If I ask “what is yoga?”, what immediately springs to mind? Probably an image of someone bent into a human pretzel, their feet wrapped behind their head, eyes closed, chanting ‘OMMMMM’ – am I somewhere close? Thought so.
I’ll forgive you, it’s easy to think that yoga is all about getting flexible. Whilst asana (the physical postures) are an important part of yoga, they are only one aspect of the practice. In modern times, we commonly use asana as well as pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation to form our practice, though there are many other ways to live a yogic life! Here’s a brief overview of the meaning and history of our beloved yoga.
There are many interpretations of yoga, it’s hard to know where to begin in all honesty. Ancient scripture such as the Bhagavad Gita gives numerous definitions, here are just a few:
- Yoga is the supreme secret of life
- Yoga is the giver of infinite happiness
- Yoga is the remover of misery and pain
- With yoga, one has the ability to maintain inner peace at all times
Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, defines yoga as “Chitta Vritti Nirodhah”. Literally meaning the mastery/control over the modifications of the mind, it suggests that yoga helps us control our own thoughts, feelings and emotions to live with equilibrium (or you might say, step off the emotional rollercoaster that so many of us get stuck on!).
Yoga has a complex, rich history dating back around 8,000 years. The word ‘yoga’ comes from the sanskrit word ‘yuj’. Like yoga itself, the word yuj also has a plethora of meanings, but most common is ‘to unite’. To combine, to add to, to bring together: yoga means union.
“Okay so yoga means union, but the union of what?” I hear you ask. Well, my friend, once again there are many different answers to this question.
Yoga unites our own individual consciousness with the universal consciousness. Unity also refers to bringing the body and mind into harmony, as well as bringing the different aspects of the mind into harmony with each other to create focus. What awaits us when we unite all these aspects? A sense of peace, in any situation. Harmony. Bliss. Clarity. Focus. And eventually? Samadhi, otherwise known as: enlightenment.
Unity is present in everything, as every object around you is made up of different things, down to the teeny tiny particles and molecules! This means that everything deserves respect, as everything and everyone is connected.
Changes through time
Although yoga has been around for thousands of years, and the roots have stayed constant, people’s use of the practice has changed. In old traditional time, right back at the beginning, people lived lives which were far more connected to the gods/universe. Yoga for them was a way to connect and unify with the supreme divinity. “Yoga is the union between the soul and the super soul”
Fast forward a few thousand years and we have the middle traditional time, when religions began to be founded. It is believed that this was in order to reconnect people with the gods, as people had become less connected with divinity. “Yoga is the union between body, mind and soul”
Nowadays, we define yoga as I have described above; it has become a much more inwardly focused practice, helping us reconnect to ourselves, bringing us back into harmony as we are influenced by so many external factors, stresses, possessions. Yoga teaches us to detach from that which does not serve us, or in other words: “don’t sweat the small stuff!”
It’s all about you
If you’re new to yoga, or find yourself only ever practicing asana, I want to say an even bigger thank you for reading this post! Yoga is so much more than just getting flexible, and the more you learn, the more you’ll get out of your practice.
All in all, yoga can mean whatever you want it to mean. I know you’re probably shouting at your screen right now, after I’ve just bombarded you with all that information! But yoga is such a huge concept, with so much to learn and discover, I’ve barely scratched the surface here. Practice your yoga, learn as much as you want to about its history, but most of all enjoy every moment of it!