what is yoga

What Is Yoga? My Favorite Definitions

What is Yoga? For me, Yoga is so difficult to define. I think about this question daily. As an exercise for this blog post, I looked up a few of the different ways that Yoga is defined in the dozens of books about Yoga on my bookshelf. I tried to keep it short. Definition of Yoga: Yoga comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj, meaning “to join” or “to yoke.”

Rather than write an essay, I invite you to share in the comments section below your favorite definition of Yoga. Pause, breathe, and share from your heart what Yoga means to you.

Just curious, I did a Google search for “yoga blog,” and was given 131,000,000 pages to choose from. I also tried “yoga blog WordPress,” WordPress being a typical host for websites and blogs in an attempt to eliminate any pages that just reference a yoga blog, and the result was 6,370,000 WordPress yoga blogs to choose from.

My point here is that there are a lot of authorities these days talking about Yoga. Sometimes this scares me because it means a sacred tradition has gone viral and, in some cases, exploited as a corporate opportunity. And somethings I jump for joy knowing that regardless of the source, we as a species are evolving and people are doing Yoga BY THE MILLIONS, taking us to the next level of consciousness.
Most people think that Yoga is an excellent way to get healthy, in shape, lose weight, and feel great. This is true most of the time. And Yoga is also SO much more! (make sure you keep reading to find out what else Yoga is!)
Some people think that Yoga is a religion, a practice that tells you to worship scary pagan icons with ten arms and snakes wrapped around their heads. This is only slightly true.

Here are some of my all time favorite definitions of Yoga. See which one resonates with you!

First, a little history and a great definition from a very progressive yoga teacher at the Kripalu School of Yoga:
Stephen Cope “The Wisdom of Yoga”

In the early sixth century BCE, seekers in India began to make spiritual inquires outside established religious hierarchies…These seekers dedicated their lives to spiritual and psychological experimentation – practicing both in small groups and in solitude. They investigated diet, breath control, physical exercises, ethical behavior, sense refrain, prayer, meditation, magic, chanting, and worship of every conceivable god or goddess…in its earliest stages. much of the experimentation was probably highly shamanistic, concerned with what we might call magic…Their growing body of wisdom was passed along primarily by word of mouth…Over the course of hundreds of years, some headway was made in discovering a reliable path to the fully alive human being. A loose tradition was born – an esoteric tradition that combined the best powers of shamanism with some remarkably sophisticated psychological discoveries. A set of reliable principles and practices emerged. At some point, this tradition became known as Yoga – a word that means literally “to yoke” or to bring into a union – and its practitioners as “yogis.” Yogis used their own minds and bodies as laboratories for experiments in living.

Here is what the #1 authority of anything on the internet is saying:

Yoga are the mental, physical, and spiritual practices that aim to transform body and mind. The term yoga derived from the literal meaning of “yoking together” a span of horses or oxen, but came to be applied to the “yoking” of body and mind. (interesting use of “are,” no that is not a typo.)

Patanjali taught Raja Yoga, or Classical Yoga, a duelist interpretation of Yoga:
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra’s (translated by Swami Satchidananda)

“yoga chittavriti nirodaha” – The restrain of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.

Here is my favorite definition, from a beloved teacher and master yogi:
Eric Schiffmann “Yoga, The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness”

Yoga is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are. It is also a way of learning to be centered in action so that you always have the clearest perspective on what’s happening and are therefore able to respond the most appropriately. Yoga is not the only way of doing this, but it is an excellent way. It is an ancient process designed to help you uncover and discover your true nature so you can live daily life with that new awareness….Yoga is not merely touching your toes or standing on your head. It’s about how you do what you do, and how you live your daily life on a moment to moment basis. If you learn to meditate and do Yoga and pause occasionally throughout the day to be still, to breathe, to relax, and to feel the energy of life force within you and all around you – the life force that must be in you for you to even exist – then you too, will feel the palpable joy of “union with the Infinite” – Yoga. The word Yoga means to yoke, or union. And you will feel healed, renewed, strong in mind and body, and your life will take on new meaning and new, fulfilling directions that you are not personally responsible for. It’s worth the small effort required.

Here a definition from the definitive Source himself:

Lord Krishna, in “The Bhagavad Gita”

He who works not for an earthy reward, but does the work to be done, he is a yogi…When the mind of the yogi is in harmony and finds rest in the Spirit within, all restless desires gone, then he is Yukta, one in god…When the mind is resting in the stillness of the prayer of Yoga, and by the grace of spirit sees the spirit and therein finds fulfillment…Then, with reason, armed with the resolution, let the seeker quietly lead the mind into the Spirit…He sees himself in the heart of all beings and he sees all beings in his heart. This is the vision of the Yogi of harmony. (Chapter 6)

Siddha Yoga Meditation leader and teacher of Tantric philosophy:
Gurumayi Chidvilasananda “The Yoga of Discipline”

Turning within is called Yoga. Yoga is the divine discipline that gives a seeker the power to turn his attention within. It makes him understand the true purpose of the senses. It uncovers the glory hidden within him. It enables him to go deep into the cave of his own heart. It shows him the way to united heaven and earth. Yoga gives a seeker the strength to uplift his energies and become mature.

Here, we view a classical interpretation by a world-renowned yoga teacher and father of modern Yoga:
B.K.S. Iyengar “Light on Yoga”

The word Yoga means to bind, join, attach, and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use, and apply. It also means union or communion. It is the true union of our will with the will of god. According to Mhadev Dessai, Yoga means “the yoking of all the powers of body, mind, and soul to God; it means the disciplining of the intellect, the mind, the emotions, the will, which that Yoga pre-supposes; it means a poise of the soul which enables one to look at life in all its aspects evenly.” As a well-cut diamond has many facets, each reflecting a different color of light, so does the word Yoga, each facet reflecting a different shade of meaning and revealing different aspects of the entire range of human endeavor to win inner peace and happiness.

Share your personal definition or your favorite definition of Yoga from a teacher or a book in the comments section to spread the light. Do you view yoga more as meditation techniques to calm the mind or as physical exercises to strengthen the body?

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