What is Yoga and Why Do We Do It?

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we explore many expert definitions of yoga, and why people practice.

Objective

Be aware of the profound depth and potential scope of yoga as a philosophy and practice, and consider multiple perspectives on the purpose of practice.

Description

Note that there are many meanings of the word yoga and consider why that may be so. Define yoga according to its Sanskrit origins and explain the context from which yoga philosophy originates. Describe some of the many ways in which experts have defined and described yoga. Distinguish the definition of yoga from why we practice it, offering perspectives on the purpose of practice, both short-term and what might be considered the grander or ultimate purpose.

Introduction

First, we introduce the topic of defining yoga by considering a variety of perspectives:

  • There are many meanings of the word yoga; why might that be so?
  • What is the definition of the word yoga according to its Sanskrit origins?
  • From what context does yoga philosophy originate?

In the next sections of this lesson, we go on to:

  • Bring together a collection of expert comments on the meaning of yoga.
  • Distinguish the definition of yoga from why we practice it, offering some specific commentary on the purpose of practice.

A Variety of Perspectives

Multiple Meanings

  • Here we bring together a wealth of considerations and perspectives on yoga.
  • While the word “yoga” is used in many ways, it’s generally describing 1) a philosophy and/or 2) a discipline or set of practices and techniques.
  • Since there are so many ways that people describe yoga we might first question why yoga can have so many meanings. The scholar Mircea Eliade explains:

Yoga Is Many Things

In the Moksadharma [a book in the Mahabarata], Yoga does not mean cittavrtti-nirodha, as it does to Patanjali; it simply designates any practical discipline…  In the majority of cases this activity is equivalent to restraining the senses, asceticism, and various kinds of penance. Only occasionally does Yoga have the meaning that Krishna gives it in the Bhagavad Gita — ‘renunciation of the fruits of one’s acts.’ This fluidity in the meanings of the word has been brought out by Hopkins in an exhaustive study. “Yoga” sometimes means “method,” sometimes “activity,” “force,” “meditation,” or “renunciation,” etc. This variety of meanings corresponds to a real morphological diversity. If the word “yoga” means many things, that is because Yoga is many things. For the epic is the meeting place of countless ascetic and popular traditions, each with its own “Yoga”— that is, its particular mystical technique. – Mircea Eliade

CONSIDERATIONS

  1. Before you started to practice yoga  – what did the word yoga mean to you?
  2. After a few months of practicing yoga what did the word yoga mean to you?
  3. As a teacher training student, how would you now describe “yoga”

Sanskrit

  • The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj meaning to yoke or bind.
  • It’s often interpreted as “yoking,” “union,” “joining together” or a method of discipline that serves to connect or unify.

Any Junction, Conjunction, Connection

The word yoga has the central meaning of “joining things together,” or “hooking up…” Yoga can refer to any junction — in astronomy and astrology, a conjunction of the stars or planets; in grammar, the connection of words together; in arithmetic, addition, sum, total. In alchemy or chemistry, mixing different materials together is yoga. In spirituality, yoga can mean the union of the soul with matter, the union of the individual soul with the universal soul, and the disciplines that serve this union. – Lorin Roche PhD

The Origins of Yoga Philosophy

The origins of yoga philosophy are traced back to the The Vedas of India, estimated to have been written between 3,000 and 6,000 years ago.

  • In The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga, Deepak Chopra and David Simon explain, “Yoga is the practical aspect of Vedic science.”
  • Thus, to truly understand what the teachings are trying to convey, and to honor those who kept the teachings alive

Expert Comments

Swami Anantananda – Stilling the Modifications of the Mind

“Union with the timeless present, the sage Patanjali tells us in his Yoga Sutras, comes not from grasping harder at the sense impressions and ideas that flood into the mind but from the stilling of the modifications of the mind. That union is the source of the joy and aliveness we are looking for. The understanding in yoga is that behind the veil of our thinking mind and behind the unconscious lies an eternal wellspring of natural happiness, intelligence, and loving kindness. This wellspring is the ocean of pure Consciousness from which all our feelings, thoughts, and their meanings arise. That Consciousness is our true Self. That Consciousness is the joyful Witness.”

Deepak Chopra & David Simon – Union of Body, Mind and Spirit

“Yoga is the union of body, mind, and spirit — the union of your individuality with the divine intelligence that orchestrates the universe. Yoga is a state of being in which the elements and forces that comprise your biological organism are in harmonious interaction with the elements of the cosmos. Established in this state, you will experience enhanced emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being and will increasingly notice the spontaneous fulfillment of your desires. In yoga — in union with spirit — your desires and the desires of nature are one.”

