What is yoga? I have been mulling over this one for over 40 years. The older I get, the deeper the question becomes. The British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) (bwy.org.uk) website used to (it has since been removed) summarise this answer:
The Sanskrit word yoga is translated as ‘union’. The practice of yoga helps to co-ordinate the breath, mind and body to encourage balance, both internally and externally and promote feelings of relaxation and ease. Yoga classes offer students postures and movements to stretch, strengthen and flex the body, to develop breath awareness, to relax and sometimes to meditate. Some classes may be low impact while others can be very demanding.
This is similar to the version I put on my website 15 years ago, and similar to many websites I have seen. You could simply leave it there, stay with that answer – you have provided an answer. But is that what yoga is? I think it is a complex question with many layers. The answer, too, has many layers. Since starting this essay, this question seems to have rather polarised the yoga community, and the British Wheel of Yoga website does not offer an answer. Opinions on what this thing called yoga is have always varied. Today that variance appears wider than ever, with opinions held with deep conviction.
Research conducted by the Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance in America in 2016 (www.yogajournal.com/page/yogainamericastudy) has shown yoga is now a 16 billion dollar industry. A 16 billion dollar industry with clothing, classes and holidays, and YouTube channels of zingy-legginged, photogenic girls and bare-chested men doing amazing things that trained dancers and gymnasts would be proud of, and products and mats and toe-sox, and straps and blocks, and in-depth analyses of anatomy and physiology with specific muscles and functions. A 16 billion dollar sports cult, an industry, with 36 million ‘practitioners’. Look around at the media and adverts around you, in local village and church halls up and down the land, in gyms and town-centre studios that have signs saying ‘yoga‘. Compounded by the British Wheel of Yoga being affiliated to Sport England. Stated on the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) website (bwy.org.uk as at 02/08/2017), ‘BWY is recognised by Sport England and The Sport and Recreation Alliance (formerly the CCPR -) as the Sport England Governing Body for yoga.‘ It certainly looks like a sports industry, if not a sports cult – and I think, from what you see around you, you’d be hard pressed to argue that it is not. But is this what yoga is?
I have often heard the question, ‘Is yoga a religion?’ I have heard answers both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Some say ‘yes’ and depict it as an off-shoot of Hinduism, if not Hinduism directly. Other say ‘no’, it is an exercise modality. But, look around you at what is happening up and down the land. Some classes are pure asana, pure exercise. Yet, in others, there is chanting, and right clothing, gestures, rituals, symbols, candles and honoured words, incense, hierarchies and smiling welcomes, and leaving with warm, fuzzy feelings. Is this so different from what some ‘religions’ offer? For many in our atheistic, agnostic, materialist society, this is probably as close as they get to ‘religion’.
But yoga is much broader and deeper than this. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali we see [1:2] ‘yoga chitta vritti nirodaha‘, translated in many different ways. In essence, the translation is that yoga is the absence of thought-waves (vritti) in the consciousness (chitta), or when your thinking activity is stilled. How does that concept square with your lycra-stretched rump sweating into your yoga mat? It both does and doesn’t, depending on what criteria you use to evaluate it.
Asana, as it is used today, refers to the postures or exercise component of yoga, differentiating it from practices like pranayama (breathing practices), and meditation. Patanjali defines asana as in his sutras in 2:46.
Swami Prabhavananda translates it as: ‘Posture (asana) is to be seated in a position which is firm but relaxed.’
Alistair Shearer translates it as: ‘Physical postures should be steady and comfortable.‘
TKV Desikachar translates it as: ‘Asana must have the dual qualities of alertness and relaxation.‘
The two words used here are steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukham).
Consider which asanas appear in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika of Yoga Swami Svatmarama from around the 15th century. None of the warrior-type sequences, nor the salute-to-the-sun sequences so prevalent today are mentioned. Much of this later material derives from the work of Krishnamacharya and his students. Krishnamacharya was employed by the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodiyar IV in Mysore and was tasked with popularising the practice of yoga. He opened his yogasala in 1933 in the Jaganmohan Palace (Singleton, p 176). What an extraordinary job he made of that, with students including Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi and TKV Desikachar.
