What Is Yoga? REALLY?

Yoga is Probably NOT What YOU Think It Is

There are many places you can read where some one says “Yoga is …”, then they proceed to define or describe it in a particular way. Yet this definition or description can vary widely, such as: Yoga is a religious worship … or no it’s not. Yoga is a relaxing exercise … or no, it’s much more than that. Yoga is a religion-neutral meditation … or no, it’s not. … The number of claims as to what yoga IS and is not is nearly endless. The problem is that SOME of these people are ADAMANT that their definition or usage is THE correct one.

Yoga: A Mistaken Identity?

OKAY. Now, let’s look at Wikipedia for a minute:

Yoga (Sanskrit, Pāli: योग, /ˈjəʊɡə/, yoga) is a commonly known generic term for physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines which originated in ancient India.[1][2] Specifically, yoga is one of the six āstika (“orthodox”) schools of Hindu philosophy. One of the most detailed and thorough expositions on the subject are the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Various traditions of yoga are found in Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism.

I guess that confirms that, huh? That’s THE definition of yoga.

BUT WAIT … let’s look at what a Sanskrit Lexicon says “yoga” is:

Define Yoga from Cologne Digital Sanskrit Lexicon:
Internet Search Results


m. (1. %{yuj} ; ifc. f. %{A}) the act of yoking , joining , attaching , harnessing , putting to (of horses) RV. MBh. ; a yoke , team , vehicle , conveyance S3Br. Kaus3. MBh. ; employment , use , application , performance RV. &c. &c. ; equipping or arraying (of an army) MBh. ; fixing (of an arrow on the bow-string) ib. ; putting on (of armour) L. ; a remedy , cure Sus3r. ; a means , expedient , device , way , manner , method MBh. Ka1v. &c. ;

So much for what Wikipedia says. All of a sudden, the word yoga is not quite so specific, is it? And only now, later in the definition, do we get to anything “other-worldly” or remotely “spiritual” in nature … Back to the Lexicon…

a supernatural means , charm , incantation , magical art ib. ;

But notice what comes right after that … some not so nice stuff!

a trick , stratagem , fraud , deceit Mn. Katha1s. (cf. %{yoga-nanda}) ;

And what’s THIS? … Something about yoga being a term of BUSINESS? …

undertaking , business , work RV. AV. TS. ; acquisition , gain , profit , wealth , property ib. Kaus3. MBh. ;

So much for yoga having nothing to do with commercial enterprise. … What else do we have?

occasion , opportunity Ka1m. Ma1rkP. ; any junction , union , combination , contact with (instr. with or without %{saha} , or comp.). MBh. Ka1v. &c. (%{yogam} %{i} , to agree , consent , acquiesce in anything R.) ; mixing of various materials , mixture MBh. R. VarBr2S. ; partaking of , possessing (instr. or comp.) Mn. R. Hariv. ; connection , relation (%{yogAt} , %{yogena} and %{yoga-tas} ifc. in consequence of , on account of , by reason of , according to , through) Ka1tyS3r. S3vetUp. Mn. &c. ; putting together , arrangement , disposition , regular succession Ka1t2h. [856,3] S3rS. ; fitting together , fitness , propriety , suitability (%{yogena} and %{yoga-tas} ind. suitably , fitly , duly , in the right manner) MBh. Ka1v. &c. ; exertion , endeavour , zeal , diligence , industry , care , attention (%{yoga-tas} ind. strenuously , assiduously ; %{pUrNena@yogena} , with all one’s powers , with overflowing zeal) Mn. MBh. &c. ;

OH BOY! FINALLY, we get to what we are told by so many — including Wikipedia — that yoga “is” …

application or concentration of the thoughts , abstract contemplation , meditation , (esp.) self-concentration , abstract meditation and mental abstraction practised as a system (as taught by Patan5jali and called the Yoga philosophy ; it is the second of the two Sa1m2khya systems , its chief aim being to teach the means by which the human spirit may attain complete union with I7s3vara or the Supreme Spirit ; in the practice of self-concentration it is closely connected with Buddhism) Up. MBh. Ka1v. &c. (IW. 92) ; any simple act or rite conducive to Yoga or abstract meditation Sarvad. ; Yoga personified (as the son of Dharma and Kriya1) BhP. ; a follower of the Yoga system MBh. S3am2k. ; (in Sa1m2khya)

And tell me this next bit is absolutely without religious interpretation.

the union of soul with matter (one of the 10 Mu1lika7rtha1s or radical facts) Tattvas. ; (with Pa1s3upatas) the union of the individual soul with the universal soul Kula7rn2. ; (with Pa1n5cara1tras) devotion , pious seeking after God Sarvad. ; (with Jainas) contact or mixing with the outer world ib. ; (in astron.) conjunction , lucky conjuncture La1t2y.

