What is Yoga?
Like many people, there was a time in my life when this was a fairly straight forward sounding question. Yoga was putting on exercise clothes, heading to a class in some dusty hall, and stretching and moving to instruction. These were my first impressions anyway, way back when. As my yoga practice developed, and I became more interested in yoga, I began to ask questions of instructors, read books, and research online. Eventually, having come to see my yoga practice as essential to my well-being, I enrolled in a teacher training program where I was presented with a very different picture of the nature yoga.
Years later, after countless hours of practice, guided by countless yoga teachers, I have encountered an incredible variety of versions of what yoga is. Being a lifelong enquirer into the nature of things, I decided to investigate this question (and quite a lot of other questions too) as part of my university studies. What I discovered is that yoga, like many other things in life, is a lot more complex than it first appeared, and that it’s complex historical story is in fact far more fascinating than the popular one. Gradually, I began to peel back the layers to reveal a history of yoga that is very different from the version I encountered within the yoga tradition itself. After viewing yoga through the frames of history, studies in religion, anthropology, sociology, gender studies, and more, I’ve come to the opinion that just about any definition or interpretation of yoga is probably at least partially true, but not likely to be the whole of the story.
This perspective flies somewhat in the face of many popular ideas about yoga. For example, many people subscribe to the notion that yoga is a kind of pure original system that has been handed down through the ages in a long lineage of adepts, or that it is best represented by the ‘classical’ system recorded in the Yogasūtras, or even that it can be divorced entirely from ‘all that spiritual stuff’ to achieve a dynamic sweaty work out. To me, all of these perspectives can be seen as partially true, but leave out some important and intriguing tales. Looking into the stories of the historic yoga personalities who have shaped the development and popularisation of yoga is just one way to add richness and perspective to the story of yoga. There are many others.
Another common way I’ve heard yoga explained is via the Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ itself. Yoga is often translated as ‘union’, ‘connection’, or ‘to join’. While yoga, and/or its root verb yuj, can indeed mean these things, it can also be used to denote an incredible number of other things including ‘a weapon’, ‘harness the horses’, or ‘a device’. What is often missing from the translations and accompanying interpretations of yoga is social and historical context. I believe this kind of context is important for developing a greater understanding of where yoga practices came from, what their original aims were, and thus, what aspects of them are still relevant, practical, and effective for us today.
There are some who would argue that none of this is ‘real yoga’. That yoga is only attainable through experiential practice. Depending on how you define yoga, this may certainly be true. But even some of the earliest practitioners of premodern Haṭhayoga, who shunned academic scholarship and promoted practice as the path to results, still wrote books and are known today because of these recorded works. Arguably, these works provided written signposts for students to use in the development of their yoga practices.
This is what I believe the historic stories of yoga have to offer us, a broader and more diverse collection of signposts. By thinking more deeply and broadly about the ideas we encounter in modern yoga, we stand to develop a more mature relationship with yoga and with ourselves. As modern yoga scholar Mark Singleton has suggested:
Beyond mere history for history’s sake, learning about yoga’s recent past gives us a necessary and powerful lens for seeing our relationship with tradition, ancient and modern. At its best, modern yoga scholarship is an expression of today’s most urgently needed yogic virtue, viveka (“discernment” or “right judgment”). Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing.
So if a little flame of curiosity has been ignited in you, I invite you to read some of my blogs, perhaps check out the workshops page for upcoming dates, or get in touch to find out where to begin your own exploration.