what is yoga?

 “Yoga is a journey of the self (ego), through the self (selfish to selfless) to the Self (True Nature)”. Essence of the Bhagavad Gita

The yoga that we all talk about during social hour is actually asana, pose practice. When you tell everyone that you do yoga, is it safe to assume that you are referring to an exercise class at the gym or a studio? But yoga is so much more than that.

Yoga as exercise

The answer to the question when do you do yoga may look like this: at 9:30 am Friday morning or 6:30 p.m. Wednesday evening. The answer to the question where do you do yoga is – at the gym, at the studio, at my house (in front of the T.V. DVD or you tube). The answer to the question how do you do yoga could quite possibly be – using a mat, blocks, blankets and straps. And, finally the answer to the question why do you do yoga may not be limited to these – following my grandfather footsteps, knee pain, to lose weight, to decrease stress and anxiety, or it is your doctor’s prescription, or your are trying it out with your neighbor. All these answers are perfectly fine, if – the meaning of yoga is – exercise.

Yoga as physical exercise — the asanas or postures has gained widespread popularity in recent decades. Although Asanas play a vital role on the path of yoga, they can become a superficial aspect of this great science of unfolding the limitless potential of the human mind and soul.

“Yoga is not a PE class. You’re teaching students how to start feeling free and intuitive. It is a way of moving into stillness in order to experience the truth of who you are.” Erich Schiffmann. 

The Word – Yoga

In the ancient language of Samskritham (Sanskrit), ‘yoga’ comes from the root- युज्yuj, meaning “to add”, “to join”, “to unite”, or “to attach”. 

‘Yoga’ can also mean method, application and performance.

For the purposes of this blog, we will use the meaning “to unite”:  the union of the individual consciousness or soul called जीवात्मन्, Jivatman, with the Universal Consciousness or Spirit, परमात्मन्, Paramatman. This is what yoga practice is all about. In the Yoga Sutras, the yogic text, Patanjali describes this as the union of Prakriti, प्रकृति nature, with पुरुष, Purusha or ईश्वर, Ishvara, – other names for Universal Consciousness or Spiritual Union.

Now that we know that yoga means spiritual union, when you say that you are practicing ‘yoga‘, are you declaring that you are in that higher state of being – i.e., united with the Universal Consciousness? On the other hand, if you mean to say that you are practicing postures on the mat, then you (we all) have to get into the habit of saying – that you are practicing asanas or yoga-asanas at the gym at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Yoga as Spiritual Union

Following this introduction to the meaning of yoga, i.e., union, let’s figure out when we are and when are we not “in spiritual union.”

We can agree that when our body is in pain, when the mind is in turmoil and our negative emotions get the better of us, we are not in spiritual union. When we have forgotten that it is the hand of the Spirit that leads us, the love of the Spirit that nourishes us and breath of the Spirit that enlivens us – we are not in union.

On the other hand, when we help a stranger, rescue an animal, volunteer to pick up trash in our neighborhood park or stop using styrofoam to save the environment, we experience fleeting moments of union with a ‘Higher Purpose’. Are these ‘small gestures’ of Higher Purpose – tangible, transitory aspects of the Universal Consciousness? If so, how do we make this permanent? How do we begin to cultivate the practice – to be in this state of union – day to day, moment to moment?

We could begin on the yoga mat. When you go to the gym for a yoga-asana class, you are choosing to step on the mat. This is the beginning of cultivating the union for you must show up everyday to practice. Yoga mat becomes a place where you work hard to release the blocks in your body and begin to train the mind to be less of a critic.

After mat practice you experience a sense of accomplishment that somehow you were able to leave your world of chores and project deadlines to make it to class. You take deep breath and smile for having found that fleeting moment of joy in your heart and peace in your mind. Have you united your body and mind to be in this moment?

Each week you return to the yoga-asana class and you step on the mat. This repetitive act induces a sense of practice, cultivates the attitude of being present and sparks reverence to the path of yoga. You begin to practice with gratitude for many blessings; for showing up to class, for moments of peace you experience on the mat which may prompt you to take deep breaths throughout the day – to stop and smell the roses.

The yoga mat transforms into a sacred space where you work towards creating health in the body, clarity in the mind and joy in the heart. When the body and mind unite, uncontrolable feelings of joyful gratitude overflows from the depth of your being towards the Spirit. Is this when you begin to truly unite in yoga?

When this ‘yogic ‘union happens repeatedly, lasting longer and longer each time, yogis affirm, that there will come a time when you can constantly dwell in this peaceful, joyful state, a state of constant gratefulness, a state of limitless love – then and only then you can confidently say that you are in a state of yoga, a state of complete union.

My ‘Yoga’

I have been so focussed on trying to learn about ‘yoga‘, through ‘yoga-asana‘ and other allied practices, that fleeting moments of spiritual union quite possibly may have come and gone without me being aware of “It’s” presence.

Awareness happens in small steps. First, I became aware that to achieve yoga, theory and practice were important. Although the books provide a way to acquire some insight into the field of study, it is the actual practice that provides insight into the inner workings of the body and mind.

Then, I became aware that knowing the true meaning of yoga altered the answers to the questions we started with. When do I do yoga – now translated to when am I in the state of union. The answer should probably be – all the time, not just between 9-10 a.m. Tuesday morning, right? This is still work in progress.

Next, where do I practice yoga translates to – in all daily activities and interactions, not just on the mat. Not successful here, either. Here is where I keep forgiveness at the forefront in order for me to return to the mat, to the steps of Raja Yoga to prepare for the next attempt.

And, how can I cultivate the state of yoga – doing selfless service, practicing forgiveness, performing random acts of kindness to name a few practices to start with. Again, this is an ongoing process.

Each day I walk a path strewn with challenges – or opportunities – to cultivate forgiveness, to serve in order to lessen the grip of “I-ness” and to practice constant remembrance of the Spiritual Hand that feeds me, and makes me whole. And when (not if) that moment of Spiritual Union is bestowed upon me, my fervent prayer is that I should be completely aware of “Its” presence.

“Yoga (as a system – Raja Yoga – 8 Fold Path) is the perfect and appropriate method of fusing body and mind together. It is the full realization of the soul’s oneness with Spirit.”
― Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi


Yogananda, Paramahamsa. 1955. Autobiography of a Yogi. Rider Publishers. CA

Schiffman, Erich. 1996. Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness. Simon and Schuster Publ. NY

3 thoughts on “what is yoga?

  1. Asha

    Awareness of yoga as a union or fusion of mind and body is extremely powerful, globally applicable, and needs to be spread to two sets of masses-(1) who equate yoga to mild forms of Indian physical fitness, and (2) to folks that consider yoga as a Hindu religious ritual and actively modifying to suit non-Hindus. I just heard that Om and Namaste/ tree poses/ or similar ones were deliberately taken off a program purely for religious reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Asha. It’s a shame that the philosophy of yoga is misunderstood. The system of yoga is a wonderful spiritual science that teaches tolerance and love without the attached dogma. Let’s hope this awareness catches on sooner than later! Thanks!


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