What is Yoga?

What is Yoga? It’s a valid question. When doing my thesis research I was struck by the fact the vast majority yoga practitioners (and teachers!) don’t know much about Yoga. That is to say that they have not given much thought to the activity that they spend so much of their time and money on. This has partly inspired my renewed zeal for yogic education. Anyhow, here’s my working attempt to answer that very interesting yet simple question.

I admit that the word “yoga” has been used in a myriad of ways in the literature but if we are looking for a definition, we must look to the source; the Yogasutras of Patanjali Maharishi. Here, Patanjali clearly defines Yoga as “the cessation of mental activities” (yogas citta vritti nirodhah YS I:2). Here we see the core of Yoga as gaining full control over the mind ultimately leading to liberation.

Many people define “yoga” as “union” based on the Sanskrit root yug; “to yoke”, thus to join, to unite. However, we should not confuse etymology (word origin) and meaning. To understand “yoga” as “to unite” betrays a bias from the Advaita Vedanta (non-dual) school of Indian philosophy. We must be careful not to confuse the two distinct schools of philosophy. In the classic system, there are six darsanas (schools of philosophy), of which include Yoga and Uttarra Mimamsa (commonly known as Advaita Vedanta). Darsan means “sight”; it is philosophy in that it is a way of seeing the world. The particular philosophy is like a pair of glasses, which helps you to see clearly. To conflate two separate darsanas would be like wearing two sets of glasses. Rather than clarifying things, they would further distort. We should also note that Yoga predates Advaita Vedanta of Adi Sankarachayra by about a thousand years (200 BCE – 800 CE).

I find this sort of confusion is the result of the modern Hindu reformers who nearly all favoured Advaita Vedanta and helped to enshrine it firmly in mainstream Hinduism and even more so into the International movements. The reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries found in Advaita Vedanta a Hinduism they could be proud to show Europeans: pure, scientific and monotheistic. A particular milestone in both modern Yoga and Neo-Vedanta (the polished up modern version of Adi Sankara’s) was Swami Vivakananda‘s 1896 publication of Raja Yoga. This was a book on the Yogasutras of Patanjali but written by a brilliant Vedantin Swami.

Another significant influence modern Yoga’s Vedantic colouring was Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh. He was a self-proclaimed Vedantin but Hatha-yoga was also taught at the Vedanta Forest Academy and many of his students continued to teach a fusion of the two around the world. Mostly notable was Swami Vishnudevananda who founded the “International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres and Ashrams”. The very name of the organization contains both philosophies and they teach just that: Hatha-yoga against the back-drop of Advaita Vedanta philosophy.

There is certainly nothing wrong in bridging other philosophies with Yogic methods or techniques in an intelligent way to make it a better fit for you. Just as people mix North American style Buddhism with yoga, all I ask is that we are clear about what we are doing. It’s important to understand and appreciate the beauty of things in themselves before artfully blending them for the purpose of our personal growth. The key word was artfully. It should be done with creativity, logic and beauty; not merely for convenience or commercial appeal.

I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s famous line: “How many legs does a dog have if you call the tail a leg? Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.” Calling things “yoga” doesn’t make it Yoga. Yoga is not about union, mis-identification, or knowing your true self as Brahman. Yoga is about mind control as a means to happiness and lasting peace.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Nisha
    Oct 01, 2012 @ 09:32:02

    The last two lines say it all… But reading the rest was interesting too! 😉


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