What is Yoga?
Updated: Dec 3, 2019
It seems like such a simple question, and yet, it’s one that I have often found difficult to answer. There was a time when I would have said that it’s an exercise class that helps build strength, flexibility, balance and endurance. Okay, while that’s all true, it’s what I would have said before I actually tried yoga. Once I took my first class, I would have said it was the best exercise ever invented. As a high-stress, Type-A personality, I loved the multi-tasking. I could relax and exercise at the same time! And it was the first exercise I ever did because I LIKED it. I didn’t do it just because it was good for me; I did it because I actually felt better after doing yoga.
But my understanding of this discipline has evolved over time. I learned the meaning of the word “Yoga” – a Sanskrit word that can be translated as to bind, join, attach, yoke; it also means union or communion. Through readings and study, I found that there are eight branches (“Ashtanga” in Sanskrit) to yoga:
1. Yama is conduct towards others or social discipline
2. Niyama is conduct towards oneself or individual discipline
3. Asana is practice of physical yoga postures (what is typically known as yoga today)
4. Pranayama is breath control for mental discipline
5. Pratyahara is withdrawal or control of the senses
6. Dharana is concentration
7. Dhyana is meditation
8. Samadhi is Self-realization
I was intrigued to find that what we typically practice as “yoga” is actually only one-eighth of the whole. What are these seven other pieces?? At the same time, my own practice of yoga was very focused on asana. I was learning the poses, exploring the physical and mental benefits the practice of the postures creates. I was stronger and more flexible (balance has never been my strong suit, as anyone who’s watched me attempt vrksasana, tree pose, can attest to!), but I also found a sense of peace and an ability to better deal with the day-to-day stresses of life. That led me to better understand Patanjali’s definition of yoga “yogascittavrttinirodhah” which means the control of the fluctuations of the mind, the intellect, and the ego.
On a different level, the aches and pains that I thought were “normal” were receding. In fact, I felt better physically than I ever had. Yet my practice was still dominated by asana. I learned some pranayama (yoga breath work) and occasionally practiced meditation. But I still held on to that Type-A tendency to disregard less physical work as less important.
But as my practice and studies have progressed, I’ve come to appreciate the more subtle practices of yoga. The more I learn about the “other seven branches,” the more I’m drawn to learn. I’m currently studying the Yoga Sutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita – some of the foundational philosophical texts of yoga. I’ve found a joy in practicing pranayama and meditation, as well as restorative yoga, and continue to discover the physical and mental benefits. I’ve learned to appreciate the ability to relax and slow down. I finally recognize the true discipline involved in quieting the body and mind.
It’s this realization that is helping me once again redefine yoga. The practice of yoga is more than physical postures; it is control of body and mind, ego and intellect, conduct toward oneself and others. And these are areas that I need lots of practice – on the yoga mat, as well as off of it (Don’t we all??). Just practicing the physical posture can bring great health benefits, but if you can’t practice physically due to injury or illness, you CAN still practice yoga. Don’t get me wrong, I value my asana practice, and there are so many poses and modifications that you can have injuries or illness and still maintain an appropriate, safe, physical practice. But though my journey, I’ve also learned to value the “rest” of yoga. This is one reason I created my monthly Relaxation Techniques for Body and Mind class. It’s an opportunity to share some of these “other” yoga techniques that have become such an integral part of my practice.
Heather Anastos, RYT
For further readings try the following resources, which were used to create this blog:
Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar and Yoga a Gem for Women by Geeta Iyengar