may also refer to a supernatural power resulting from success in yoga
  23. haṭhayoga : “Yoga by force”; a system of yoga that rose to prominence in the second millennium CE
  24. Iḍā : A subtle channel (nāḍī), usually located on the left side of the Suṣumnā
  25. īśvara : “The lord/Lord”; God
  26. Jālandhara : A tantric sacred site in north-west India; (jālandhara) a type of yogic lock
  27. japa : The repetition of mantras
  28. jīva : The vital principle in each individual
  29. kanda : A “bulb” located below the navel, which is the source of the nāḍīs
  30. Khecarī : Lit. ‘she who moves through the sky’, a particular type of Yoginī; (khecarī) a type of mudrā or yogic seal.
  31. Kula: Lit. “clan” or “family”; in Śaiva tantra originally indicated families of Yoginīs; later, in the yogi’s body as microcosm, the highest (non transcendental) level of divinity, sexual energy and the goddess Śakti
  32. kumbhaka : Breath-retention; in haṭhayoga, specific methods of inhalation and/or exhalation used in conjunction with breath-retention
  33. Kuṇḍalinī : “She who is coiled”. The power of the divine feminine, residing within the body of the yogi
  34. laya : Dissolution (e.g. of the self into the deity in tantric systems)
  35. liṅga : An aniconic representation of Śiva; the penis
  36. manas : Mind
  37. maṇḍala: “Disc” or “orb”; a focus for meditation; an area in which ritual is performed
  38. marman : A vital point within the body
  39. mokṣa : Liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth (similar to nirvāṇa, kaivalya)
  40. mudrā: Lit. “seal”; a gesture used in tantric ritual; a technique for manipulating the vital energies in haṭhayoga
  41. nāda : “Resonance”; a tantric tattva and focus for meditation, sometimes located in the body; in haṭhayoga, internal sounds to be meditated upon
  42. nāḍī : A subtle channel in the body which carries vital energy
  43. nirvāṇa : Lit. “extinction”. Liberation from death and rebirth, especially in Buddhism (similar to mokṣa, kaivalya)
  44. Pātañjala yoga : Yoga as described in Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra (the Pātañjalayogaśāstra) and its commentaries
  45. Piṅgalā : A channel (nāḍī), usually located on the right side of the Suṣumnā
  46. prāṇa : Breath, the vital energy that animates all living things; or one of five principal breaths
  47. prāṇāyāma : Breath-control
  48. pratyāhāra : Withdrawal of the senses (often included among the auxiliaries of yoga)
  49. Purāṇa: Lit. “old”. A category of theistic Hindu literature mainly concerned with mythological tales of gods
  50. puruṣa: Lit. “person”. The principle of spirit in the Sāṃkhya philosophical system
  51. sādhana : (Spiritual) practice
  52. śakti : Lit. “power”; the divine feminine; (Śakti) a/the goddess, usually the consort of the god Śiva
  53. samādhi : “Absorption”. The ultimate cognitive state of yoga
  54. samāna : One of the five principal “winds” in the body
  55. Sāṃkhya : An ancient dualist philosophical system, which became one of the orthodox Brahmanical philosophies
  56. Saṃnyāsī : A renouncer; a particular ascetic order
  57. saṃsāra : The cycle of death and rebirth, “cyclic existence”
  58. saṃyama : (In the Pātañjalayogaśāstra) the combined practices of fixation (dhāraṇā), meditation (dhyāna) and absorption (samādhi)
  59. śastra : An instructional treatise
  60. siddha : An adept, a perfected yogi
  61. siddhi : “Success” or supernatural power
  62. smṛti : Lit. “that which is remembered”: the corpus of Brahmanical texts transmitted by human teachers. Orthodox Brahmanical texts other than the Vedas
  63. śruti : Lit. ‘that which is heard’: the corpus of revealed Brahmanical texts, i.e. those that were heard by the Vedic sages. The Vedas, including the Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads
  64. Suṣumnā : The central channel (nāḍī) in the body
  65. tantra : A type of text; a body of knowledge, ritual and praxis regarded as distinct from – and more powerful than – Vedic revelation
  66. tapas : Lit. “heat”; asceticism, in particular physical austerities
  67. tattva : “Reality” or “truth”; in metaphysics, an element or level of reality
  68. udāna : One of the five principal breaths in the body
  69. Uḍḍiyāna : A tantric sacred site in north-west India; (uḍḍiyāna) a type of yogic lock
  70. utkrānti : Suicide by means of yoga (literally “upward progression”)
  71. vajra : “Thunderbolt”; a mythical weapon; name of a yoga posture
  72. vāyu : Breath (literally “wind”)
  73. vyāna : One of the five principal breaths in the body
  74. yogāṅga : An auxiliary practice of yoga
  75. Yoginī : A type of tantric goddess; (yoginī) a female practitioner of yoga
  76. yoni : Female genitals; can also refer to the perineum of male yogis

