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What is Yoga, Really?


Right from the beginning the newcomer to yoga is often beset with the question, “What is yoga really all about?” …

Even the experienced practitioner can be forgiven for having only a vague and uncertain hold upon this thing called yoga.

… Let’s face it, it seems like everybody and their dog is doing something with the word ‘yoga’ attached to it these days… and to the ancient yogis, some of those things would seem pretty strange indeed!I’m constantly being asked to comment on the various ‘styles’ of yoga. But before we ask, “what is ashtanga yoga?”, or “what is hatha yoga?”, or “what is hot yoga?”, or “what is Bikram yoga?” or “what is kriya yoga?” or “what is power yoga?”, or what is a yoga of any name … it’s a good idea to first ask…

What is Yoga?

No doubt that yoga is a familiar word to just about everyone now.  This word can still conjure up images of a mysterious sage meditating in a far-off cave in the remote Himalayan mountains.  But now-a-days it just as easily brings up images of young, flexible people in a hip Los Angeles studio, clad in fashionable ‘stretch-wear’ and being guided through a mind-body-soul bending routine.

… Certainly, in modern times, the word “yoga” has been attached to a variety of things.

It is used in marketing campaigns throughout nearly every commercial industry now too. On the average city street in America, you can hardly walk a block without seeing some form of advertisement with a beautiful young girl in a yoga-type pose sending out an often bizarre spectrum of consumer messages, which leaves the average person wondering,

… “What is yoga, really?”  (Or what does it have to do with toilet bowl cleaner anyways?)

More Than a Good Stretch?

More and more these days, yoga is being portrayed primarily as a form of exercise, to the point now where most people (even many of those who “practice yoga” regularly) would be at a loss to say much more about it …

… I was recently told of a yoga teacher who had been teaching yoga in China. When he asked his students what they knew about the origins of yoga, he was shocked to find that they all thought yoga was an American ‘keep-fit’ exercise!

“Those who have studied yoga will attest that this ‘Science of sciences’ is too comprehensive in its nature and too profound in its scope of teachings to be fitted into the framework of any particular philosophy, religion or belief, ancient or modern.”

~ I.K. Taimni, “The Science of Yoga”

I chuckled as I told this to a group of North American yoga students, but they sat with perplexed looks on their faces. Then one person said, “I thought it was an Indian system of exercise?” …

… then it was me who had a perplexed look on my face!

Well, at least she was right about the origins …

But by and large, most people who practice yoga today don’t see in it very much beyond a system of physical exercise… and when asked, “what is yoga?”, their answers almost always begin and end with descriptions of some form or another of physical techniques and practices…

… which is a tragedy of ignorance indeed, but one that I want to help you avoid falling prey to.