What Is Yoga?

What Is Yoga? September 19, 2013

In the west we hear the word “Yoga” and it brings one thing to mind…

The word actually encompasses a lot more than this!

Hatha Yoga is a popular form of exercise using poses (asanas). Practitioners often believe that it is a way to use physical movement for greater spiritual balance. Classes usually include periods of stillness and meditation as well as movement. As it becomes more and more popular for exercise and flexibility, some classes divorce yoga entirely from its spiritual origins.

The word “Yoga” itself means to yoke or join together and it was used in ancient times to mean a spiritual discipline. There are several branches of Yoga, only one of which is about movement. Today you might say a person of devotion is practicing bhakti yoga and a person who studies scripture is practicing jnana yoga, while a person who focuses on service to others is practicing karma yoga, etc.

Hatha Yoga all began with

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

which are thought to have been written some time between 100 BCE and 500 CE. In this text there are 8 “limbs” of yoga:

  • Yama the five abstentions: how we relate to the external world.

Ahimsa: non-violence, inflicting no injury or harm to others or to one’s self.
Satya:  truth in word and thought.
Asteya: non-covetousness
Brahmacharya: using sexual energy for connection to our spiritual self and not to use sexual energy in ways that might harm others. Also, responsible behavior with respect to our goal of moving toward the truth.
Aparigraha: non-possessiveness; non-hoarding

  • Niyama  the five observances: how we relate to ourselves, the inner world.

Shaucha: cleanliness of body and mind.
Santosha: satisfaction; satisfied with what one has.
Tapas: austerity and associated observances for body discipline and thereby mental control.
Svadhyaya: study of the Vedic scriptures to know about God and the soul, which leads to introspection on a greater awakening to the soul and God within,
Ishvarapranidhana: surrender to (or worship of) God.

  • Asana: Discipline of the body: rules and postures to keep it disease-free and for preserving vital energy. Correct postures are a physical aid to meditation, for they control the limbs and nervous system and prevent them from producing disturbances.
  • Pranayama: control of life force energies.
  • Pratyahara: withdrawal of senses from their external objects.
  • Dharana: concentration upon a physical object, such as a flame of a lamp, the midpoint of the eyebrows, or the image of a deity.
  • Dhyana: steadfast meditation.
  • Samadhi: oneness with the object of meditation.

-summarized from Wikipedia Yoga Sutras

Modern Yoga

Yoga as we know it today might not be as ancient as we usually think. This article provides an interesting history of the current Yoga poses.

 “The evidence indicates that the transformation of yoga asana from a handful of seated poses to the flowing dance from posture to posture to which we are accustomed has largely occurred in the past 200 years, gaining momentum in the past half-century”

Modern Yoga likely began with  T. Krishnamacharya who developed the techniques in Mysore in the 1930s and 40s.

Is Yoga a Religion?

Though it is a form of Hinduism (or at least it is one aspect that can be used in a practice of Hinduism), the lack of any dogma or requirement to worship a particular deity means that it can be practiced separately from the religion. It is a practice with which non-Hindus can feel very safe and comfortable. For many people it provides a touch of spirituality to their lives without taking on the full weight of a religion.

Though some people using Google seem to think so, Yoga is in no way “demonic.” It doesn’t worship anything, but is focused instead on helping you connect with your inner self. If asked to meditate or chant during class, it would only be chanting to the universe, God, love, or unity.

Is Yoga Safe?

The purpose of modern yoga is to create a healthier life by aligning the posture, breath, life energy, and body. It is said to increase flexibility and help support organs by creating better blood flow.

That said, it should always be undertaken with care and good guidance. Everything in life should be done in measure and too much of anything, even yoga, is not good.

The popularity of “hot yoga” makes me a little nervous. I’m not convinced that bikram yoga (heating the room excessively during the exercises) is beneficial. There is no support for this idea in yoga tradition. It was invented in the 1970s.

