As a topic that I am passionate about, I am so glad you asked. Before I tell you the “formal” definition of yoga, and what I believe to be true about yoga, I’d like to share some comments that I have heard from people new to yoga:
- I’m much calmer when I do yoga.
- Yoga is really hard.
- Yoga is so relaxing.
- Since starting yoga, my clothes fit better.
- I sleep much better since starting yoga.
- Yoga makes me happy.
- Yoga makes me taller!
- I need more yoga!
- I move and feel so much better when I do yoga.
- Yoga reminds me how to breathe.
- I wish I had found yoga years ago. Yoga makes me happy.
- Yoga is so chill!
The formal translation of the word Yoga, a Sanskrit term, is to unite or yoke. This union, or yoking, can mean different things to different people. It may mean yoking your movement to your breath, unifying to return to your true essence, finding union with the divine. According to the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, one of the ancient texts of yoga, yoga is the stilling of the changing states of mind.
Yoga originated in India, and can be dated back to at least 3000 B.C. Yoga first became widely recognized in the US when Swami Vivekananda presented at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893. Today, when most Americans think of Yoga they think of Hatha Yoga. However, there many different forms or systems of yoga including:
- Hatha Yoga – a system of physical postures, or asanas, whose higher purpose is to purify the body, giving one awareness and control over its internal states and rendering it fit for meditation.
- Karma Yoga – selfless service to others as part of one’s larger Self, without attachment to the results.
- Mantra Yoga – centering the consciousness within, through the repetition of certain universal root-word sounds representing a particular aspect of Spirit.
- Bhakti Yoga – all-surrendering devotion through which one strives to see and love the divinity in every creature and in everything.
- Jnana (Gyana) Yoga – the path of wisdom, which emphasizes the application of discriminative intelligence to achieve spiritual liberation.
- Raja Yoga – is concerned principally with furthering one’s acquaintance with reality, achieving awakening, and eventually enlightenment using a succession of steps including meditation and contemplation. The principal text of Raja yoga is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
While most of us recognize Yoga as a physical practice of Yoga postures, or asanas, this is just one aspect of yoga. Historically, the end goal of Yoga is to reach a state of universal consciousness. Pantanjali outlined a series of steps to attain this state of enlightenment. These steps are known as Patanjali’s Eightfold Path of Yoga. and is the practice of:
- Yama (restraints): noninjury to others, truthfulness, nonstealing, continence, and noncovetousness
- Niyama (observances): purity of body and mind, contentment in all circumstances, self-discipline, self-study (contemplation), and devotion to God and guru
- Asana: right posture
- Pranayama: control of prana, the subtle life currents in the body
- Pratyahara: interiorization through withdrawal of the senses from external objects
- Dharana: focused concentration; holding the mind to one thought or object
- Dhyana: meditation, absorption in the vast perception of God in one of His infinite aspects — Bliss, Peace, Cosmic Light, Cosmic Sound, Love, Wisdom, etc. — all-pervading throughout the whole universe
- Samadhi: superconscious experience of the oneness of the individualized soul with Cosmic Spirit.
Ok, so I’ve told you what other people say about yoga, what the scholars and texts say about yoga, and now it is time to share with you what I believe to be true regarding yoga.
I believe that yoga is a tool that can be used to bring greater balance in areas of your life that may be experiencing some level of imbalance, and help you deepen and enrich your life experience. If you hope to improve your physical health, then yoga can help you do that. If you are seeking greater emotional balance or stability, yoga is an excellent tool. If you are seeking greater energetic balance or improved breathing then look no further. Yoga is also a powerful tool to help focus or quiet the mind. And, finally, if you seek to deepen your spiritual experience, yoga can help you become more fully open to whatever it is that you hold true. However, please be forewarned that as you begin practicing yoga for one reason, you may find yourself opening up to and seeking growth in other unexpected areas. My personal experience has been one of coming to yoga as a physical outlet while I was laid up with an injury and then finding that, with regular practice, I began to experience a greater sense of peacefulness. I also became less scatter brained and open to other people’s life experiences and how they express themselves. I now feel the healthiest and strongest I have ever felt in my life!
In a nutshell, I like to compare yoga to compost. Whatever the imbalances in your soil, correctly used, compost can balance and improve your soil, making it healthier and more fertile. Yoga can help bring greater depth and balance to your life experience.
“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.” ~ The Bhagavad Gita
Katey Hawes, owner and founder of Posabilities, Inc.., is a physical therapist, registered yoga teacher, and yoga therapist.