The ashtanga or ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’ of Patanjali [2:29] are: the various forms of abstention from evil-doing (yama), the various observances (niyama), posture (asana), control of the prana (pranayama), withdrawal of the mind from the sense objects (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption in the Atman (samadhi). By this approach, the practice of yoga starts with ethics and behaviour, then physical exercise practices, breathing practices, and then internal practices. By following these eight steps, and by practice (abhyasa) and by non-attachment (vairagya) we can dispel ignorance (avidya) and remove the blockages (kleshas). This all works towards that yoga chitta vritti nirodaha, that ‘absence of thinking’, that state of yoga. The end result of this is ‘liberation’ (kaivalya). All of this is part of the richness of yoga.
To some, asana is the only part of yoga that really matters. To others, the asana or physical component of yoga is necessary to give you a healthy body so that you can hold a still, steady and comfortable posture for meditation. The instruction ‘sit still and do not move for an hour’ is not so easy to achieve. Some practitioners do this for many hours. Some are drawn to it, revel in it. Others would ask, ‘Why on earth would you want to do that?’
The Upanishadic view is different again. Eknath Easwaran so elegantly sums up the teachings of the Upanishads. In essence [Easwaran, p 22], the Upanishads show us that there is a Reality underlying life, not reachable by ritual, nor by our every-day senses, and that compared to this Reality the every-day world we live in is just a shadow. They show us that this Reality is the essence of every one of us and every created thing, and that same Reality is our Real Self. Each of us is one with that power, that underlying Reality, that created and sustains the universe. They show us that this Oneness can be realised directly, without the input of priests or rituals or any other structure of modern day religion, not after death but in this life, and that this is the purpose for which each of us has been born. They encourage us to embrace this purpose and to experience our innate potential. One feature of that underlying Reality is that it is unchanging (hence Real). Everything we see around us and experience through our senses is subject to change (not-Real).
In this approach, the purpose of a human birth is to realise your own Real Self, to look inside your own head-space and start to control the hopping-about activity of your thinking. As you do this you realise that your thinking is distinct from the awareness of your thinking. So, you start to observe your own thinking, noting how trains of thought develop and trip over themselves, ever-tumbling, never stopping. You notice how you can follow those trains of thought, and be caught up in them. Or you can choose not to follow them and remain undistracted. This is what the practice of meditation is all about. This also is yoga.
This thread of yoga practice from the Upanishads is very comparable to some of the practices in Buddhism. It is also very comparable to other branches of mysticism. For example, read the writings of Kabir (born in 1398 in Banaras, India). Read any of the Sufi mystics like Rumi (also known as Maulana Rum) or Shams Tabriz.
So, what is yoga? I think you can neither really answer that question nor interpret any answer without taking into account your world view and your belief systems – which will all impact your opinions, decisions and actions, and the criteria you use to judge good from bad, right from wrong. This gets us into philosophy, which, in my opinion, is another facet of yoga.
Having said that, I have been to yoga philosophy training days aimed at yoga teachers, in which we talked and discussed different texts – mulling over differences between Patanjali’s Ashtanga and the Buddhist Eightfold Path. Later I heard rumblings of discontent, ‘That was rubbish. There was no yoga, I did not even unroll my mat.’
Consider a person standing in a world view believing in karma and reincarnation, that the essence of awareness is distinct from the body and exists beyond death, that the aim of a human birth lies in liberation from rebirth, and that is achieved by right action and meditation.
Consider another person standing in a different world view of agnostic, modern science, believing that we are the body, our awareness is electrochemical activity in the brain: ‘I will only believe in what I can see’, ‘there is no such things as soul‘, ‘we only live once and after our dead body is returned to dust we are nothing – or if anything, merely a memory in those who loved us.’
Consider yet another person standing in yet another world view of believing in a Creator Being, in a belief system involving devotion to this Being, and in particular relationships with that Being, in life and after death, and activities in life that will determine the experience of and after death, of heaven and hell.
What is yoga? Stand in one of these world views and ask that of a person standing in another of these world views – and their answer will probably not make much sense to you. It will probably not resonate at all with you. Ask that same question of someone standing in the same world view as you and their answer will probably resonate with you well. Is one of these world views right, and the other wrong? Certainly, each of these people, standing in their respective world views, judging by their values, expressing their opinions would probably judge the others wrong. And I suspect each would be so certain of their own correctness. Yet, which is right – and by what set of values do you make that judgement? (To which many would respond, ‘My values, obviously.’) I think we can only ever do the best that we can with what we have, and to act with as much sincerity as we can muster.