YOU might not consider “union of soul with matter” to be “religious.” But many people around the world DO. Let’s take a quick trip back to Wikipedia, even though we’ve already seen they’re not perfectly trustworthy:

Religion is an organized collection of belief systems, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.

So YES, defined the way MANY people define it, yoga is certainly a “religion.” Maybe not in your or some other peoples’ minds, but we each have our own Truth, right? (I don’t buy that one 100 percent, but I think you get my point.)

And I bet some of you didn’t know you were also practicing astrology, too …

VarBr2S. MBh. &c. ; a constellation , asterism (these , with the moon , are called %{cAndra-yogAH} and are 13 in number ; without the moon they are called %{kha-yogAH} , or %{nAbhasa-yogAH}) VarBr2S. ; the leading or principal star of a lunar asterism W. ; N. of a variable division of time (during which the joint motion in longitude of the sun and moon amounts to 13 degrees 20 minutes ; there are 27 such Yogas beginning with Vishkambha and ending with Vaidhr2iti) ib. ;

And of course, if you are a math or English teacher, YOU are a yogi too …

(in arithm.) addition , sum , total Su1ryas. MBh. ; (in gram.) the connection of words together , syntactical dependence of a word , construction Nir. Sus3r. (ifc. = dependent on , ruled by Pa1n2. 2-2 , 8 Va1rtt. 1) ; a combined or concentrated grammatical rule or aphorism Pa1n2. Sch. Siddh. (cf. %{yoga-vibhAga}) ; the connection of a word with its root , original or etymological meaning (as opp. to %{rUDhi} q.v.) Nir. Prata1p. Ka1tyS3r. Sch. ; a violator of confidence , spy L. ; N. of a Sch. on the Parama7rthasa1ra ; (%{A}) f. N. of a S3akti Pan5car. ; of Pi1vari1 (daughter of the Pitr2is called Barhishads) Hariv.

Do you see a small problem here? …

(Sorry, about how long that “definition” is, but I wanted you to get the Full Effect of the sheer diversity of the word.)

But look how far into the definition we got before there is even a HINT of anything “spiritual,” or having anything to do with the mind, at all, whereas Wikipedia had it right at the beginning, and. the whole article focused ONLY on that aspect of the meaning of the word yoga.

So, What Do We Know Now?

First, the only thing that can be said with absolute certainty is that y-o-g-a is just four letters on a page, or yo-ga is two syllables people verbally utter sometimes. That’s the ONLY thing that we can say that “yoga” absolutely IS. Beyond that, the word is, although it does have a somewhat specific meaning compared to other words, applies to many dimensions and widely varied aspects of life. Like any other word, when it comes to absolutes, the only meaning of any word is that which certain human beings, by agreement, ascribe to those markings on a paper or sounds they utter. (Some Sanskrit purists might argue this point, but that is too big a topic for such a short article.)

Yet in language, words are supposed to be tools of communication, and the more agreement between people as to a specific a word’s exact meaning, the more effective and efficiently we can communicate our intended meanings. But if there is ambiguity about a word’s meaning, then communication slows down, or breaks down altogether, much to everyone’s discomfort and sometimes confusion, or even physical violence.

As they say, we must define our terms. For those who say it’s only semantics, well, in legal matters, the misplacement of a comma or semi-colon can land you in jail, or worse … or get you off the hook. And to some adamantly religious practitioners of “yoga,” get this definition and practice wrong, and your spiritual and physical well-being are at stake.

So when people say they are doing yoga, or referring to yoga for some reason, what IS that phenomena they are intending to communicate? Are you talking about the thing some guy who spent twenty years in a cave in India developing internally? Or the moves the cute blonde at the health club leads a diverse group of people in to Madonna tunes a few times a week?

And if the guy in the cave happened to be the first human being to discover or invent this thing called yoga, are we all required to stick to his definition?

So here is where the trouble starts. The actual practice of Yoga is an extremely personal, individual experience. Meaning, NO one can do your yoga for you. Only you can do it. And the number of ways to do IT, what ever IT is, is probably near to infinite. Some would argue that yoga is not an individual experience, that it IS an action of the collective consciousness, but tell that to the cute blonde at the health club when no one shows up to class. If their are no individuals showing up, there is no collective group. And no group can ever show up without individuals in it.

(Yes, some Quantum Consciousness types will argue that point, too, I suppose, not enough time here to discuss that.)

Yet like so many things, people have a great, pleasurable, and/or profound personal experience and they want to share it with the world. So they attempt to define, organize, codify, structure, and otherwise narrow down this experience to what THEY experienced so that YOU can experience it too. … That’s very nice of them. It can help a lot of people. That’s in great part what I do.