See: Too Much Yoga Can Hurt; Can Yoga Be Dangerous; Can Yoga Wreak Your Body; Hot Yoga Can Be Dangerous; Bikram Yoga is Idiotic and Dangerous.


I don’t practice yoga myself, but one of my colleagues here at Patheos has been documenting his journey in daily yoga.



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  • I have trouble with one of the yamas – aparigraha. Non-possessiveness and non-hoarding… Exactly how is this defined, because this is what the average Hindu does, saving and possessing gold (which, by the way, is considered sacred), because this is a form of savings, especially for the rural woman who may not have skills to help herself survive without a husband in the future?

    Here, in the US, it’s a vastly different situation, though MY situation is not too far removed from these women in India, in terms of income earned. There is the concern of a major decline in the US Dollar’s value (which already has happened and has more to go), which would make one hoard clothes and supplies to stay ahead of inflation in buying things. Indians are VERY familiar with this because of their government’s spending policies and the actions of their Central Bank in regards to the recent importation mess in regards to importing gold, which has negatively affected the government’s current account deficit.

    Americans are about to find that out soon. It has been determined that we have been sending gold to China to the tune of over 5,500 TONS over the last 20 years, ABOVE annual mining supply in the US. This can be verified by looking at two numbers over the last 20 years. 1) What is the US mining tonnage of gold in each year? 2) What is the tonnage of gold exported from the US in these years? Hmmm… Where did the gold come from??? Chances are it came out of two places – it came out of the national stockpile AND the gold held in trust for other nations for safe guarding (something that comes to mind is why would it take SEVEN YEARS for Germany to get its gold back from the Feds, while another country was able to get theirs back from another country within months??). It’s a bit complicated to explain further, but essentially, China, Russia, and India are aware of this, and there will be a day coming when we run out and cannot export anymore gold in order to keep the products flowing into the US. What will we do when these countries no longer accept Dollars as part of the exchange reserves and we run out of the gold? This will be a way to shut down the Feds, and we sincerely hope that they won’t respond with nukes.

    This is a pragmatic concern of mine, since I live on a fixed income and have savings that MUST never be touched, which is how Hindu women normally consider their gold savings. It is NEVER to be touched financially, and it must be passed down through the family at all costs. However, the gold comes in handy when there is ABSOLUTELY no other choice.

    • Ambaa

      There’s certainly a balance to be found, since artha, the gathering of wealth of various kinds, is a virtue.

      The way I’ve looked at it is to try not to be ashamed of trying to make money and make my family secure but at the same time to give when there is someone in front of me who needs it more than I.

      Making sure you can survive is not being greedy or hoarding in my opinion.

      The situation with gold in the U.S. is indeed a problem and I don’t know what the solution is.

      • Thank you for the reminder about artha. I had forgotten about that.

        The answer for America is to acknowledge the theft of land and resources from the Native Americans, and then acknowledge the theft of real goods via the exchange of paper dollars with practically no value. I don’t know how the former would be handled, but the latter would most likely be handled by Americans having to start all over again and work to pay off the imbalance, and then Americans would start to be able to save, just like people in other countries such as India do.

        Artha and wealth accumulation in Anglo countries are vastly different, very much so! Artha says, I would believe, that if you have 50 ounces of gold, and you want 51 ounces, then you must go out there and do work to get this extra ounce of gold. The American way is to “work smart, not hard.” This comes with all the implications for finding ways to leverage your income potential, never mind the consequences. One thing that people got trained on in general is the idea of interest. That you can leave $100 in the bank, and magically, in one year’s time, without doing ANYTHING on your part, you end the year with $105 (assuming 5% interest from the 1980s and maybe the 1990s). You haven’t done ANYTHING to earn that interest, and yet, banks are making multiples of what you earn in interests and giving you the little bit that you get, and it’s even worse today, with ZIRP (Zero Interest Rate Policy) in effect today.

        By the way, Christian bankers are not supposed to charge their fellow people interest, and they’re supposed to discharge the remainder of debt after 7 years, according to verses in the Bible. Have you seen anybody do this? Me neither…