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When French cardiologist Therese Brosse investigated some trained practitioners of yoga in 1935, she found they could control various bodily functions that normally occur without conscious effort. They could alter the contractions of their intestines, or slow down their heart beats and breathing so that they appear to be dead. Such incredible feats are an extreme form of the self-mastery achievable through yoga. This ancient Hindu discipline is a system of mental and physical exercises aimed at joining the individual soul with a higher consciousness, or universal spirit.
Yoga may have originated in the Indus Valley in Pakistan, 5,000 years ago. Earliest references to yoga doctrine appear in the Vedas, the first sacred texts of Hinduism, dating from about 1500 to 1200 BC. The Upanishads, written between 800 and 500 BC and elaborating upon the Vedas, contain deeper insights into the theory and practice of classic yoga. In the second century BC the Indian philosopher Patanjali systematized Yoga Sutra.
Yoga, from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to unite,” has evolved along several paths over the centuries. The branch best known in the West, hatha yoga, is the basic form, in which mind power is used to control the body. Among other paths, karma yoga teaches selfless action; jnana yoga uses intellect to deny submission to the material world; bhakti yoga focuses on devotion and love, kundalini yoga aspires to the conquest of cosmic energy; and jantra yoga aims to transform and sublimate sexual energy.
Considered the most important of all, raja yoga emphasizes the development of the mind through concentration and meditation involving eight levels of attainment. In the first two stages, yama and niyama, the individual adopts strict precepts of unselfishness, cleanliness and moral conduct. The physical postures of the next stage, asana, teach control of the mind by the body. In the fourth stage the aspiring yogi learns the breathing technique of pranayama to control prana, the energy vitalizing the body. The fifth stage, pratyahara, develops introspection and withdrawal from outside distractions, and the sixth, dharana, is total concentration upon one idea or object.
With the seventh stage, dhyana, the aspirant reaches meditation itself and prepares for a higher state of consciousness. One way of achieving this is by repeating a mantra or mystic formula. Vibrations of mantras are thought to act on the seven chakras, vortexes of psychic energy, which lie along the spinal column and affect parts of the nervous system. One chakra, at the base of the spine, is the seat of kundalini, a subtle center of energy symbolically thought of as a small serpent lying coiled and asleep. When kundalini is aroused through meditation, it uncoils and ascends through the other chakras to reach the sahasrara chakra in the crown of the head. At this last stage, samadhi, the individual self dissolves and the aspirant learns, as the yoga master Swami Vivekananda has put it, “that the mind itself has a higher state of existence, beyond reason, a super-conscious state . . . There is no feeling of I and yet the mind works, desire-less, free of restlessness, objectless, bodiless.”
Those who have reached the samadhi stage usually devote their lives to sharing their spiritual experiences. Sri Ramakrishna (1836-1886) was one of the first masters to gain attention in the West. Crowds assembled to hear his disciple Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), when he toured Britain and the United States. Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950) established the most solid bridge between Hindu tradition and Western philosophy and science, when he developed a synthesis of the main yoga paths, known as integral yoga.
Some people believe yogic techniques can increase psychical powers, or siddhis, allowing yogis to perform miraculous feats, such as levitation, telepathy, clairvoyance or invisibility. But sages claim siddhis are no more than marginal achievements, which may even interfere with the pathway to the ultimate goal of inner harmony and enlightenment.