T.K.V. Desikachar – Yoga is Not a Religion

“Yoga was rejected by Hinduism because yoga would not insist that God exists. It didn’t say there was no God but just wouldn’t insist there was. Yoga is not a religion and should not [affiliate] with any religion.”

T.K.V. Desikachar – Something Changes

“There are many definitions of yoga:

  • yoga as the movement from one point to another, higher one
  • yoga as the bringing together, the unifying of two things
  • yoga as action with undivided, uninterrupted attention
  • These definitions of yoga have one thing in common: the idea that something changes. This change must bring us to a point where we have never been before. That is to say, that which was impossible becomes possible; that which was unattainable become attainable; that which was invisible can be seen. One of the basic reasons many people take up yoga is to change something about themselves: to be able to think more clearly, to feel better, and to be able to act better today than they did yesterday in all areas of life. “

Nischala Joy Devi – Uniting of Consciousness in the Heart

“Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart. United in the heart, consciousness is steadied, then we abide in our true nature — joy. At other times, we identify with the rays of consciousness, which fluctuate and encourage our perceived suffering.”

Nischala Joy Devi – A System of How to Live

“Yoga is a complete system of how to live our lives. It leads us to a whole new way of living. It is not a religion, yet it can be combined with a religion to increase the richness of any tradition.”

Dr. David Frawley – Connection with the Cosmic Reality of the Sacred

“Yoga in the deeper sense is our connection with the cosmic reality of the sacred — however one may name or define it — of the universal consciousness and being beyond all the boundaries of the human mind and the limitations of human language. That spiritual basis of Yoga should not be forgotten, even when we may be benefiting from other approaches to Yoga.”

Philip Goldberg – Different Things to Different People

“My yogic path started with philosophy, led to meditation, then to pranayama and asanas, and onward.  That sequence is pretty much the exact opposite of how most people get into Yoga and progress with it nowadays, when asanas dominate studio offerings and are virtually synonymous with Yoga in the public eye. This says a great deal about the versatility and diversity of Yoga, and its adaptability to individual needs, cultures and periods of history.  It has always been, and always will be, different things to different people, and it will always accommodate a wide range of lifestyles, values, social customs and applications.”

B.K.S. Iyengar – Stilling of the Fluctuations of Consciousness, Meditation

“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of consciousness [and in the next sentence, says:] Yoga is meditation.”

B.K.S. Iyengar – Pragmatic Science Dealing with Well-Being

“Yoga is a timeless pragmatic science evolved over thousands of years dealing with the physical, moral, mental and spiritual well-being of man as a whole.”

Alanna Kaivalya – Yoga is a Condition of the Mind

“Straight away in the second sutra of the book we find a precise definition of yoga: Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah (YS 2.1) Yoga is steadiness in the field of the mind.

Patanjali’s definition of yoga is striking: It is a state of mind. Patanjali clearly states that yoga is a psychological state where the mind is calm, at rest, still. Yoga, strictly defined, is not bound by the condition of the body, but rather is a condition of the mind that has a greater effect on the totality of your being. When the mind is utterly at ease, the body is as well. We cannot feel physical stress without mental stress, and a mental calmness results in a complete state of relaxation. Our inner state reflects our outer state and vice versa, just as the old alchemical principle of “As above, so below” illustrates—all things are connected and influence one another.”

Geeta Iyengar – Union of the Soul with Eternal Truth

“Yoga is the union of the soul with the eternal truth, a state of unalloyed bliss, arising from conquest of dualities. The study of Yoga discipline sharpens the power of discernment and leads towards understanding the true nature of the soul which cannot be fully comprehended by the senses or the intellect alone. The study of Yoga enables one to attain the pure state of consciousness and to realize the Inner Self. Yoga frees one from life’s sorrows and from the diseases and fluctuations of the mind. It gives serenity and composure, an inward unity amidst the diverse struggle of life. It is the art of knowing oneself and knowing the eternal truth. Yoga is the study of the functioning of the body, the mind and the intellect in the process of attaining freedom. It is the experience of one’s self-acquired knowledge, and not the result of book-learning, of battling with logic, or of theoretical argumentation. Yoga is a philosophy, a way of life, wherein art and science meet.”

C.G. Jung – The Way and a Profound Philosophy

“There is good reason for yoga to have many adherents. It offers not only the much-sought way, but also a philosophy of unrivaled profundity. Yoga practice is unthinkable, and would also be ineffectual, without the ideas on which it is based. It works the physical and the spiritual into one another in an extraordinarily complete way.”

Cyndi Lee – Not a Religion, a Philosophy

“Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy that began in India an estimated 5,000 years ago… The scriptures provide a framework for spiritual growth and mastery over the physical and mental body. Yoga sometimes interweaves other philosophies such as Hinduism or Buddhism, but it is not necessary to study those paths in order to practice or study yoga.”

