What is Yoga?

What is “Yoga”?

The word “yoga” comes to us from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. It means “yoke” or “union”, and our practice of yoga unites the body, mind and spirit. In contemporary terms, yoga includes a reinforcement of personal ethics, physical practice (asana), breath work (pranayama), and meditation to create a deeper connection with one self.

In our society today, Yoga is very visible and a very large industry.  There are close to 16 MILLION Americans that practice yoga every month.  Today there are many different types of yoga that one may choose from, and it can feel overwhelming when looking at a veritable smorgasbord of yoga choices.  Many people today practice what is referred to as “Vinyasa” yoga, or a physical practice of connection of breath and movement, but where does it all begin?  What is the root of the yoga we practice today?

Much of what we see as far as yoga being offered around us focusses on the physical postures, or asana, the Sanskrit term for posture.  This type of physical or posture-based yoga, comes from Hatha Yoga, which is rooted in the teachings of the sage Patanjali (c. 200 BC). He outlines a philosophy of yoga called the Yoga Darshana , which is where the larger system of yoga is explained.  There may be many types of yoga to practice these days, but his explanations offer an overall explanation of the philosophies of yoga.  In particular, Patanjali’s system of yoga is called Raja Yoga, or “royal yoga” and is defined as a high level of teaching of this yoga system.  Hatha Yoga focusses greatly on the physical postures, and breath, but this is only the beginning of this larger system of yoga.

Patanjali outlines the eight limbs of yoga which are a guide for our lives, both our external being and the internal work.  The eight limbs of Yoga are:

  1. Yamas – restraints, or behaviors
  2. Niyamas – observances or personal development
  3. Asana – physical postures
  4. Pranayama – control of Prana, or breath work
  5. Pratyahara – control of the senses
  6. Dharna – Concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – Realization

Each of these limbs has a much deeper explanation and importance to the practice of the whole picture of Yoga.  As yogis, we can begin to explore these eight limbs of yoga through our asana practice because these physical postures allow us to explore the greater connection between each of these limbs.  We work the physical postures to discover how to control our prana, or work on the breath to support us in these poses.  We practice self-discipline and self-study through the physical postures, allowing us to explore the yamas and niyamas.  As we hold postures, we become still, allowing for reflection and meditation, and a focus of energy.  We control our senses in these poses, often letting the outside world slip away to focus on the uniting of mind, body, and spirit.

When you come to your mat to practice, you are probably practicing a form of yoga that finds its lineage from the teaching of Patanjali.  In this regard, it makes the connection of doing yoga strongly rooted in tradition and in a philosophy that has had thousands of years to develop.  This feels exciting – not only are we a part of something that supports us body, mind, and spirit, but in a larger sense we are a part of something vast and universal.  It is this practice of yoga that can connect us to each other, creating community, and allowing us to practice on our mat what we want to practice and bring to the world around us.