What is Yoga?

What is Yoga?

Published on July 18, 2022

Yoga has become a global phenomenon over the last several decades. What started out thousands of years ago in the East as a meditative practice has now evolved into a modern lifestyle craze that generates billions of dollars. This can be attributed to its adaptability—people from all walks of life can practice and receive the benefits of yoga. Many celebrities swear by this physical and spiritual practice, and even those who don’t practice yoga seem to know someone who does. Practitioners often describe their experiences using terms like peace, calm, balance, strength, flexibility, and relaxation. But what exactly is yoga? And how far has this practice strayed from its ancient roots?

What is yoga?

Yoga is a Sanskrit word translated as “yoke” or “union.” To yoke means to draw together, to bind together; or to unite. Its aim is to yoke or create a union of the body, mind, soul, and universal consciousness. This process of uniting the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of ourselves is what allows yogis to experience deep states of freedom, peace and self-realization.

Yoga is an ancient system of physical, mental and spiritual practices that have been passed down through the generations from teacher to student. Yogic practices include breathing techniques, postures, relaxation, chanting, and other meditation methods. There are many different styles of yoga, each with their own unique focus and approach to creating a unitive state.

Its origins are traced back thousands of years to the Upanishads, a collection of yogic texts dating from roughly 800 BC to 400 AD. While the word “yoga” was first mentioned in the Rigveda, but the first time it was used with its modern meaning is in the Katha Upanishad. This ancient spiritual text was written sometime between the 5th and 3rd century BCE.

The Yoga Sutras is one of the most famous text on the fundamentals of yoga and was written by Patanjali around 200 BCE. In this foundational text, he defines yoga in sutra 1.2 as: yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah. This translates as “Yoga is the cessation of the whirling fluctuations of the mind.”

This cessation of thoughts is the result of a dedicated and consistent practice of yoga. By calming our mental chatter, this contemplative practice connects to the source of our being where we can experience the unity of our own self, as well as the unity of everything else around us.

Goals of Yoga

Yoga is a meditative process of self-discovery and liberation. It is a diverse collection of practices that aims to control the mind, recognize a detached witness consciousness, and free oneself from the cycle of birth and death. It teaches us to see ourselves clearly, to understand what is true about who we are, and to let go of anything that does not serve us. It helps us to become aware of our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and to change them when they no longer serve us. It gives us the tools to make better choices in life, and to live more fully.

Yoga is a practice that allows us to transform and purify our bodies, minds, and souls. It expands our consciousness to help us connect with nature and the universe around us. It also gives us greater access to inner resources to teach us about self-awareness, acceptance, compassion, patience, gratitude, forgiveness, humility, love, peace, and joy.

8 limbs of yoga

Patanjali laid out the fundamentals of yoga philosophy and practice in his classic text, the Yoga Sutras. He describes eight limbs or steps to reach the goal of the practice. Each limb is a spiritual, mental, or physical practice that builds upon one another. The limbs of the eightfold path are:

  1. Yama – The moral codes of conduct
  2. Niyama – The physical observances and internal practices
  3. Asana – The proper posture
  4. Pranayama – The proper breathing exercises
  5. Pratyahara – The withdrawal of senses from external distractions
  6. Dharana – The mental concentration and focusing the mind
  7. Dhyana – The meditation and focus on a single point
  8. Samadhi – The cessation of all mental activity to attain a state of oneness

The practices of yoga

There are six main branches of traditional yoga. In each of these, the goal of unity is achieved through different yoga practices. Each of these different aspects of yoga will resonate differently with practitioners based on their disposition, skill, and ability.

These are:

  1. Raja (the royal path) – focuses on meditation practices
  2. Karma (the path of action) – focuses on action and service in daily life
  3. Jnana (the path of knowledge) – focuses on discriminative wisdom and self inquiry
  4. Bhakti (the path of devotion) – focuses on devotion to God
  5. Tantra (the path of ecstasy) – focuses on ritual and initiation
  6. Hatha (the forceful path) – focuses on energy and movement of the body

Modern yoga in the West

In the West, the word “yoga” has come to mean a particular style called hatha yoga. This branch emphasizes postures (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), stress relief, relaxation, physical fitness and wellness. The focus is primarily on the physical body which differs from traditional yoga, where the focus is more inward and spiritual. There are many schools of hatha, each with its own unique style and philosophy.

