What is meant by “Yoga”?

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This may seem an overly simplistic post, and, no, my intention is not to offend intelligence. In all seriousness, there is a gross misunderstanding as to what “Yoga” really is. Globally there has been a huge eruption of “yoga”. Thousands of studios have opened in the name of yoga. Most gyms now offer a “yoga class” of some variety. Committed practitioners might even travel abroad for “yoga” retreats. Economically “yoga” punches above its weight. Classes are priced very highly, as is the ‘essential equipment’: entire clothing companies have been created to provide high-end yoga attire at eye-wateringly high prices. One can now find hundreds of different styles and even brands of yoga. The options are really quite overwhelming – it was hard enough choosing from ‘traditional’ styles: Ashtanga yoga, Iyengar yoga, Hatha yoga, Anusara yoga, Yin yoga, Vinyasa yoga, Kundalini yoga, etc. – but now there is a new influx of ‘modern’ yoga styles such as: hot yoga, Bikram yoga, warm yoga, Voga, dance yoga, martial arts yoga, dog yoga…. to name but a few. Celebrity yoga teachers travel the world teaching “yoga” to hundreds and thousands of people. Or people have the option to practice online, following videos uploaded by expert yoga vloggers. Instagram is filled with hundreds of thousands of people claiming to be yogis or ‘yoginis’. But when confronted with the question “what actually is yoga?” the answers are quite astonishing.

Yoga is not a form of physical exercise. Lets be very clear on that point. Yes, it is true that there are physical elements to a yoga practice, but this is certainly not the core of the term. The word ‘yoga’ stems from the Sanskrit root ‘yug’, which means union, or ‘to yoke’. Often this leads to the interpretation that yoga is a practice of connection between the mind and body. While this is indeed true, this is not the ultimate goal of yoga. The union referred to is in fact the connection between the Self and the Divine – the body, in fact, is not even necessary for this union at all. Some of the greatest yogi’s I have had the honor to meet, have never done a downward dog in their lives (and don’t have social media accounts to track the progression of their Divine Union). In fact when one is truly advanced in the practice of yoga, one should forgo all bodily connection and remain in a state of Samadhi, or total spiritual connection. Some great sadhu’s (holy men) are said to go months without the need to eat or sleep. Others will preform great physical austerities, such as holding one arm in the air for several years, in order to prove that they are not of the body. *I am not suggesting we all strive for this extreme practice however, so please don’t try these at home!*

So what really is yoga and where does the physical practice we have in the West stem from? This is a huge question and I will go into closer detail on many elements in later posts, but for now I will try to provide an outline of Yoga Philosophy. Yoga stems from the Veda’s – ancient scriptures – and is explained in great detail by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. The sage Patañjali wrote the Yoga Sutra’s in 400CE, a foundational text outlining the practice of Yoga. There are countless other texts written on Hatha Yoga and yogic philosophy, spanning a huge historical period.

Yoga is just one of the six main orthodox schools of Hinduism (the Sad Darshan) – the others being: Vedanta, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, and Mimamsa. Yoga also carried through to some unorthodox philosophical systems such as Buddhism. Yoga provides techniques in order to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). The goal of the yoga practice is to lift the veil of maya (illusion) under which we live, in order to achieve union with the Divine, our true higher self. Patañjali lays out eight very clear steps towards reaching this union:

  1. Yamas (restraints):
    1. Ahimsā (non-violence)
    2. Satya (truthfulness)
    3. Asteya (non-stealing)
    4. Brahmacharya (abstinence)
    5. Aparigraha (non-avarice)
  2. Niyamas (observances):
    1. Sauca (cleanliness)
    2. Santosa (contentment)
    3. Tapas (austerity)
    4. Svādhyāya (self-study)
    5. Īśvarapranidhāna (devotion to God)
  3. Āsana (physical posture) (*what we recognize as “yoga” in the West)
  4. Prānāyāma (breath regulation)
  5. Pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses)
  6. Dhāranā (concentration)
  7. Dhyāna (meditation)
  8. Samādhi (union)

In later posts I will go into more detail about each of these steps, however, my purpose for now is simply to lay out all the components of yoga, to firmly establish in the mind the notion that yoga is much more than we often think. In order to be a real ‘yogi’, one must practice more than simply āsana. The goal of true yoga is much more than good legs and tight abs. In fact, these superficial byproducts of the practice should completely un-phase the true yogi, who will renounce any attachment to the material body.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna explains to Arjuna that it is possible to reach samādhi by withdrawing all senses, all desires, and living a life of total austerity and devotion. However, Krishna goes on to stress that the yogic path is a much simpler process through which to attain this goal.

But renunciation, O Mighty-armed [Arjuna], is difficult to attain without yoga; the sage who is trained in yoga [the way of works] attains soon the Absolute. (V:IV)

Krishna teaches that if yoga is practiced with dedication, then an enlightened state is guaranteed. Sri Jnāneshvar states, ‘he who climbs up the mountain of liberation by the pathway of yoga, swiftly reaches the summit of the highest bliss’ (Jnāneshvari, 5:32). It is for this reason that sadhus and devotees all over the world devote their entire lives to this practice. Hindu monks and nuns take sannyasa (vows of renunciation) and live as brahmachari’s (celibates) in ashrams or other holy places, offering their life in service to God and the path of bhakti yoga (the yoga of devotion). Even in the modern world there exist many ascetics – renunciates living with no home, no belongings, renouncing all worldliness in order to concentrate on a pure, yogic path.

So, what is my point? Am I suggesting we all give up our lives and families and devote everything to the pursuit of Divine union? It is not reasonable, nor realistic to expect this of the majority of people. Nor am I judging those who chose to share their yoga practices online or via social media – I am a child of the media age myself. I have Instagram, I have Facebook, and i’m hardly cave-dwelling at the moment. Should you now boycott your favorite music blaring hot vinyasa class? Not if it brings you joy. What we can do, however, is move and practice with an awareness of the true philosophical meaning of yoga. The path to enlightenment as paved by the sages and rishis and gurus. We may not all become sadhus, but we can offer our utmost respect and reverence to their practice. Let us not claim to be ‘yogis’ when our personal sadhana (practice) is lacking many of the integral elements. We have the ability to easily access information about this sacred practice. We owe it to the tradition, and those who devote themselves to it, to gain a deep understanding of something we claim to practice. Perhaps you will find that being a yogi isn’t for you after all. But what I hope you discover is a rich and profound philosophy to connect, heal, grow and liberate in a way that you never knew possible.

I am not a sadhu. I wear shoes. I like going to the cinema. I have an iPhone. But I take my yoga practice seriously. I study scripture. I incorporate yoga into all elements of my life, on and off the mat. I strive to perform all of my actions in service to the Absolute. I may not be a total renunciate, but I practice austerities to aid the progress of my spiritual path, such as dietary restrictions, early rising, and a strong sadhana. My hope is that the true spirit of yoga can be protected from corruption through education and the efforts of inspired practitioners and teachers. Through this blog I hope to aid people in incorporating yoga, āyurveda, and the wisdom of the Vedas into their daily lives in a manner that respects their spiritual roots.

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