What is Yoga?
A brief exploration of a complex question
(In an attempt to make this an accessible window into many ideas about yoga and its origins, I’d like to acknowledge that this article contains many generalizations and overviews and as such, inevitable shortcomings. I encourage you to continue research in any areas that spark your interest, and refer to the works cited below for more in-depth information.)
Yoga continues to grow in popularity globally, and nowadays, many, like myself, may first encounter yoga through asana (posture) practice, as a means of exercise and maintaining good physical health. But yoga encompasses so much more! Perhaps if you are here reading this, you’ve already glimpsed into the vast world of yoga beyond the edges of your mat, and you’re curious to know more. So let’s dive in together!
Yoga is a practice. It is not meant to be studied or discussed only theoretically, though of course this can help expand our perspectives! In the spirit of practice, throughout this blog post I have included some invitations for practical exercises to further explore and integrate the information presented.
What is Yoga? An Etymological Exploration
Yoga is most commonly translated to mean union. The core of the Sanskrit word yoga is yuj, meaning “to yoke or join.” “The nucleus of a Sanskrit word is often a principle… around this nucleus dozens of diverse meanings are orbiting…” (Roche 207).
PRACTICE: Take a moment to simply reflect on this rich root of the word, and see what comes to mind. In yoga, what is being joined or brought together? In your mind, or in your journal, make a list of any images, synonyms, metaphors, or connections that arise.
(Inspired by Yukti Practice Transmissions from the Radiance Sutras, p. 207)
Maybe you thought of the union of body, mind, and spirit. Or perhaps the synchronization of body and breath. Yin and yang. Balance. Living in harmony with others, with nature, with all living beings. Universal consciousness. Wholeness. Holistic health. Harnessing the senses… What else? As we unfold the many rich layers of meaning and make connections like these, we begin to see the immense scope of yoga, and feel the invitation to keep exploring the expanding ripples of interpretation, the space between them, and finally, to dive deeper below the surface to the underlying meaning.
Definitions of Yoga
Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras (c. 5000 BCE–300 CE), an ancient text which forms the basis for many types of yoga practiced today, offers a definition of yoga that is simultaneously the practice:
The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga. (1.2 - Translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda)
In other words, “if you can control the rising of the mind into ripples, you will experience Yoga” (Satchidananda 40). Our thoughts and feelings are in constant fluctuation, like ripples at the surface of a lake which keep us from seeing the bottom. “If the water is muddy, the bottom will not be seen; if the water is agitated all the time, the bottom will not be seen. If the water is clear, and there are no waves, we shall see the bottom. That bottom of the lake is our own true Self” (Vivekananda 11). Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind, and
the state of dwelling in the peaceful stillness and truth that underlies the constant changes in our thoughts and feelings.
Change, however, is the nature of the mind. The Bhagavad Gita (c. 5th–2nd century BCE), one of the most well-known Hindu scriptures, offers a similar description of yoga as “‘evenness of mind’: detachment from the dualities of pain and pleasure, success and failure” (Easwaran 85). Can we bring awareness rather than attachment to thoughts, whether they be painful or pleasurable? A central concept in yoga psychology is that thoughts are real in that they hold energy. “They become desires, then habits, then ways of living with physical consequences.... Just as a seed can grow into only one kind of tree, thoughts can produce effects only of the same nature” (Easwaran 43). Thoughts undoubtedly and constantly arise, and our minds can change from one moment to the next, but yoga invites us to draw attention to what thoughts we follow, what seeds we are watering.
This reminds me of one of my favourite quotes by Mahatma Gandhi: “Carefully watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Manage and watch your words, for they will become your actions. Consider and judge your actions, for they have become your habits. Acknowledge and watch your habits, for they shall become your values. Understand and embrace your values, for they become your destiny.”
The Aim of Yoga
PRACTICE: Take a moment to look around you. Try to simply take in your surroundings without labelling or naming anything, without following this or that. Simply observe.