A philosophy of life

Yoga isn’t just meditative exercise, it is a complete philosophy of life. It is a detailed methodology to connect with our highest truth, live with intention, and to make choices that serve our highest good. Through yoga, we come back to our true nature again and again, as we peel back layers of conditioning and habit. Each time we stand on our yoga mat or sit on a meditation cushion, we have the opportunity to discover who we truly are, and we begin to understand the true nature of the universe.

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14 responses to “What is Yoga?”

  1. Jeanne Avatar

    The west, especially the US , has turned yoga into just another exercise. There is no true yoga left in the way we practice it. A teacher takes 200 hours of training and goes out in the world and students think their being taught by a yogi. No. It takes many more hours than that. Yoga today is what type of cool clothes you wear, $200 plus yoga mat etc. we need to get back to The beginning.

    1. Natalia Cruz Avatar
      Natalia Cruz

      I’m really inspired to dive deeper into yoga now. This article has sparked my curiosity to explore the different branches, try out new styles, and discover more about myself in the process. Namaste!

  2. Sarah Lippert Avatar
    Sarah Lippert

    I have always wanted to learn more about yoga but never had time or money to do so. This article has helped me understand what yoga is. There are different types of yoga and it seems like there are so many things one could learn. Thank you for writing this article.

  3. Jeanji Avatar

    Asanas only started in the 18th century, Yoga is not about postures, it is mostly about the philosophy and that goes back thousands of years..

  4. Kavita Srivastava Avatar
    Kavita Srivastava

    Thank you so much for sharing this information. I am very interested in learning more about yoga.

  5. Sarah Kneen Avatar
    Sarah Kneen

    As someone who has practiced yoga for over 20 years, I would say that yoga is not just physical exercise but rather a practice which focuses on the body, breath, and mind. In fact, yoga is often described as “the union of body, breath, and spirit.” So, what does that mean? Well, when practicing yoga, one must focus on their posture, breathing, and mental state. For example, during certain postures, one should breathe deeply through the nose while focusing on relaxing each part of the body. During other postures, one might focus on stretching or strengthening different parts of the body. Finally, some postures are designed to help calm the mind and relax the body. When practicing yoga, there are no right or wrong answers; it is simply a matter of finding out what works best for you.

  6. Sienna Anderson Avatar
    Sienna Anderson

    I’m so curious about the different types of yoga mentioned in this article. I wonder which one would be the best fit for me?

  7. Oliver Baker Avatar
    Oliver Baker

    I always thought yoga was just about stretching and relaxation, but after reading this article, I am excited to discover the spiritual and mental benefits of yoga as well.

  8. Ava Wilson Avatar
    Ava Wilson

    The history and philosophy of yoga is fascinating. It’s amazing how something that started so long ago is still relevant today.

  9. Isabella Avatar

    I’ve been practicing yoga for years, but I still learned something new from this article! It’s refreshing to see such a comprehensive and accessible explanation of what yoga truly is.

  10. Emma Parker Avatar
    Emma Parker

    I love how this article provides a comprehensive definition of what yoga is and what it encompasses.

  11. Ella Jenkins Avatar
    Ella Jenkins

    I’ve always thought of yoga as just a physical exercise, but it’s fascinating to learn about how it encompasses so much more than just the asanas.

  12. Jose Avatar

    I have read countless articles on Yoga but have yet to read one that gives a good explanation of how to start and proceed in practice – the how, when and where of doing the practices. Where can one find these?

    1. Timothy Burgin Avatar
      Timothy Burgin

      Check out our yoga for beginners page: https://www.yogabasics.com/practice/yoga-for-beginners/

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Timothy Burgin Avatar
About the author
Timothy Burgin is a Kripalu & Pranakriya trained yoga instructor living and teaching in Asheville, NC. Timothy has studied and taught many styles of yoga and has completed a 500-hour Advanced Pranakriya Yoga training. Timothy has been serving as the Executive Director of YogaBasics.com since 2000. He has authored two yoga books and has written over 500 articles on the practice and philosophy of yoga. Timothy is also the creator of Japa Mala Beads and has been designing and importing mala beads since 2004.
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