What is Yoga?

Yoga means union of the mind, body and spirit with the Divine and while this refers to a certain state of conciousness both individual and Universal, it is also a method to help one reach that goal.

"Hatha yoga is not only asanas; it is also the control of the mind." Swami Vishnu

The 12 basic yoga poses or asanas stretch the spine in every direction: front-to-back, side-to-side, and twisting to both sides; however, these postures are more than just stretching. Each asana, (which literally translates as “steady pose”) helps to open the energy channels of the body while increasing the flexibility of the spine, strengthening the bones, and stimulating the circulatory and immune systems. The poses encourage us to become more aware of our body, mind, and environment, and should be steady and comfortable. Along with proper breathing or pranayama, asanas also calm the mind and reduce stress. With regular practice, the poses consciously become an exercise in concentration and meditation and will increase physical and mental health.

1. Headstand (Sirasana)

Known as the “king of the asanas” because of its remarkable benefits, the headstand is the first of the 12 asanas and is excellent for improving circulation, increasing concentration, and promoting relaxation. This posture benefits the brain, spinal cord, and sympathetic nervous system, and strengthens the circulatory and respiratory systems.  

2. Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana)

  Sarvāṅgāsana, the Sanskrit name for shoulderstand, comes from the word “sarvāṅga,” meaning “all parts.” This āsana strengthens the entire body and has many of the same benefits as the headstand; however, it also stimulates the thyroid gland. The thyroid is an important part of the endocrine system and this exercise provides it with a rich supply of blood, improving the metabolism of every cell in the body.  

3. Plough (Halasana)

  The plough helps to keep the whole spine youthful. This posture stretches the back of the body completely, which invigorates the entire spine, and also loosens tight hamstrings. It’s said that s/he who practices Halāsana is very nimble, agile, and full of energy.  

4. Fish (Matsyasana)

  This asana is called the fish because we can float quite easily if we adopt the posture in water. The fish is a heart-opener and expand the capacity of the lungs. This position also helps correct rounded shoulders and tones the nerves of the neck and back.  

5. Sitting Forward Bend (Patchimothasana)

  Though this posture looks simple, the sitting forward bend is one of the most important and powerful asanas. This posture helps ease spinal compression caused by standing upright, keeps the back supple, the joints mobile, the nervous system invigorated, and the internal organs toned.  

6. Cobra (Bhujangasana)

  This asana is the first in the series of backbends looks like a hooded cobra in its full expression. The posture stretches the spine up and backwards, massaging and toning the back muscles, increasing the flexibility of the spine, and rejuvenating the spinal nerves.  

7. Locust (Salabhasana)

  Unlike the other asanas, which are done slowly, this backbend is achieved by making a single powerful muscle contraction, similar to a locust jumping into the air. The legs are lifted behind the head, giving the internal organs a massage and opening the chest.

8. Bow (Dhanurasana)

The Bow works all parts of the back simultaneously, increasing suppleness in the spine and hips. As we hold the pose, the body is bent like a bow and our arms are held straight and taut like a bowstring. This posture combines the benefits of the cobra and the locust, giving a good massage to the abdominal region, especially the digestive organs.

9. Half Spinal Twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)

After bending forward and backward, the spine requires a lateral twist to retain its mobility. The half spinal twist provides a lateral stretch that relieves lower back pain, massages the abdomen, mobilizes the vertebrae, and nourishes the spinal nerves and sympathetic nervous system.

10. Crow (Kakasana)

The crow is one of the most beneficial balancing poses. This posture strengthens the arms, wrists, forearms, and shoulders and increases our power of concentration, mental tranquility, and equilibrium.

11. Standing Forward Bend (Pada Hastasana)

Pada hastasana literally translates as “hands to feet pose.” This posture develops strength and flexibility in the legs and hips, stretches the spine, increases blood flow to the brain, and improves equilibrium.

12. Triangle (Trikonasana)

This posture is the last of the basic asanas and gives the appearance of a triangle. Trikonasana provides lateral movement to the spine while stretching and strengthening the side body and improving balance.

There are four main paths of yoga: karma yoga (the yoga of action), bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion), raja yoga (the yoga of meditation), and jnana yoga (the yoga of knowledge).

The ancient yogis devised these paths to suit different temperaments and approaches to life. Each type of yoga is complementary to the other and all paths ultimately lead to the same destination: self-realization. Swami Sivananda encouraged students to practice all four paths to foster harmonious development and balance on their spiritual path. This “Yoga of Synthesis” is taught at Sivananda ashrams and centres worldwide.


Karma Yoga (the yoga of action)

  Karma yoga teaches us how to work and serve selflessly without attachment, egoism, and expectation of reward. Through this practice, we learn to serve others with tolerance and patience and experience the joy of benefitting those around us. This attitude of service purifies the heart and sublimates the ego, preparing karma yogis to experience deeper levels of the Self.   See our karma yoga program for volunteer opportunities with Sivananda ashrams and centres.  

Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of devotion)

“Bhakti is a thorough discipline and training of one’s will and the mind, a path to intuitive realization of the Supreme through intense love and affection.” Swami Sivananda
  Bhakti yoga helps us develop humility, compassion, and unconditional love. Through faith, prayer, and worship, we surrender ourselves to a higher power and transform our emotions into unyielding devotion. This sublime love eliminates restlessness and distraction and opens the heart to seeing everything as a manifestation of the divine.   Throughout the year, Sivananda ashrams and centres offer satsangs (includes group meditation, chanting, and inspirational talks) and devotional celebrations to cultivate Bhakti.    

Raja Yoga (the yoga of meditation)

  Raja yoga is the practice of controlling the mind, which leads to meditation and ultimately to the super-conscious state (samadhi). Based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, this path (also known as ashtanga yoga) consists of eight “limbs” or steps that outline the process of transforming mental and physical energy into spiritual energy. When the body and mind are under control, meditation comes naturally.   Experience raja yoga at a Sivananda ashram or centre by taking an open class or participating in group meditation.  

Jnana Yoga (the yoga of knowledge)

“Jñāna Yoga, or the science of the Self, is not a subject that can be understood and realized through mere intellectual study, reasoning, discussion, or arguments. It is the most difficult of all sciences.” – Swami Sivananda
  Jnana yoga is the intellectual approach to spiritual evolution. Following the teachings of Vedanta (the yogic philosophy of non-duality), the Jnana yogi uses the mind to inquire into its own nature. Through this practice, we learn our essential divinity, the unity of life, and the oneness of consciousness. Jnana yoga requires a firm foundation in the other three paths; without fully integrating these lessons, this practice can become idle speculation.   Visit our publications page for books on yoga philosophy.

To meet the needs of a modern society, Swami Vishnudevananda synthesized the essence of yoga into five principles that could be easily incorporated into daily life. He recommended their regular practice for optimal physical and mental health, as well as spiritual growth. These five principles comprise the core teachings at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and ashrams worldwide.

Proper Exercise (Asana)

Yoga regards the body as a vehicle for the soul on its evolutionary journey. Accordingly, yogic physical exercises or asanas are designed to develop the body, mind, and spirit. Performed slowly and consciously, each asana (which translates as “steady pose”) is a physical exercise, as well as an exercise in concentration and meditation. Asanas are typically held for some time; however, initially, the primary concern is to increase flexibility. Yogis understand that the body is as young as it is flexible and yoga asanas stretch the entire body, toning the muscles, joints, spine, and skeletal system. The internal organs, glands, and nerves are also greatly benefitted, resulting in overall radiant health. To maintain this state of optimal vitality, Swami Vishnudevananda recommended the daily practice of 12 basic asanas.

Proper Breathing (Pranayama)

Breath is life. We can live for days without food or water, but we die in minutes when deprived of breath. Proper breathing should be deep, slow, and rhythmical; nevertheless, most people are accustomed to shallow breathing. Yoga teaches us how to use the lungs to their maximum capacity and how to control the breath to enhance vitality and mental clarity. Pranayama, which literally translates as “control of prana,” consists of specific breathing techniques that increase oxygen intake and encourage the absorption of prana (vital energy) into the body’s subtle energy channels (nadis) and energy centers (chakras). By controlling the prana through the breath, we render the mind calm and clear and experience increased energy, well-being, and peace of mind.

Proper Relaxation (Savasana)

The average person spends much of their physical and mental energy on chronic tension due to the stressors of modern life. We forget that rest and relaxation are nature’s way of recharging the body, mind, and soul, and can find it difficult to unwind. Yoga emphasizes the importance of proper relaxation as a way to regulate our energy and create a sense of balance, which enhances our physical and mental health. By learning to relax every muscle in the body, we can rejuvenate the nervous system and attain a deep sense of inner peace. This practice is done in Savasana (relaxation pose or corpse pose) and can help us attain physical, mental, and ultimately spiritual relaxation.

Proper Diet (Lacto-vegetarian)

Eating simple, healthy, and vegetarian foods that are easy to digest notably have a positive effect on the mind and body, as well as the environment and other living beings. A yogi eats with awareness, choosing food that has the most positive effect on the body and mind and the least negative effect on the natural world. Yoga states the purpose of eating is to supply the body with prana (vital energy) and advocates a lacto-vegetarian diet as the best way to maximize our pranic intake while keeping the body healthy and the mind clear. A simple and natural diet based on seasonal fruits and vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and organic milk optimizes physical and mental health and fosters harmony with the world around us.

Positive Thinking & Meditation (Vedanta & Dhyana)

According to Swami Vishnudevananda, Vedanta (the philosophy of positive thinking) and dhyana (meditation) are the most important of the five points of yoga because our thoughts define who we are. Every thought we have has a vibration that impacts us personally and the world around us. An optimistic outlook and the ability to focus create uplifting vibrations, making for a healthy, peaceful, and joyful life. As such, we should strive to maintain a positive and serene mind and can develop this skill by following the teachings of Vedantic philosophy and practicing meditation. These methods are the keys to achieving true peace of mind and eliminating negativity in our lives.