What is yoga?
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
We all know what yoga is right? Bendy people twisting themselves into pretzel shapes, or sweating it out in a hot yoga class. Or maybe it's sitting crossed legged, finger and thumb pinched together in a classic "meditation pose" ?
But what is yoga really?
Pantanjali said “Yogash Citta Vritti Nirodah”, which roughly translates from Sanskrit to English as: Yoga is the taming of the movements of the mind. Yoga is an ancient philosophy developed in South Asia, which draws on many different religions, beliefs and wisdom traditions. It’s theoretical foundation is based on Samkhya, one of the six schools of Hindu philosophy, which also give the theoretical foundation for Yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda.
The literal translation of yoga is ‘yoke’ which refers to the uniting of the individual with the universal Self. Yogic philosophy is centred around the concept that we are all part of the same divine energy; that we each have a bit of divinity with us and we can use our practice to reconnect with it.
Yoga teachings would originally have been passed down orally from guru to student. Approximately five thousand years ago Patanjali organised and wrote down these teachings, drawing on ancient religious texts and the wisdom he had received from his own teachers, in a set of 196 aphorisms known as the Yoga Sutras. It is from Patanjali that the concept of the eight limbs or petals of Yoga arises, the eight limbs being:
Yama: external ethical conduct
Niyama: internal ethical observances
Asana: the physical yoga poses
Pranayama: breath control
Pratyahara: withdrawal of the senses
Samadhi: blissful absorption or enlightenment
Essentially the Yoga Sutras give us a guide for how to live a good life, every day. The limbs don’t have to be followed in any particular order, although some do naturally follow one another.
So what's this got to do with yoga pants, expensive mats and extortionate gym memberships? Not much really! Unfortunately westernised yoga practice often focuses on the asanas, and reduces yoga to just another form of exercise. In fact, in the original yogic texts, the only asana or pose referenced is Sukasana (easy pose) which is sitting crossed legged, and it is used as the perfect pose to sit in while practicing some of the other limbs.
That is not to say that Asana is not an important and powerful part of yoga practice. With the development of tantric philosophy came the concept that a yogi could use their body to focus the mind and the breath, to yoke them together in the process of uniting with the higher Self . The asanas also help prepare the body for many hours of siting in Sukasana practicing Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi, and Asana and Pranayama help remove blocks and impurities and have a range of other health benefits.
More confused now then when you started reading?! Don't worry - over the next few weeks I'll be taking you through some of the basic concepts of yoga, and how we weave them into our practice on the mat.
See you soon, Liz x