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.

Yoga – The Science of Life

For anyone who has even begun to truly investigate yoga, one thing is for certain – it’s much more than a just system of stretches, exercises and relaxation techniques. Under the surface, yoga is as vast as the Universe itself, and coming to know it… well… it just takes time (and some effort, of course).

In simple words, yoga is a fantastic system for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. But the practice of yoga is really an exploration of our selves on all these levels…

It is a ‘science’ which provides a logical, step-by-step process for a new understanding of our selves and of the universe around us. Many miss this fact simply because they have dabbled ‘piecemeal’ with random aspects of the greater whole of the yogic system.

In the broadest sense, yoga is a ‘Way of Life’.  It teaches us how to proceed in life with wisdom, awareness, and true understanding.

So what is yoga’s contribution to our lives?

It helps us to break free from the shackles of ignorance… from our habits and conditionings… and to discover the true roots of disharmony, unhappiness and frustrations in our life. As Epictetus said in 60 A.D;

“Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them”.

Yoga teaches us that it is only our wrong views, our misperceptions and conditioned attitudes that stand in the way of success and fulfillment in life.

As Swamiji Gitananda Giri used to tell his students:

“You don’t have a problem.  You are the problem!”

Yes, yoga offers us the tools and the guidance to craft health on every level, and gives us the ability to live happily and in harmony with our natural environment and all of our fellow beings. … In short, yoga offers us a holistic, nurturing and evolutionary ‘way of living’.

But if you have even higher aspirations, you’re in luck! …

… Yoga goes even further, revealing itself as the definitive process for uncovering the deepest mysteries of Life itself. Yoga, in its highest sense, is the “guidebook” to the ultimate transcendental state of Self-realization.

What is Yoga ‘Practice’ Then?

We all know that good, wholesome physical exercise is important for health. But the yogic system encompasses more than this. It includes both physical techniques as well as deeper intellectual inquiry and self-analysis.

The practice of yoga involves healthy diet and lifestyle choices, constructive work, nurturing relationships, and much more. In reality, what is yoga but ultimately an outlook and approach to living that extends into all areas of life.

The Meaning of ‘Yoga’

The term yoga itself comes from the ancient Sanskrit language. Its root ‘Yuj’ means to ‘join’, to ‘yoke together’, to ‘unify’ or ‘unite as one’. We could even say that the English word ‘union’ is closely related.

Ok, it does take some time to really understand what this ‘union’ of yoga is all about. Sure, you’ll here people saying things like “yoga is the union of body, mind, and soul”.

Wow! That sounds fantastic! …

…Uhm… excuse me… But what does it mean, really?

An Experience Beyond Words


it’s important that yoga not be approached in a purely materialistic manner alone, else one will find themselves, as is so often the case today, engaged in what amounts to a mere system of physical fitness, which is not truly deservingof the word yoga nor representative of all that it has to offer.

To the average person, this ‘unifying concept’ may seem rather intangible. That’s certainly understandable. After all, our entire existence is built upon the sense of a separate, ‘individual’ self. Learning to understand the unity of all creation is something that cannot happen through theory and thinking alone.

… But a gradual unfolding of that awareness occurs through the dedicated practice and study of yoga, through which the practitioner ultimately comes to realize and experience the unity of all creation (Yeah, they do! … Really!).

This is the ‘union’ referred to in yoga — a re-union of the lower, ‘worldly self’ with the Universal, ‘higher consciousness’ — which the ancient sages call, moksha, samadhi, kaivalya, jivana mukta.

… This is the true goal of yoga. But again, these lofty goals take time to comprehend, and intellectual exercises alone won’t take us far towards understanding yoga. Yoga is and always has been an experiential science. We can talk about the trail that leads up the mountain, but we will never reach the peak, with its majestic, panoramic views, until we start walking!

.. all of the yogic practices help to foster a greater mind-emotions-body understanding and bring about the union and harmony of body, emotions and mind. This righteous union is yoga in its truest sense…

Yoga helps us to take the right attitude towards our problems and thus tackle them in an effective manner… Through the dedicated practice of yoga as a way of life, we can become truly balanced ‘humane’ beings…

~ Dr. Ananda Balayogi Bhavanani, “Integral Psychology of Yoga.”

Building a Yogic Life

Certainly, yoga has much to offer on all levels. Uncovering its full potential takes a lifetime of dedication, study and practice. But as with any new endeavor, one must start at the beginning.

Yoga provides a system of techniques and practices for the gradual improvement of health and the unfoldment of understanding, along with a well-trodden path to the highest of spiritual goals.

Yet the path of yoga holds many different goals for many different people…

… Some may be content to find improvement on the level of physical health.

… Others may yearn for greater mental and emotional stability.

… Some will even yearn for the wisdom and understanding garnered through a deeper study of their inner self.

… And a relative few will even be driven to the ultimate liberation (moksha) which lies at the pinnacle of this ancient science.

Regardless of your motivations, with effort, dedication, and above all else, ‘patience’, you’ll most certainly find success through yoga.

What is Yoga? … Need More?

Your “what is yoga?” question still not satisfied? Stil need to get this word yoga defined? Here’s some more beautiful yoga descriptions from various texts and teachers…

Here are some great online yoga training programs where you’ll be able to lear a lot more about yoga: www.theyogatutor.com

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