What Is Yoga?

By Jennifer Frasher, February, 2009

I don’t think I know a single person who hasn’t heard of Yoga. Being a yoga teacher I get a lot of questions and comments about what exactly you do in yoga class. It is assumed that yoga is stretching and breathing and by practicing it you will become healthier, calmer and generally a better person. That is all very true but what does Yoga really mean? Where did yoga come from? And what exactly are we doing when we say “oh yeah, I do yoga.”

Yoga: Divine union. From the Sanskrit root verb yuj (to yoke, join or unite.)

Yoga developed thousands of years ago around India although the exact origins are uncertain. Yoga is for every person in every age; therefore yoga keeps changing just as time keeps passing. What ancient yogis did in dark caves many years ago may not exactly be what we are doing today, and that’s o.k. What’s important is that the essence of yoga is still here. Yoga is and always has been a way to connect us to the source.

The teachings of Yoga are based on many different philosophies and religions, but, Yoga is NOT a religion, rather it is a discipline, one that leads to ultimate freedom.

Patanjali was the first to write down the teaching of Yoga in the Yoga Sutras. Traditionally they were passed down orally from teacher to student. Each Sutra says in some way what Yoga is and how to attain that divine state. The clearest sutra that defines Yoga is sutra 1:2 Yogas Citta Vritti Nirodhah.

Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind, or the restraint of the modifications of the “mind-stuff “. In clearer terms, when you can control the rising of the mind, you will experience Yoga or Union. So what then is really uniting? Well, the union ultimately happens between the individual consciousness (jivatman) and the universal consciousness (paramatman). Yoga aims at changing the individual, (that is why our practice consists of asana, pranayama, chanting and meditation). Yoga does not bother much about changing the outside world. There is a Sanskrit saying, “As the mind, so the man; bondage or liberation are in your own mind.” So whatever you think you manifest. If you think you are bound, you are, if you think you are liberated, you are! Things outside ourselves neither bind nor liberate us; only our attitude toward them does. The practice of Yoga brings clarity to the mind so that we can see and experience this. As Gandhi said, “be the change you wish to see in the world” for you cannot change the world if you cannot change yourself! Gandhi was a great Yogi, and his practice was Karma Yoga, or selfless service to others. He also studied many great texts such as the Bhagavad Gita, so he was also a practitioner of Jnana Yoga.

Most westerners practice Hatha Yoga (postures). There is also Bhakti Yoga (devotional/chanting), Jnana Yoga (knowledge/study), Karma Yoga (service), Kundalini Yoga (awaken the shakti), Raja Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga, (8 limb path); the list goes on and on. It really doesn’t matter what you practice, as long as what you do is focusing the mind and leading to that state of Yoga or now as we understand it, divine union.

Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati defines Yoga as “a state where nothing is missing.”

I found this definition very interesting. In a way we are not trying to reach some supreme state outside of ourselves, for then we are saying we are not enough, but rather we are discovering that place inside ourselves where we feel complete.

While writing all of this I began to get frustrated in seeing that Yoga is not as simple as we might think it is. Yoga is so much more than just going to class for 90 minutes. In feeling this frustration I asked a few people what Yoga meant for them. One said that Yoga is an experience, something that draws you deeper into your own self and cuts through all the “nonsense” of the world. Another said that yoga is a supreme state of being. Another said it was finding a place of peace within oneself, and yet another said it is breathing and moving and just feeling good.

Recently I went to the city and took a yoga class, and I left feeling not so “yogaish” I didn’t have that deep inner stillness you sometimes get after a really awesome class, and that was ok with me. Later that same day I went to a dance performance at the Joyce Theater, and what I saw and experienced was Yoga! I said to myself, they are experiencing Yoga and I can feel it!

After I began to understand the meaning of the word Yoga a bit more or rather internalize it a bit deeper, I stopped being so frustrated. I realized that you cannot “do yoga”. Yoga is a state of being that you find after you take an amazing class, or after you have chanted, or after meditation, pranayama or even after you take a quiet walk in the woods and just look around at the beauty.

Ultimately you can “do” anything and at the same time experience yoga.

So if we all say, “yeah I do yoga,” then a good question to ask yourself is what does Yoga mean to you? So that Yoga can become something more then just going to class.

Jennifer Frasher

A student of yoga since 1999 and teacher since 2003, Jen’s classes are an artful configuration of body, breath movement, alignment, and attention. Her teacher trainings include Mark Whitwell's Heart of Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga with David Swenson, Nosara Yoga, and Kundalini Yoga KRI. Jen also holds a Shakti Kaur Khalsa “Fly like a Butterfly” children’s yoga certification.

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