What Is Yoga?

The word Yoga directly translates to “yolk”.  It is believed to have other similar translations such as union, join, bind or concentrate with the most commonly referenced translation being “union”. 

Although this translation seems simple enough, when you conduct a google search of “What is Yoga” or ask anyone who practices, the answer will typically be long winded and vary widely, in other words there is no single word, sentence or phrase that can uniformly or acutely describe it.  There are many different interpretations that exist and they vary globally depending on the current publication or historical reference.

Allow me to share a few definitions, descriptions or interpretations I have uncovered in an effort to paint a picture of exactly how diverse this Yoga thing really is. 

  1. Yoga is the understanding and complete mastery over the mind (i.e. the science of the mind) and is specifically defined as the union of the individual with the absolute, any course that makes for such union, and unruffled state of mind under all conditions. This is the description of Yoga from the Yoga Suntras of the Patanjali, which are the oldest known account of Yoga’s principals (translation and commentary is by Sri Swami Satchidananda).
  2. Yoga is a system, not of beliefs, but of techniques and guidance for enriched living.  This description of Yoga comes from Yoga Alliance, the largest nonprofit association representing the Yoga Community.
  3. Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices or disciplines which originated in ancient India and is one of the six Āstika (orthodox) schools of Hindu philosophical traditions.  This definition of Yoga was taken from Wikipedia (reference Feuerstein, Georg, 23 October 2012. The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice. Hohm Press.)
  4. 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. This is the definition from the Oxford dictionary.
  5. Even the NIH (National Institute of Health) defines Yoga.  They state Yoga is an ancient and complex practice, rooted in Indian philosophy which began as a spiritual practice but has become popular as a way of promoting physical and mental well-being. 

Although the descriptions vary in how they explain the many facets of Yoga they all do have similarities.  After studying the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, practicing many of the principals of Yoga and engaging in self-study I was asked to define Yoga for myself.  Here was my answer.  

Yoga is a way of life.  It is a practice and discipline that provides tools to help you live in your truest form and discover who you are.  Yoga leads you down a path of self-learning and supports your ability to slow down mentally, feel contentment in all situations and work towards removing yourself from your physical form and egotistical mind. 

Photo by Ashley Batz on Unsplash

To sum it up Yoga is not one single application such as physical postures or meditation nor does it’s definition need to be finite, rather it can be unique or true to the individual.  All or any of these disciplines, tools, practices or methods can be employed to support “union” within yourself (more commonly known as happiness or enlightenment).  It is this ambiguity that I love as it allows flexibility and applicability to anyone at any stage in life.  I also believe it is this ambiguity along with the mental and physical benefit that makes Yoga enticing and widespread.   

I hope these varying interpretations make Yoga less intimidating as at the core it is simply a way for us to connect with ourselves despite the customizable interpretations, it is not just about a physical practice you have to be good at.

What does Yoga mean to you?


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