What is Yoga
Entire books are written on the question “what is yoga”, but I’m going to attempt to give a very brief overview. Many millions of people practice yoga all over the world and a practice in one country could bear very little resemblance to a practice somewhere else. For this reason, a clear definition is difficult. According to the Oxford dictionary, yoga is
“A Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practiced for health and relaxation …. the ultimate aim of which is spiritual purification and self-understanding leading to samadhi or union with the divine”
A translation of “yoga” from Sanskrit is “union”, which can mean union of mind, body and spirit making it a mental, physical and spiritual practice, as well as union with the divine. I have also seen it translated as “concentration” which ties in with meditation. What many of us think of as yoga today is very different from its origins and it is in this haze of confusion that I shall attempt to answer the question: what is yoga.
Yoga is a science, a disciplined set of techniques (moral/ethical behaviour, breathing, physical movement and meditation), the aim being to help human beings become aware of their deepest self, creating a sense of inner peace, harmony, and clarity of mind. It is a science of self-study, not a religion and could almost be described as a survival kit. Although it has been practiced in both the East and the West throughout history, it is easier to trace its roots to the East where it is and always has been an ongoing tradition. Whilst the origins are probably much older, yoga appears to have been developed in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE in India and written down in The Yoga Sutra sometime between 400 BCE and 200 CE by the scholar and teacher, Patanjali.
It was around the 9th century CE that the more physical side of yoga – Hatha yoga – was developed and this more physical style is what most people think of as yoga. You can read more about the popular styles of modern yoga in future posts.
Modern science is moving closer and closer to the original yogic thoughts: that our human potential is infinite and transcends our individual minds and our sense of self. We tend to see limitations which make us vulnerable to feelings of sorrow, fear, change, insecurity and separation from mind/body/spirit and the universe. Despite our phenomenal progress with technology, production and industry, the world is a lonely, meaningless and violent place for many and our constant pursuit for power, pleasure and wealth doesn’t always bring the personal happiness it promises.
So yoga, then, in its most traditional form, is a way to help people become aware of their ultimate nature, allowing them to find inner peace, tranquility and wisdom and transcend our limitations. Its goal is to achieve moksha (liberation) from worldly suffering, helping us master/control the patterns of the mind and lead gradually to a knowledge of the true reality of nature. Patanjali’s “8 Limbs of Yoga” is a blueprint if you like of a method by which we can do this, each limb preparing the student for the next, culminating in meditation. Over the years lots of styles of asana practice have been introduced, but in the end, the type you prefer is down to individual choice. But let’s not neglect the true, original essence of yoga.