Joseph LePage – Ancient Science of Health & Balance

“Yoga is an ancient science of health for the physical body and balance for the mind and emotions that provides the foundation for the spiritual journey whose destination is self-knowledge.”

Larry Payne PhD & Richard Usatine MD – Do-It-Yourself Prescription for Good Health

“I like to describe Yoga as a natural, do-it-yourself prescription for good health and stress management that is needed now more than ever in our demanding, stress-filled lives. Yoga focuses on healing the whole person and views the mind and body as an integrated unity, which is why it is called a mind-body science… Translated from Sanskrit, the word yoga means “yoke” or “unity.” It also means “discipline” or “effort.” In other words, yoga requires you to make an effort to unify your body and mind. Because yoga requires the full exertion of both the mind and the body, by definition it can’t be practiced while your attention is elsewhere.”

Saul David Raye – The Practice of Moving Deeper into the Heart

“True Yoga is relationship, it is the practice of moving deeper into the heart. Conscious loving presence transcends all philosophies and conscious loving relationship is the most profound asana to practice. 

Rod Stryker – Asana, Pranayama & Meditation

“Asanas relate to the past. You bring your day with you to the mat to release it through asanas. Pranayama relates to our relationship with the present. We have to be in the moment to control the breath. And meditation relates to the future…by creating a consistent practice, it has a residue of positive effect for the future that will change your life for the better.”

The Bhagavad Gita – Equanimity of Mind & Wisdom in Action

“Equanimity of mind is Yoga.”

“Yoga is wisdom in action.”

What It Is vs. Why We Do It

When defining the word “yoga,” sometimes the discussion naturally leads beyond the definition into the purpose or results of yoga.

In many cases such meshing of concepts will help to convey a better understanding of yoga. But here we offer the distinction between “what it is vs. why we do it” so that you can offer such clarity as needed.

CONSIDERATIONS:

  1. What brought you to yoga?
  2. What other reasons do you think people are drawn to yoga?

Here are some expert comments specifically related to WHY students tend to practice yoga. The expert perspectives include:

  • What might draw a person to the practice initially
  • The short-term results that keep the student returning
  • And what might be called the grander or ultimate purpose for which the teachings have been honored

What Draws Us & What Keeps Us Coming Back

As you read the four main reasons people come to yoga, according to the Bhagavad Gita, consider which first drew you to yoga. [He goes on to discuss healing, personal gain, self-unfoldment, and enlightenment.] When we look at the goals of yoga, the beauty is that that once we’ve made a little progress on the path, we start to see the next goal on the horizon as achievable. In the process, we come to transcend what has held us back. – Rolf Sovik PsyD

Quieting the Mind Serves Multiple Purposes

Whether the aim of your practice is to experience the divine bliss that is your true nature or simply to become more present and comfortable with uncertainty, quieting the mind is the path that will get you there. – Nina Zolotow 

The Immediate Purpose: Slow Down & Connect with Your True Self

The aim of meditation and yoga, and especially of Hatha Yoga, is gradually to arrive at an inner condition permitting a very particular inward slowing down to take place in oneself — until a state of profound immutability is reached in which the reality of one’s Supreme Being is finally recognized. – Edward Salim Michael

Figure Out & Eradicate the Reasons for Our Suffering

Patanjali states that yoga has two distinct purposes or goals. In Chapter II, verse 2 of the Yoga Sutra, he states that yoga’s “purpose or goal is to cultivate the experience of equanimity [samadhi]” and “to unravel the causes of negativity.” Patanjali tells us, in effect, that yoga will help us figure out and eradicate the reasons why we suffer, even as it leads us to feel the deepest of human experiences… A practice that leads to deeper equanimity empowers us to bring our joy to others as well as to ourselves. In this way, we become free to act for a higher purpose. (At the same time, we need to uncover the causes of negative experiences so that we learn to avoid them and thus to become more free from the sources of negativity.) – Douglas Brooks

The Ultimate Purpose: Be Free

Yoga is union but that is not its purpose… The purpose of yoga is to be free.  Free of fear, anger, and doubt. – Jai Bhagwan

Said Another Way: Connect with Your True Self to Live Your Purpose

Yoga is designed for one purpose and one purpose alone, and that is to connect with the love and light of your spirit and seek its guidance to live your dharma. – Aadil Palkhivala

And Yet Another Way: An Act of Remembrance

Our practice is ultimately an act of remembrance. We remember who we are at our best. We remember our goodness and capacity to forgive. We remember our courage. And from that place we act, we make choices that shape our life. This we can trust. Of this we are certain. – Max Strom