The meaning of yoga can be discovered through several means.
The first is simple. You reach for a Merriam Webster’s dictionary.
Or in this day and age, you Google it. “Definition of yoga” surfaces the following:
Yoga (capitalized) is a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation.
Lowercase “yoga” is a system of physical postures, breathing techniques, and sometimes meditation derived from (capitalized) Yoga but often practiced independently, especially in Western cultures to promote physical and emotional well-being.
While technically accurate, these definitions feel personally unsatisfactory.
How does anyone become “liberated” from the body, mind, and will without renouncing their day-to-day lives? Must we all become monks and sit on top of the mountains in the Himalayas? What does well-being even mean?
Modern society has all sorts of ideas on the meaning of yoga. Western perceptions of yoga conjure images of fit bodies, form-fitting leggings, and fancy zen gyms. We are sold the idea that these external forms are the paragon of health and wellness.
Yoga is more than just back bends and contortions.
Pop culture offers its interpretations through songs and beautifully crafted Instagram posts. My favorite ‘woke’ song, which I include on my yoga class playlists:
“You can try to be watchful. You can try to be concentrated. You can try to be alert. But all that will ever teach you is what not to do, how not to use the mind. Because it will get you into deeper and deeper and deeper binds. You have to just let it happen. And, so, in the same way, you have to let yourself wake up, become liberated. You must be simply awake & relaxed.” — DJ Taz Rashid
The buzzword among these wise DJ sages is *liberation*, that of being simultaneously awake and relaxed without trying too hard to be awake and relaxed. (Translation: Chill.) But deep words aside, how does one actually put any of this into practice?!
For this, personal self-study and the ancient wisdom originating from Vedic texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Mahabharata offer clues. (It’s also worth mentioning that yogic principles, while originating in India, can be experienced by devotees from all religious belief systems.)
I attempt to summarize some of the key principles here, though these will hardly scratch the surface.
- Breath is our universal guiding life force. As we inhale and exhale, we bring our attention inward, remembering our intentions and keeping our mind focused on the breath whenever it darts away. Whatever our physical posture, it always comes secondary to our breath.
- We are not our bodies. Our bodies are merely temporary vehicles through which we perceive the world; they encapsulate our eternal souls. The purpose of yoga is to transcend this physical body, our external circumstances, and all that exists in the material world, to reach our highest potential.
- Practically speaking, however, a state of yoga begins with physical health. No one can find a relationship with the divine when they are sick, diseased, or in wrenching pain. But it is all linked. In yogic teachings, there is no division between “mind” and “body”.
- Yoga is as much a science of the mind as it is a study of the physical postures. It is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions. If we aren’t internally rooted in that which is eternal — the divine source — we will naturally feel uprooted, lost, confused and dis-eased, whatever the circumstances. Our greatest obstacle to experiencing our true nature lies in overcoming the the mind.
- The ultimate goal is unity between mind, body, and soul – that immutable unchanging force within us. This is the most abstract and nebulous of concepts and I struggle for a concrete way to describe it — but the more I try, the more I surrender to the understanding that perhaps there are implications far more complex and extraordinary than any of our present day vocabulary can communicate.
These lessons are still sinking in, but their wisdom carry so much relevance.
It is tempting to view yoga through a dualistic lens: a tug-of-war between the humbling and glorifying experiences, steady and ecstatic, flat and expansive, rooted and lifted — not unlike the dance of life. These opposing forces are inherent in many of the physical asanas. For example, in Tree pose (Vrikshasana), we are at once rooting down into the Earth, while lifting up through the crown of our head.
These opposing forces comprise the makeup of yoga. But when duality falls away and unity begins to take shape, that’s when as Krishnamacharya puts it, “truth is known..the mind is clear…the breath is controlled”, a state of steadiness and enlightenment in this earthly life is possible. That is yoga.
In life, each of us experiences trauma, heartbreak, and disaster. Yoga teaches us that we need not wither with each incident. Like a firm redwood tree, if we are rooted in the ground we can stay rooted in ourselves, meet disaster, and continue growing. Furthermore, if those roots connect with the roots of others, we can become an intertwined network, nourishing and supporting each other as we all grow together.
“Alone we can do nothing, but together our minds fuse into something whose power is far beyond the power of its separate parts. The kingdom cannot be found alone, and you who are the kingdom cannot find yourself alone.”
So, what is yoga? It’s a bit of religion, a bit of spiritual community, a bit of health. Sure, it’s peace, love, and happiness too. But in its purest form, it’s a personal journey, one of self-discovery that opens the door to self-understanding and an ability to see each being with equal vision. I am nowhere near yogi status. But I breathe easier knowing that between Mother Earth supporting us from beneath and the Father Almighty gazing from the heavens (or however you want to attribute the genders), there is a whole universe within each of us waiting to be unlocked.
That journey is just beginning.