What is Yoga?

A brief history and summary

Many people think that yoga is just stretching. And it’s true that the form of yoga that is commonly practiced in the west today has a strong focus on physical postures or poses, or more accurately asana, a Sanskrit word, the language of ancient India.

The word yoga means “union” in Sanskrit. The yoga practice aims to unite the mind, body and spirit. The aims and benefits of yoga are varied and range from improving health and physical fitness to achieving mental clarity and spiritual enlightenment.

The physical practice of Yoga creates balance and health in the body through developing both strength and flexibility. In addition to the poses, yoga classes may also include breathing practices (or pranayama), call and response chanting, or meditation. The variety will depend on the individual teacher and the yoga style in which he or she is trained.

Yoga is based on ancient texts, such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and aims to use meditation to attain spiritual insight and tranquility. Asana is only one of the eight “limbs” of yoga, the others of which are concerned with a moral code of conduct and mental and spiritual well-being. The eight limbs of yoga lead the practitioner towards “Samadhi”, a state of intense concentration achieved through meditation. It is a state of awareness in which you are aware of the underlying oneness of the universe. You become whole and fully present. This is the completion of the yogic path and leads to deep, lasting peace.

In the West, however, the words asana and yoga are often used interchangeably. The tradition of physical poses (asanas) of Hatha Yoga goes back 500 years, but these asanas were not widely practiced in India prior to the early 1900s. From the early twentieth century the modern practice evolved with its emphasis on precision of alignment, physical fitness and therapeutic effects.

Prior to this, yoga was concerned with philosophical and esoteric goals and practices. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali mentions no poses at all, other than the seated meditation posture. (The Sanskrit word “asana” literally means “seat.”).

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya was the primary influence on the modern Hatha Yoga practice. By combining pranayama (breathing practice) and asana, he made the postures an integral part of meditation instead of just a step leading toward it.

Yoga’s renewed popularity in India in the 1930s owes a great deal to Krishnamacharya. His four most famous students—Jois, Iyengar, Devi, and his son, T.K.V. Desikachar—played a huge part in bringing yoga to the west and making it widespread.

In the early years, most of Krishnamacharya’s students were young, energetic boys, and this influenced the system he developed at that time. He drew on many disciplines including yoga, gymnastics, and Indian wrestling, to develop sequences of asana that were performed in a dynamic way to build physical fitness. This became Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga which is one of the most popular styles of yoga today, mostly due to the work of K. Pattabhi Jois, one of Krishnamacharya’s most famous students.

In later years, Krishnamacharya and one of his other students, BKS Iyengar worked on the therapeutic aspects of yoga, making yoga accessible to one and all regardless of age, ability or health.

For most people, it is the physical aspects and benefits of yoga that attract them to the practice. The physical practice of yoga may become a doorway into spiritual exploration for some people, while others may just enjoy the physical practice because of the benefits it affords their physical and mental wellbeing.

As a student progresses, the practice may become more about the subtle aspects of yoga, such as pranayama, meditation and the spiritual aspects of yoga and not necessarily just about more advanced asanas.

Ultimately the practice should lead towards inner calm. The practice has the power to not only benefit your physical health and fitness, but your mental and spiritual well-being, your relationships and your life.

When moving into the spiritual aspects of yoga, every student’s cultural and religious background is respected. Its philosophies are all inclusive, serving only to deepen any existing spiritual or religious practice. We simply acknowledge a power greater than ourselves.