The spiritual sense of the word yoga first arises in Epic Sanskrit, in the second half of the 1st millennium BCE, and is associated with the philosophical system presented in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, with the chief aim of "uniting" the human spirit with the Divine. The term kriyāyoga has a technical meaning in the Yoga Sutras (2.1), designating the "practical" aspects of the philosophy, i.e. the "union with the supreme" due to performance of duties in everyday life.
Alexander the Great reached India in the 4th century BCE. Along with his army, he took Greek academics with him who later wrote memoirs about geography, people and customs they saw. One of Alexander's companion was Onesicritus, quoted in Book 15, Sections 63–65 by Strabo, who describes yogins of India. Onesicritus claims those Indian yogins (Mandanis ) practiced aloofness and "different postures – standing or sitting or lying naked – and motionless".
The Gita consists of 18 chapters and 700 shlokas (verses), with each chapter named as a different yoga, thus delineating eighteen different yogas. Some scholars divide the Gita into three sections, with the first six chapters with 280 shlokas dealing with Karma yoga, the middle six containing 209 shlokas with Bhakti yoga, and the last six chapters with 211 shlokas as Jnana yoga; however, this is rough because elements of karma, bhakti and jnana are found in all chapters.
Yoga may have pre-Vedic elements. Some state yoga originated in the Indus Valley Civilization. Marshall, Eliade and other scholars note that the Pashupati seal discovered in an Indus Valley Civilization site depicts a figure in a position resembling an asana used for meditation, Mulabandhasana. This interpretation is considered speculative and uncertain by more recent analysis of Srinivasan and may be a case of projecting "later practices into archeological findings".
Yogaśataka a Jain work by Haribhadra Suri 6th century CE "With conviction, the lords of Yogins have in our doctrine defined yoga as the concurrence (sambandhah) of the three [correct knowledge (sajjñana), correct doctrine (saddarsana) and correct conduct (saccaritra)] beginning with correct knowledge, since [thereby arises] conjunction with liberation....In common usage this [term] yoga also [denotes the soul’s] contact with the causes of these [three], due to the common usage of the cause for the effect. (2, 4).
^ James Mallinson, "Sāktism and Hathayoga," 28 June 2012.
Classical yoga incorporates epistemology, metaphysics, ethical practices, systematic exercises and self-development techniques for body, mind and spirit. Its epistemology (pramana) and metaphysics is similar to that of the Sāṅkhya school. The metaphysics of Classical Yoga, like Sāṅkhya, is mainly dualistic, positing that there are two distinct realities. These are prakriti (nature), which is the eternal and active unconscious source of the material world and is composed of three gunas, and the puruṣas (persons), the plural consciousnesses which are the intelligent principles of the world, and are multiple, inactive and eternal witnesses. Each person has a individual puruṣa, which is their true self, the witness and the enjoyer, and that which is liberated. This metaphysical system holds that puruṣas undergo cycles of reincarnation through its interaction and identification with prakirti. Liberation, the goal of this system, results from the isolation (kaivalya) of puruṣa from prakirti, and is achieved through a meditation which detaches oneself from the different forms (tattvas) of prakirti. This is done by stilling one's thought waves (citta vritti) and resting in pure awareness of puruṣa.
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According to Georg Feuerstein, Laya yoga (yoga of dissolution or merging) "makes meditative absorption (laya) its focus. The laya-yogin seeks to transcend all memory traces and sensory experiences by dissolving the microcosm, the mind, in the transcendental Self-Consciousness." There are various forms and techniques of Laya yoga, including listening to the "inner sound" (nada), practicing various mudras like Khechari mudra and Shambhavi mudra as well as techniques meant to awaken a spiritual energy in the body (kundalini).
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The Rigveda, however, does not describe yoga, and there is little evidence as to what the practices were. Early references to practices that later became part of yoga, are made in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the earliest Hindu Upanishad. For example, the practice of pranayama (consciously regulating breath) is mentioned in hymn 1.5.23 of Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (c. 900 BCE), and the practice of pratyahara (concentrating all of one's senses on self) is mentioned in hymn 8.15 of Chandogya Upanishad (c. 800–700 BCE).[note 8] The Jaiminiya Upanishad Brahmana teaches mantra repetition and control of the breath.