As you likely noticed in the above practice, the mind automatically seeks to label and categorize what it observes in the outside world. This separateness is referred to as maya, “illusion,” and causes suffering. We intrinsically see ourselves as different from others, the ego points out what is good and bad, what is us and what is them. Yoga is an instrument for perceiving beyond maya to the oneness and unity of life, leading ultimately to a state of freedom and liberation from the material world and from suffering. This state, considered the highest goal of yoga, is called moksha.
Where does Yoga come from?
The exact origins of yoga are a mystery, as the tradition started out oral in nature.
Many sources point to the Indus Valley Civilization (3000 BCE), as artefacts depicting figures seated in lotus posture are speculated to be images of Shiva as the Lord of Yoga, and may suggest that meditation was being practiced.
However compelling the images, and although we can suspect a correspondence to Shiva, since we cannot read the accompanying script, we do not have solid evidence that these artefacts actually depict yoga (Balkaran).
Another popular opinion points to the Rigveda, the oldest Sanskrit text and earliest of the Vedas (c. 1500 BCE), as the first textual evidence of yoga. The Vedas are ancient Hindu scriptures which contain wisdom or śruti: “what is heard from a higher source.” (Learn more about the Vedas here). The Rigveda “indicate[s] the use of visionary meditation and its famous hymn to a long-haired sage (10.136) suggests a mystical ascetic tradition similar to those of later yogis… But it is entirely speculative to claim... that the Vedic corpus provides any evidence of systematic yoga practice” (Mallinson and Singleton xxi).
Regardless of the unclear origins of yoga, we do know that by the early part of the first millennium BCE, ancient Indian rishis (literally “seers”) were studying the mind through brahmavidya, the supreme science, which sought to explore and analyze human consciousness and our relationship to the absolute, the divine (Easwaran 17). The
discoveries of brahmavidya were passed down orally and eventually recorded in the Upanishads (literally “to sit down near”), texts added as the culmination of the Vedas. This led to a revolutionary shift towards a renouncer religion in the Upanishadic Period (500-800 BCE). While early Vedic religious practices such as fire sacrifice and recitation of hymns were a means to gain earthly prosperity and appeasement of the gods, the renouncer religion instead turned the focus inward, using seclusion, self-study, and non-violence as means of self-enlightenment and liberation (Balkaran). “This vast revolution of renouncers gets crystallized into Buddhism [and] Jainism,” explains Dr. Raj Balkaran, and “folded back into classical Hinduism.” So whether yoga as a practice of withdrawal and introspection, reserved for forest hermits, evolved from Vedic or Non-Vedic Indian culture is, again, not entirely clear. As you can see from this brief overview of the possible origins of yoga, seeds scatter and sprout and grow across time, texts, and traditions.
Out of the forest... and onto the battlefield: The Bhagavad Gita presents a path for everyone
“Seek refuge in the attitude of detachment and you will amass the wealth of spiritual awareness. Those who are motivated only by desire for the fruits of action are miserable, for they are constantly anxious about the results of what they do. When consciousness is unified, however, all vain anxiety is left behind. There is no cause for worry, whether things go well or ill. Therefore, devote yourself to the disciplines of yoga, for yoga is skill in action.” –Bhagavad Gita 2.49-50
The Bhagavad Gita is a famous Hindu text composed as a conversation on the battlefield between warrior-prince Arjuna, who has cold feet about fighting, and Krishna, his charioteer and an incarnation of God, who offers counsel in teaching Arjuna about yoga as a means of liberation. Krishna describes yoga as detachment. It is not escapism, indifference, or renunciation of the world, but rather a tool for use in the realm of action. Yoga is the “evenness of mind” that comes from not being emotionally attached to outcome. The Bhagavad Gita revolutionized yoga in that it opened up the practice to a much wider audience. No longer do you need to renounce the world and become a forest hermit to practice yoga! No longer is the practice limited to brahmins, or to men only! There is a path to Self-realization for everyone! Krishna describes three, even four, different paths of yoga:
–Karma yoga: the path of selfless action
–Bhakti yoga: the path of devotion
–Jnana yoga: the path of knowledge
–Raja yoga: the path of meditation
All paths lead to the same place: the awakening of consciousness, and union of the Self to the whole.
