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Yoga is a Sanskrit word from the root yuj meaning 'to yoke' or 'to unite'. Yoga is both a goal and method of self-realisation in which the practitioner seeks a direct experience of mokśa - emancipation from the inherent duḥkham (difficulty) of worldly life and its cycle of saṃsāra (wandering) countless times through life, death and rebirth.

Yoga has been practised in South Asia in various forms for at least 2000 years. During this time, myriad approaches evolved, primarily in India, which include the paths of jñāna (knowledge), bhakti (devotion), karma (work) and haṭha (force).

Patañjali's Yogaśāstra, composed in approximately 400CE, is widely regarded as the seminal work on yoga praxis and philosophy. Patañjali, codified and collated earlier teachings of yoga, and propounded a systematic method by which to calm the mind and abide in our essential nature. Patañjali's yoga method consists of eight auxiliary parts known as aṣṭāṅgayoga.

In the 9th - 11th century, a path of yoga emerged that focused on physical practices such as kriyā (purification), āsana (postures), and prāṇāyāma (breath control). This yoga became known as haṭhayoga (the yoga of force) and forms the basis for most of the modern styles of yoga which are popular today. The postures from the haṭha tradition have become an iconic symbol of yoga across the globe.

The subject of yoga is vast and represents the fruit of centuries of reflection & experimentation by mystics, yogis and seekers. From the earliest times, human beings have asked fundamental questions about the nature of reality and the identity of the self. Yoga is a response, method and doorway to such self-enquiry.

*Image credit: Gouache painting, 19th Century, Wellcome Library: 574888i

About James

James is a yoga teacher & researcher who's practised yoga for 24 years. He holds an MA in Traditions of Yoga & Meditation from SOAS, University of London, where he specialised in premodern yoga.

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