Different usages across literature

Yoga may be understood as a state of conjunction or union, especially in tantric and non-dual (Advaita) traditions, although what exactly is being united with what varies according to those traditions’ own metaphysical systems. The union may be variously conceived as being with the manifestation of one’s own nature. The Yogabīja states that yoga is the union (saṃyoga) of all dualities (dvandva).

Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra and related texts equate yoga with the state of samādhi and tend to define yoga in terms of the separation or disjunction (vi-yoga) of the dualistic Sāṃkhyan categories of puruṣa (the spiritual principle) and prakṛti (material nature). One of the commentators on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, Vijñānabhikṣu, argues in his Yogasārasaṃgraha that ‘aloneness’ (kaivalya), the end goal of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra’s sāṃkhyayoga, is the same as the goal of Vedānta, which he describes as non-separation (avibhāga) of the individual self (jīvātman) and the supreme self (paramātman).

The Īśvaragītā presents two forms of yoga: a “Non-Being Yoga”
(abhāvayoga), suggestive of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, in which one’s own form is meditated upon as being empty; and the superior Great Yoga (mahāyoga), in which the yogi focuses on, and unites with, God. In this model, Patañjali’s yoga functions as a preliminary to practices leading to union with the deity.

Apart from this, Bhagavad gītā identifies yoga with equanimity and skill in action; Liṅgapurāṇa describes as the condition of nirvāṇa or as a condition of Shiva; while Vaiśeṣikasūtra states yoga as a pleasure- and pain-free state. Early texts like Mahābhārata and Skandapurāṇa associate yoga with power (Bala in Sanskrit).

Some doctrines identify yoga as a state, whose attainment is the aim of associated practices. This meaning of yoga is more popular. However, an exceptional definition of yoga as means is found
in the C. second-century CE Buddhist Yogācārabhūmi. In some texts, the two senses (yoga-as-means and yoga-as-goal) exist side by side. The Parākhyatantra, for instance, states that “Yoga [arises from] the attainment of samādhi or it is in the practice of yoga [itself]”, a definition which appears to understand “yoga” as indicative of
both method and goal, with the latter contained within and arising from the former. In Pātañjalayogaśāstravivaraṇa, yoga is defined as both the goal and the means (upāya) for achieving discriminative knowledge (vivekakhyāti) and supernatural powers. This dual usage raises similar issues with regard to compound terms such as haṭhayoga, which might be translated as either “[the state of] yoga [achieved] by means of force (haṭha)” or “the forceful yoga [practice]”. Given the predominance in the texts of yoga-as-goal (rather than a method), Hatha yoga is considered: methods known collectively as haṭha that lead to the goal called yoga.

In general, Bhagavadgītā, which teaches a panoply of
yogas (or “means to yoga” ?), such as karma yoga (yoga of/by actions), ātmasaṃyamayoga (yoga of/by self-restraint), bhakti yoga (yoga of/by devotion) and abhyāsayoga (yoga of/by repeated practice). Bhagavadgītā, like the Parākhyatantra, sometimes takes “yoga” to indicate method and goal is clear from, for example, its description of buddhi yoga (yoga of/by means of the intellect), in which Arjuna is exhorted to “apply [himself] to yoga”, by which means he will “attain yoga”.