Picking up the threads: Patañjali's Yoga Sūtras
Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras is the main text of Raja Yoga, essentially an ancient manual for students of yoga, outlining main concepts and practices. “Sūtra literally means ‘thread,’ each sūtra being the barest thread of meaning upon which a teacher might expand by adding his or her own ‘beads' of experience for the sake of the students” (Satchidananda 21-22).
Patañjali is often called the “Father of Yoga,” although he didn’t invent yoga, as we have seen, but rather assembled ideas and organized them in a practical, concise way that opened up the practice of yoga even more, as it provided practitioners with a set of guidelines to follow.
Perhaps one of the most well-known takeaways from the Yoga Sūtras is the Ashtanga Yoga Sutra, “the eight limbs of yoga,” which are all equally important and necessary, and of which asana (posture) is one. However, far from the modern energetic postural yoga style called Ashtanga Yoga, the posture practice referred to as “asana” in the Yoga Sūtras literally means “seat,” as in the basic meditation posture.
Patañjali famously defines asana in verse 46:
Āsana is a steady, comfortable posture. (Translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda)
This may seem simple enough, but in how many poses, be it yoga asanas or everyday postures of sitting and standing, do we really feel both steadiness and comfort, effort and ease, strength and softness?
As you have been sitting here reading this article, you may have noticed yourself shifting this way and that, maybe even experienced cramping or aching in a certain part of the body. So it’s time to move into another practice and put this sutra into action!
PRACTICE: Take a seat in Sukhasana (cross-legged “Easy Pose”), or alternatively sit on the shins or even in your chair. Take a few deep breaths, find length in your spine, and try to simultaneously practice both effort and ease. Hold yourself steady in the posture, while softening into comfort. Sit with this intention for a few moments. Feel free to explore with any other yoga posture in your practice (please make sure to warm up first!).
The paradox of Asana
As we see in Patañjali’s oxymoronic definition, asana is somewhat of a paradox inherently. Any yoga asana is a shape with structure and rules, but simultaneously a vehicle for ease and freedom. In the modern Western world we also encounter contradictions in asana practice as we are told that yoga is for every body, that it can help eliminate stress and improve mental health, but then we may also encounter yoga being sold for weight loss, or else we are bombarded with images of super fit bodies assuming seemingly impossible yoga poses on Instagram.
Which leads us to ask: “If asana is actually just a steady, comfortable seat, then where do all these other poses come from?“
Hatha Yoga was initially created (c. 15th century CE) to help prepare the body to sit in meditation for long periods of time. Literally "force" in Sanskrit, Hatha Yoga is the physical aspect of yoga practice, encompassing postures (āsanas), breathing techniques (prāṇāyāma), seals (mudras), locks (bandhas) and
cleansing practices (kriyas), designed to preliminarily purify the whole body and energetic body before the practice of meditation (Satchidananda 339, 503). Sri Swami Satchidananda says: “When we find stillness in the body, it is easier to find stillness in the mind...if we decide, ‘I’m not moving for three hours,’ the mind ultimately has to obey us, because it needs the body’s cooperation in order to get anything. That is the benefit of āsana siddhi, or accomplishment of āsana” (343).
