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What Is Yoga All About?

philosophy Feb 22, 2020

My first exposure to yoga was through a Groupon, which I reluctantly purchased at the encouragement of my college roommate. I had heard of yoga before, but had no memory of where I heard of it, and I had associated it in my mind as exercise for people who don’t like to exercise. 

My first class, I was totally blown away. The instructor asked me to stand on one foot, and I realized I couldn’t. She told me what to do with my right and left hand, and I had no idea which one was which. She took us through round after round of sun salutations, where at some point I found myself soaking wet curled up in a little ball on the floor, which I had only come to know as child’s pose 15 minutes before. By the time I left the studio, I was exhausted but strangely energized, I was astonished at the new shapes I experienced my body make, and I was surprised to have calm and even thoughts in a way I had never experienced before. 

From that point forward, I was hooked. 

That was about 10 years ago, and I still haven’t stopped trying to figure out what yoga is all about, mainly because it’s been many things to me over the years. It started as a casual form of exercise. From there it grew into a desire to share the experiences I was having with others. That catapulted me into wanting to understand and benefit from yoga philosophy, anatomy theory, meditation and more. And now, I find myself interested in yoga as a beloved physical practice that helps me understand the nature of myself. 

In other words--yoga is what we make of it. And in order to make something of it, it’s helpful to understand the history and philosophical underpinnings of yoga, which is what I’ll be focusing on in this article. Understanding the context of yoga has helped me find purpose in my own practice, and has helped me find new ways of progressing when I’ve felt stuck. My hope is that this information will spark curiosity of what yoga can possibly mean for you in your life. 

History & Yoga Basics

Yoga is a term from the ancient Indian language, Sanskrit. Translated, yoga literally means to yoke, which is often interpreted to mean union

The Indian sage Patanjali is thought to be the first to codify yoga into The Yoga Sutras (literally meaning suture or stitch), which are aphorisms on the theory and practice of yoga. 

Written over 2,000 years ago, The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 195 aphorisms which serve as a philosophical guidebook for the yoga practice. In the sutras, Patanjali expands on 8 components (or limbs) of yoga: the yamas (outward facing behavior), the niyamas (inward facing behavior), asana (body postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), dharana (concentration), dhyani (meditation), and finally, samadhi (liberation). 

These 8 limbs provide students with a progressive path to understanding the true nature of the Self and of life in general. The end goal is to realize and experientially understand that everything in existence shares a common reality from which nothing can be separated. This is when all aspects of our lives converge towards peace and happiness, and this is why yoga means union

The first two limbs (yamas and niyamas) are designed to purify our behavior with others, within our own minds and in the world. The second two limbs (asana and pranayama) are designed to develop our body for meditation. The last four limbs (pratyahara, dharana, dhyani and samadhi) describe purifying our mind and perception of Self in order to experience enlightenment or lasting happiness. 

Today, most people who practice yoga are engaged in the third and fourth limbs--asana and pranayama--which is what we practice every time we step on a yoga mat. 

Modern motivating factors for practicing yoga may have something to do with developing full range of motion in our joints, strengthening and stretching our muscles, and doing regular cardio (Sun Salutations are great for this). 

But for those of us who wish to utilize the entire system of yoga to discover happiness, the other limbs can prove quite useful. Modern yoga teachers often extract lessons and practices from the other limbs of yoga and teach them in yoga classes. This is often why yoga is seen as something spiritual, because the goal is to balance the entire human as opposed to just the human’s muscles. 

All About Asana

Asana is a Sanskrit word that means seat, although we’ve come to know it more as  posture or position in the yoga practice. This is why all Sanskrit names for yoga poses end in asana: tadasana, uttanasana, utkasana, and so on. 

While today we practice hundreds of different yoga postures, there are actually only very few asanas described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. All of Patanjali’s asanas are seated positions, and are designed to be held for extended periods of time in meditation. 

Today’s most popular asanas, which includes poses such as Warrior 2, the Sun Salutations, Tree pose, Wheel pose, etc., actually only date back to the 1930s. This is when Indian sage, Krishnamarcharya, developed a series of postures based on 19th century British gymnastic exercises. He then went on to open a yoga school and teach many of the leading yoga educators of the 20th century this new physical style of yoga.

Over the last century, his students have introduced yoga asana practice to western societies, which has spawned new interpretations of traditions and a rise in popularity. 

Nowadays, there are hundreds of different styles of asana which can range from calm and soothing, to vigorous and challenging. Each style interprets the practice in a unique way and offers students different approaches for entering and developing their practice. Some styles specialize in movement theory, other styles emphasize breathing, still others prioritize self-inquiry (that’s our jam!).  

The Purpose of Yoga 

We each experience purpose in our own way. 

Something I find quite purposeful is my asana practice. When I practice yoga poses, in order to be a good manager of my body, I am encouraged to become diligent, investigative, fastidious, and precise. Every practice gives me the opportunity to refine my relationship with challenge and ease. When I practice, repeat and refine poses, patterns in the body are being refined as well. Practicing trains my attention to observe my experience accurately--to see my thoughts, sensations and perceptions clearly for what they are. And now that I’ve been at it for ten years, I so appreciate observing my body strengthen and open for all the new shapes it’s made! 

For others, the purpose of yoga is knowing how to get a good stretch after a run, or finding relief from negative thoughts and feelings with meditation, or any number of things. Our sense of purpose naturally arises when we follow what we’re interested in. 

Ultimately, the system of yoga is pointing us towards lasting peace and happiness. IIt doesn’t have to be constrained to a system of practices or yoga poses. Yoga can be anything--it can be cooking or learning martial arts or reading a book. Yoga teaches us that it’s not what we do, it’s the way we do it. As long as we are moving from a place of happiness we are doing yoga, and we are likely to feel a great sense of purpose doing it. What better way is there to live life?  

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