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What is yoga? Part one.

Updated: Aug 13, 2021

The Yoga State of Mind

By Melissa Boudiette

For most of us, hearing the word yoga conjures images of skinny ladies with messy buns on

their heads and perfectly sculpted buns covered in trendy (and likely expensive) yoga gear. With yoga itself a growing trend, we may observe modern yogis posting pics of themselves contorting into seemingly impossible poses effortlessly, amid some glorious natural

backdrop of course (I may or may not be guilty of this myself), and unknowingly develop the misconception that these expressions of the yoga lifestyle are yoga itself. To understand what exactly yoga is, I invite you to set those images aside and consider that true or pure yoga, is actually much more complex, yet simple, than most of us realize.

Getting to the Roots

To begin our understanding of yoga, we need to look at the roots of a tradition that began with stone tablets recording the first known yoga poses in 3000 BCE and was only available to the elite class of Hindus. It took another 5000 years for the Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, Vegas and other ancient yoga texts to be written, then centuries before the practice of Hatha Yoga (a system of physical postures and breathing control) began in 1100 AD, and it’s been evolving ever since! The first definition of yoga described it as “the restraint of the senses,” and while this definition remains an integral aspect of yoga, the term yoga has evolved to encompass several other traits and practices from our modern perspective [1].

The Birth of Modern Yoga

Seasoned and even beginner yoga students may be familiar with names like B.K.S. Iyengar, a

man who was a key figure in popularizing yoga in the U.S. in the 60s, or Indra Devi, the woman who came before him (also the first woman permitted to even learn yoga). What many don’t know is that both Iyengar and Devi, along with prominent figures like K. Pattabhi Jois and T.K.V. Desikachar, were all students of Sri T. Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya truly is the inventor of Modern Vinyasa Yoga as we know it, from which all other interpretations stem [2].

Born in 1888, Krishnamacharya began his pursuit of yoga at an early age, “learning many classical Indian disciplines, including Sanskrit, logic, ritual, law, and the basics of Indian medicine. In time, he would channel this broad background into the study of yoga, where he

synthesized the wisdom of these traditions” [2]. After years of study and practice of ásanas (yoga poses), his teacher Brahmachari sent his loyal student home to teach yoga and begin a

household. Since gurus and yoga masters were historically celibate until that time, Krishnamacharya honoring this request to begin a family was without question an integral

reason the practice of yoga once restricted to the wealthy classes became available to the

common householder. In order to define yoga with a 21 st century perspective, while honoring the centuries of ancient wisdom this small word represents, we’ll be leaning on the wisdom of Krishnamacharya himself, as outlined in The Heart of Yoga, written by his son and student, Desikachar.

Desikachar writes, “My father [Krishnamacharya] never saw yoga simply as a physical practice. Yoga was much more about reaching the highest, which for him was [the divine, oneness with God/higher power, enlightenment]…Yoga is primarily a practice intended to make someone wiser, more able to understand things than they were before” [3]. Of the six

essential systems of Indian thought called darśana (meaning “to see”), Yoga is one. Definitions of the word passed down throughout centuries include “to come together,” to unite,” “to tie the strands of the mind together,” “to attain what was previously unattainable” [3]. Every change, every action in life that progresses us forward in some way is yoga, which also requires us to act in ways where we

direct our attention toward the activity of the moment, and step-by-step accomplish our goals. What yoga aims to create, then, is a state of mind in which we are always present in every action and moment, subduing our egos in order to understand, accept, and grow through each and every experience, whether physical, mental or spiritual (however you define that term personally).

Practicing Modern Yoga

Through the belief that life includes both joy and suffering, yoga offers a way to ease suffering, or the avidyá of life by developing what Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, would call “discriminative discernment,” which is “cultivated by practicing ashtanga yoga. Ashtanga means “eight limbs” and is the term Patanjali uses for the path or steps of yoga, also known as the eightfold path (which are described in Book 2, Sutra 29).

The eight limbs of yoga are:

  1. Yama – restraints

  2. Niyama – observations

  3. Ásana – posture

  4. Pranayama - breathing practices

  5. Pratyahara - withdrawing the senses

  6. Dharana – concentration

  7. Dhyana – meditation

  8. Samadhi – enlightenment [4]

From our brief dive into the history of yoga, we can see that yoga is much more than fancy yoga pants and expensive lattes. Yoga is a state of mind, and in order to reach this calm state of presence and oneness with the universe, we must practice ashtanga, they eight limbs of yoga, which we will discuss in depth in Part 2 of our series on “What is Yoga?”



3: Heart of Yoga



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