Asana clearly has many benefits, such as helping to keep our bodies healthy and mobile, and if this is what brings many people to begin a yoga practice, it is certainly not a bad thing! Nowadays, there is a big range of asana styles to choose from. Here is a very brief overview of some popular modern postural yoga styles that you may see on your local studio’s schedule:
–Hatha Yoga: The yoga of "force," can be considered as anything you might do with the body. However, nowadays, this style of yoga typically involves breathing techniques and physical postures, often with longer holds than in a Vinyasa Class (Newlyn)
–Vinyasa Yoga: From the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means “to place,” and the prefix vi, “in a special way,” a flowing sequence of postures linked with breath (Rea)
–Ashtanga Yoga: Popularised by K. Pattabhi Jois in the 20th century, a traditional series of dynamic postures linked with breath and performed in a specific order every time
–Iyengar Yoga: Developed by B. K. S. Iyengar, an alignment-based asana practice based on precision, timing, and use of props
–Yin Yoga: a newer, slow-paced style of yoga incorporating principles of traditional Chinese medicine, in which passive postures are held for several minutes each
–Kundalini Yoga: meditation, kriyas (exercises), and chanting, aimed at raising the Kundalini energy that lies coiled at the base of the spine
While asana practice may come in many different packages, some old, some new, and surely more to come, it remains only one aspect of the tradition of yoga and part of a much bigger picture, and one that continues to evolve and expand.
There is no distinction between one Yoga and another. Yoga, like God is one. — B.K.S. Iyengar
A Living Practice & a Practice for Living
Let’s come back where we started: with yuk, the root of the Sanskrit yoga, which can be translated to “yoke.” According to Merriam-Webster, yoking means “to put or bring together so as to form a new and longer whole; [as in] ‘yoked several ideas together to come up with a new theory.’” Perhaps yoga’s destiny, written in the very seed of the word itself, is to continue to develop, grow, and expand. Though yoga has been reinterpreted and reinvented over thousands of years, and many modern manifestations are seemingly far off from its ancient roots, there is no question that yoga is alive and thriving today! But with so many different practices being called “yoga,” how can we know what is actually yoga and what is not? On the Yogic Studies Podcast, Daniel Simpson, author of The Truth of Yoga, said: “The ultimate authenticity is our relationship with what we do, and if we want it, the relationship with the tradition… I feel it’s important to encourage people to find their own connections to sources of authenticity both within themselves and within the Indian traditions.”
PRACTICE: Journal prompt: In what aspect of my yoga practice do I feel most authentic, and why? Where in my life do I feel most authentic? Try to answer not based on facts but true to you.
Many traditions and theories of yoga exist, books and guidelines, lineages and gurus… But guru does not only mean teacher, it also means gravity, and it is all around us and within us, all the time, inviting us to go deeper. And when we fall down, there’s the guru! When we feel heavy or low, there’s the guru! When you face a difficult situation or a challenging person, ask yourself: “What can I learn?” When you are a student of yoga, the practice is everywhere.
Atha Yogānuśāsanam, the opening verse of the Yoga Sūtras, means: “And, now, yoga” (1.1).
This is our call to action! Yoga is happening now…. And now… And now…
Answer that call!
–The Bhagavad Gita Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran
–The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
–Yoga Sutra Patanjali by Swami Vivekananda
–The Radiance Sutras by Lorin Roche
–Roots of Yoga by James Mallinson and Mark Singleton
–Yogic Studies Course: “Yoga and Hindu Mythology” with Dr. Raj Balkaran (Modules 1 and 2 Lectures)
–EkhartYoga Article: “What is Hatha Yoga?” by Emma Newlyn
-Yoga Journal Article: "Consciousness in Motion: Vinyasa" by Shiva Rea
-The Yogic Studies Podcast, Episode 16: "The Truth of Yoga" with Daniel Simpson
–Merriam-Webster (Thesaurus): "yoking"
–(Consulted) Moksha Yoga Amazónica 200-hour YTT Manual
-Photos from Moksha Yoga Amazónica
-Yoga Sūtras graphic by author
-Rishabhanatha seated in two stages of meditation. ca. 1680, Amber, San Diego Museum of Art
-Pashupati seal, 2500 BCE, steatite, National Museum, New Delhi
-Bhagavad Gita image from The Hare Krishna Movement
-Photo of Be Here Now by Ram Dass
-Illustration by Olaf Hajek from Little Gurus