Some texts teach a variety of distinct types of yoga methods:

  1. is the “yoga of action” (kriyāyoga) of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (an alternative practice for those who have distracted minds)
  2. the “cosmic yoga” (prakriyāyoga) of the Niśvāsatattvasaṃhitā, in which one meditates on matter, time, illusion (māyā) and other cosmic levels
  3. the twofold yoga of the Īśvaragītā where meditation on emptiness (“Non-Being Yoga”) leads to a vision of the self as pure and blissful (the “Great Yoga”)
  4. and the yoga of devotion (bhaktiyoga) of the Bhāgavatapurāṇa.
  5. also of importance are texts which consider the relationship between yoga and knowledge (jñāna), such as the Bhagavadgītā, the Pādmasaṃhitā, the Yogabīja and the Jīvanmuktiviveka.

Living apart, eating little, disciplined in speech, body and mind, always intent on the yoga of meditation (dhyāna yoga), taking refuge in dispassion, giving up egoism, force, arrogance, lust, anger and grasping, unselfish, peaceful: [such a one] is fit for becoming Brahman.

– The Yoga of Meditation, Bhagavadgītā, Chapter 18, Verse No. 52-53

Stages of Yoga

The Vāyavīyasaṃhitā of the Śivapurāṇa and the Liṅgapurāṇa both teach a fivefold yoga consisting: of the yoga of mantras (mantrayoga), the yoga of touch (sparśayoga), the yoga of being (bhāvayoga), the yoga of non-being (abhāvayoga) and the great yoga (mahāyoga). In thirteenth-century onwards, starting from Dattātreyayogaśāstra, much the most common typology of yoga is a four-fold hierarchy: of the yoga of mantras (mantrayoga), the yoga of dissolution (layayoga), the yoga of force (haṭhayoga), and the royal yoga (rājayoga). It is generally believed rājayoga is the best of all.

The Dattātreyayogaśāstra also lists four hierarchical stages of practice, called “inception” (ārambha), “action” (ghaṭa), “accumulation” (paricaya) and “completion” (niṣpatti), a scheme that first occurs in the Amṛtasiddhi and is found in a number of texts, including the Sabdīs of Gorakhnāth and the Śivayogapradīpikā. Rājayoga seems to be identified here with the completion stage, as it also is in the Amaraughaprabodha and the Haṭhapradīpikā.

The sole goal of haṭha practice is rājayoga (a name synonymous to samādhi in Haṭhapradīpikā). The Śivasaṃhitā asserts that haṭha will not succeed without rājayoga, but also claims that rājayoga will not succeed without haṭha, a claim repeated in the Haṭhapradīpikā. In a handful of texts, rājayoga is said to be the union of semen (retas/bindu) and uterine fluid (rajas) (e.g. Yogaśikhā Upaniṣad, Yogabīja), the drawing up of seminal fluid during sexual intercourse (e.g. Sarvāṅgayogapradīpikā) or ejaculatory sexual intercourse itself (e.g. the Haṃsavilāsa). Rājayoga is here implied as to the attainment of yoga while still living like a king, i.e. without renouncing the pleasures of worldly existence.

Auxiliaries of Yoga

Eightfold soteriological systems have a particularly long history and predate the sixfold systems which first appear in tantric texts. In the context of yoga, by far the most common and influential eightfold scheme is the aṣṭāṅgayoga of Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra and the many texts which replicate its schema. However, notable examples which predate this system may be found in the Pali canon, which teaches the Eightfold Path fundamental to Buddhism, the Carakasaṃhitā, the earliest complete, extant text of Āyurveda, and the Mahābhārata. The Mahābhārata says that an eightfold yoga is taught in the Vedas and teaches two other eightfold schemata in a single continuous passage, the first of which is said to be “the Eightfold Path of dharma” and is akin to the rules (yamas) and observances (niyamas) of Patañjali’s yoga, while the second is not given a name other than “the Path of Eight Auxiliaries”, but is more obviously yogic both in its methods, which include restraint of the senses and the stopping of the mind, and its results, which include yogic sovereignty and success in yoga.