There is decision, there is action, there is consequence. I think the question ‘what is yoga?’ is inseparable from the question: ‘What are you aiming at?’ What are your goals? What is your purpose? What direction are you facing?
I think the journey of really understanding what ‘yoga’ means is much broader than it first looks. It involves knowing what the principles of yoga are in the first place, and that has its own issues to pick through. In addition, it encompasses an understanding of your world view, and the reasons behind why you might hold to it. It involves which scales of judgement you use to judge these things. It involves your opinion as to what you are meant to be doing in this day-to-day, nitty-gritty of life on earth. It involves your opinion of who and what you think you are.
I think yoga is a toolbox of practices. Some of these have roots thousands of years old, some are more modern. Many different people have taken these exercises and practices and developed them in many different directions. Today there are many, many different styles of yoga, and many different things carrying the name ‘yoga’, and many opinions of what constitutes yoga. In my opinion, the essence of yoga – it is a set of practices and exercises the practising of which will make you a better, healthier, happier and more content person; and hopefully more noble in your living. Hopefully, enabling you to discover what you are capable of and to experience your full potential.
If you want a body that is as strong and healthy as it can be – there is a set of practices in yoga for that. If you want to live as healthily and well as you can, and be as decent as you can – there is a set of practices in yoga for that. If you are drawn to the inner practices and want to work towards reining in the mind and realising the Real Self within, or to work towards kaivalya or Enlightenment – there is a set of practices in yoga for that. If you want a tight bum – there is a set of practices in yoga for that. If you want to be able to demonstrate how good you are at ‘advanced yoga’ postures and sequences that few others can do – there is a set of practices in yoga for that. I think your answer to ‘what is yoga?’ very much depends on your aim in approaching it.
This has echoes of Krishnamacharya’s opinion on yoga (Singleton, p 188) – ‘The age and the constitution of the students, their vocation, capability and the path to which they feel drawn all dictate the shape of the yoga practice.‘ What is your inclination? What is your aspiration and how far do you want to go towards it?
In summary, I started off with the question, ‘what is yoga?’ It is not so easy to answer fully. It is many things. An answer to that could be (paraphrasing from Krishnamacharya’s words):
Yoga is a set of tools useful for human development. A set of tools from which you can select the most appropriate for your age, constitution, vocation, capability and the path to which you feel drawn; the steady and appropriate application of which leads to becoming a better human being in every respect.
The work that I am doing is not tied to any one philosophy, world view or opinion. Rather a set of practices that anyone and everyone can benefit from. To be able to be healthy and strong, to be able to move freely and confidently in body, breath and belief, and to push back at the restrictions and boundaries of movement, breath and thought; to understand the concepts and principles that underpin these practices and to progressively increase clarity, stability and capability in all of one’s life expression. In all, to be a happier, healthier more content being and to be an influence for this in others.
What is your aim of practising yoga? If you are a yoga teacher, what is your aim of teaching it?
References and Bibliography
Alistair Shearer, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Rider, 1982
Coleman Barks, Rumi, The Big Red Book, Harper Collins e-books
Dayna Macy, Yoga Journal, (2016) www.yogajournal.com/page/yogainamericastudy (downloaded: 02/08/2017)
Eknath Easwaran, The Damapada, Nilgiri Press, Blue Ridge Mountain Centre of Meditation, Canada, 2007
Eknath Easwaran, The Upanishads Nilgiri Press, Blue Ridge Mountain Centre of Meditation, Canada, 2008).
Elizabeth De Michelis , A History of Modern Yoga: Patanjali and Western Esotericism, Continuum, 2004.
George Feurstein, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Inner Traditions International, Vermont, 1989
Mark Singleton, Yoga Body – The origins of modern posture practice, Oxford University Press, 2010.
Mircea Eliade, Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, Arkana, 1989
Peter Connolly, A Student’s Guide to the History and Philosophy of Yoga, Equinox, 2007
Swami Muktibodhananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bihar School of Yoga, India, 1993
Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, How to Know God – the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, Vedanta Press, California, 1981.
Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integated Yoga Publications, Virginia, 2010
TKV Desikachar, ‘The Heart of Yoga, Developing a Personal Practice‘, Inner Traditions International, Vermont, 1995
V K Sethi, ‘Kabir, The Weaver of God’s Name‘, Radha Soami Satsang Beas, Punjab, India, 1984