But, the human brain loves to compartmentalize stuff. This is built into its very structure. Up to a point, it has to just to make sense of the world and survive, let alone prosper. Otherwise our experience of the world and ourselves would be too chaotic.

Now, the trouble starts:

Along with compartmentalization, another thing the brain does is accumulate and defend an ego. So when someone gets attached to a particular way of doing things, or particular meanings, protecting the integrity of that thing or process is equivalent to protecting their very own ego and self identity. They literally get attached to meanings via the firing of their physical synapses. The meanings literally get biochemically embedded in their nervous systems.

It gets really tricky when someone decides they have had a glimpse of cosmic reality and take it upon themselves to tell everyone the way IT IS, whatever IT happens to be. There are large handfuls of people on earth for whom this thing we are calling y-o-g-a is without doubt some kind of religion. NO question about it… to them.

Yet among those groups, a number of them have almost diametrically opposed opinions about what yoga is, or is not, within that context. So even they don’t always agree.

But, what is religion, anyway? Even here, there is little agreement. Just one of several definitions is:

a pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance.

One of very many definitions of yoga, right out of a Sanskrit lexicon, is:

abstract meditation and mental abstraction practiced as a system

Therefore if a person uses meditation to discover something of supreme importance, what they believe to be a very religious insight, then he or she has a right to call their practice a religion AND a yoga, if they so choose.

Yet if the cute blond doing stretches to Madonna tunes at the fitness center calls what he or she is doing yoga, s/he has that right too.

Yet among the religious people — both Hindus and Christians, if you read some of their websites, are ADAMANT that yoga is INHERENTLY a religion … well, even that depends. Some of the most religious yoga practitioners have different systems than other practitioners, and are not in full agreement.

So from one point of view, they are all right. Or, they are all wrong … IF they believe that their interpretation is the only “correct” one. They have become ego-identified with their interpretation, and will sometimes resort to verbal violence, or worse, to defend their point of view.

In the end, to keep communication, peace and sanity, it all boils down to … adjectives.

Because the word y-o-g-a is so universally applied, it is unlikely, and probably unnecessary, to be replaced. I searched for years for a replacement, but could not find one. Well, when it comes to physical/mental combined with postural yoga, the term “Conscious Stretching” is pretty good, but not great.

So the logical think, I think, is to just not use the word yoga alone, unless you are with a group of very like minded people. We must select and utilize adjectives to specify which aspect of yoga we are talking about. If you say Iyengar Yoga, there is very little disagreement as to what that actually is. If you are not sure, Iyengar will be happy to tell you. Bikram will be even MORE happy to tell you what HIS yoga is, and that the other forms of yoga are … well, let’s not go there right now.

But there will still be certain Christians who will say even Iyengar’s yoga, which is focused heavily on structure, is the worshiping of the devil’s work. The first part of Iyengar’s book, Light On Yoga, does lean in that direction (as religious, not devil worship, at least in my mind).

Yet there are some people — the Explorers in Life, if you will — who only need a little bit of structure and certainty, and can handle a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty. They are far less attached to other people’s ideas of what a particular word indicates, if it’s as ambiguous as this situation. Those are the people who got into yoga first.

Most people, on the other end of the spectrum, are Followers. They prefer to let their employer or exercise class leader or their government or their priest or pope handle as much of the thinking as possible. They like things to be secure and compartmentalized, and to be told what the correct way to do or things or think is. It’s safer that way (they think, anyway). Yes, there is a vast continuum between these extremes, but this is the reality.

Strict followers of religion or any kind of practice, even an exercise class — those who would be adamant about what something IS — tend to be in the second category, Followers. (Some people are Explorers in some aspects of their life, and Followers in others.)


THANKS for Reading,
David Scott Lynn (DSL*)
* DSL: Your High-Touch Uplink to the Inner-Net**
**Inner-Net: Your Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-fasical System

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David Scott Lynn (DSL)

DSL the Yogi at Whole Life Perspectives
Beginning at 13 years of age, DSL's been involved with alternative philosophies & practices most of his life. Becoming a yoga teacher in 1976, then a hands-on bodyworker in 1981, he developed a unique & highly effective form of Yoga / Bodywork / Whole Health Fitness & Therapeutics. … David wrote the chapters on a wholistic philosophy & physiology of bodywork & stretching for the textbook Structural Balancing, published by McGraw-Hill, Inc. in 2010. … He is the author of Simple Steps to Let-Go Yoga, available at: www.letgoyoga.com/simple-steps/ … Several other e-books and e-courses are soon forthcoming at www.letgoyoga.com/dsl-publications/ … David consults with Kyle C. Wright on massage school development at the Schools of Advanced Bodywork at http://kylecwright.com/structural-balancing-a-clinical-approach/co-author-dsl/ .
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