What is Yoga?

Most people are familiar with the words yoga and yogi but what do they mean?  What is Yoga?  For many, Yoga brings to mind human pretzels and yogi conjures up images of a bearded, white haired man doing a good impersonation of a pretzel.  Explaining what a yogi is is the easiest of the two:  A yogi is any person who practices Yoga.  The question, “What is Yoga?” seems to get bigger as soon as one starts trying to find the answer because suddenly Yoga becomes hatha yoga, bhakti yoga, karma yoga, Raja Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Bikram Yoga, Power Yoga and the list continues.  Still, the original question remains unanswered:  What is Yoga?  Luckily this question was answered some time ago by a man named Patañjali.  No one is sure exactly when Patañjali wrote the Yoga Sutras but speculation places his writings somewhere in the second century AD.  Here, then, is Patañjali’s definition of Yoga:

1.2 Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of mind.
1.3 Then, there is an abiding in the essential nature of the Seer.

Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, 1:2,3

That clears up everything nicely, right?  First, Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word yug which means to yoke or join.  This union or joining is brought about by suppression of the modifications of mind.  That’s perfectly clear, right?  Let’s put it this way, union is achieved by restraining the thought-streams natural to the mind.  Do what?  Yoga teaches one how to restrain or control one’s physical and mental actions and influences.  This restraint brings one’s body and mind under the control of and in harmony with one’s spirit.  When this union is achieved, the seer dwells in his own nature or there is an abiding in the essential nature of the Seer, in other words, one discovers the truth of who he is.

How does Yoga achieve this union?  Patañjali taught that it is by practicing the eight limbs of Yoga.

2.29 The eight limbs of Union are self-restraint in actions, fixed observance, posture, regulation of energy, mind-control in sense engagements, concentration, meditation, and realization.

Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, 2:29

These are the names of the eight limbs in Sanskrit:

Self-restraint or outward observance
Fixed observance or inward observance
Posture or pose
Regulation of energy
Mind control in sense engagements or withdrawal of the senses

Each limb focuses on an aspect of oneself.  The yamas and niyamas focus on controlling one’s actions toward others and towards oneself.  The asanas and pranayama focus on controlling one’s physical being.  The remaining four focus inward to control the senses and the mind to achieve complete stillness.

I know that for many, the above description of Yoga is completely at odds with what they have experienced.  This is going to be particularly true of those that have only experienced gym yoga.  Gym yoga is, by design, largely devoid of the spiritual grounding of Yoga; after all, who goes to a gym for a spiritual high?  An article from the Toronto Star has this to say:

The yoga boom has taken a spiritual practice that originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and adapted it to suit the Western lifestyle, treating it mainly as an exercise fad and a commercial enterprise.

. . . .

For most practitioners in the West, she [Clea McDougall, editor of Ascent] says, yoga is all about the practice of physical poses, or asana, while in India, it’s an all-encompassing system of living that can include meditation, philosophical study, ethical life choices, devotional chanting and acts of kindness.

Is it a stretch to call it yoga? (no longer available online),
DAPHNE GORDON, 8 August 2003 Toronto Star

A local Power Yoga studio puts it this way:

This is a sweat and strength based yoga workout designed for all of you who’ve heard about the many benefits of Yoga, but who have been turned off by the dogma, the mysticism, or the "stigma" surrounding it.

(original website no longer online—Internet Archive copy)

So, what is Yoga?  It is what you make of it.  If you want to use it as an exercise program, do it but do not be surprised if it leaves you wanting something more.  If you want something more, then practice Yoga and watch your life change.

It is entirely possible that my views expressed above are not completely correct.  If you think I’ve missed the mark or can further my understanding of Yoga, please
contact me

Last Modified
22:11 12/01/2008