The Mālinīvijayottaratantra, which teaches a “Six auxiliary” (ṣaḍaṅga) method as a preliminary to the “conquest of the realities” (tattvajaya). Sixfold methods such as that of the Mālinīvijayottaratantra are common in other Śaiva texts, as well as those of non-Śaiva tantric traditions: they are found in scriptures of the Vaiṣṇava Pāñcarātra, such as the Jayākhyasaṃhitā, Viṣṇusaṃhitā, and Sanatkumārasaṃhitā, and many Vajrayāna Buddhist works. It is noteworthy that the Mālinīvijayottaratantra unusually places withdrawal (pratyāhāra) after samādhi as the final and highest auxiliary, suggesting perhaps that withdrawal, rather than samādhi, may have been the aim of some early yogas. Other variations in the order, definition, and subdivisions of the six auxiliaries are common across Śaiva texts.

Śaiva sixfold systems are usually distinguished by the inclusion of the aṅga of discrimination (tarka), the non-inclusion of the rules and observances, theism (the Pātañjalayogaśāstra only includes Īśvara (‘the Lord’) as an option), and quite divergent interpretations of the function and goal of their yogas. In some haṭha texts, such as the Vivekamārtaṇḍa, we find a sixfold grouping identical to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra’s aṣṭāṅga sequence, minus the rules and observances (with posture as the first auxiliary), and in which discrimination is absent. This represents a later ṣaḍaṅga group distinct from the usual tantric grouping.

Other numerical arrangements of yogāṅgas are:

  1. such as the four-part scheme of the Śārṅgadharapaddhati
  2. the five aṅgas of the Vāyupurāṇa
  3. the seven fold system of the Mṛgendratantra and Gheraṇḍasaṃhitā
  4. the fifteen fold system of the Aparokṣānubhūti.

Clarification on eightfold system in Yoga

The compound term aṣṭāṅgayoga in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and elsewhere is generally meant “yoga [attained] by means of the eight auxiliaries”, rather than “the yoga of eight limbs” which is implied in Vācaspatimiśra’s commentary to Pātañjalayogaśāstra, where he asks how samādhi can be identified with yoga itself and simultaneously be the last of the eight aṅgas. He solves this apparent paradox by proposing that samādhi as an auxiliary (aṅga) is merely a part of the state of yoga, defined in Pātañjalayogaśāstra as the suppression of the activities of the mind (cittavṛttinirodha).

Bhojarāja, in his commentary on Pātañjalayogaśāstra, similarly affirms that each of the eight aṅgas is subsidiary to the next, ending with samādhi. The Mṛgendratantra offers a sevenfold aṅga scheme, which includes samādhi (or perhaps the practice of samādhi), but adds yoga itself, identified as the state of samādhi, as a kind of honorary eighth aṅga to which all the others are subservient.

While the exceptions above disprove the statement found in the Vāyavīyasaṃhitā that every yoga is either ṣaḍaṅga or aṣṭāṅga, sixfold and eightfold yoga systems are the most common. The elements of eightfold systems – rules (yamas), observances (niyamas), posture (āsana), breathcontrol (prāṇāyāma), withdrawal (pratyāhāra), fixation (dhāraṇā), meditation (dhyāna) and samādhi – do not vary from text to text, but there is considerable variation in the sixfold schemata. Nevertheless, the latter generally includes the former’s breath-control, fixation, meditation, withdrawal, and samādhi.


  1. Book : “Bhagavad-Gītā As It Is”, by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, Published by Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International
  2. Book : “Roots of Yoga”, by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton, Published by Penguin Classics
  3. Research paper : “Sanskrit and the Chakras, A Precise Correlation Of 50 Letters & 50 ‘Petals’ On Six Primary Chakras”, by Bill Francis Barry, downloaded from www[dot]mantravijaya[dot]com
  4. Book : “Patanjali Yoga Sutras, Sanskrit text with Translation and Commentary”, by Swami Vivekananda
  5. Book : “Hatha Yoga, The report of a personal experience”, by Theos Bernard, Published by Rider & Company
  6. Book : “The mind illuminated, A complete meditation guide integrating Buddhist wisdom and Brain Science”, by Culadasa, Published by Dharma Treasure Press
  7. Book : “The secret power of Tantrik breathing, Techniques for attaining Health, Harmony & Liberation”, by Swami Sivapriyananda, Published by Destiny Books

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