The True Definition of Yoga, Explained

People come to Yoga for different reasons – some for preserving and promoting health and handsomeness, some for recovering from physical ill health, some for longevity, some for tackling stress and its toll (the so-called psychosomatic ailments), some for gaining that elusive and utopian peace of mind, some for those sophisticated higher states of consciousness described in spiritual literature, some for plain fashion or just to be considered ‘cool’, some to make a career out of it, and so on and so forth.

So yoga is practiced for different reasons by different people in different places. It seems to be a panacea for everyone and everything. But what actually is ‘Yoga’? Is there a way to establish this? The only response to this question seems to be to go to the source, to refer to the origin of Yoga, to the primary texts and the ancient tradition of Yoga.

Yoga can be understood from the perspectives of its etymology, its philosophy, and its practices.

An etymoligical understanding of yoga

Etymologically, the term ‘Yoga’ comes from the Sanskrit root ‘yuj’, which has three different meanings:

1. ‘Yoga’ means ‘union’ or to yolk, to merge, to join

The meaning of ‘Yoga’ as the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness is the most common meaning of Yoga understood all over the world. Unfortunately this meaning is alien to the basic philosophy of Yoga as represented by Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Neither is this meaning found in Samkhya philosophy, which forms the philosophical foundations of Yogic practices. As ‘union’, the term ‘Yoga’ may be better understood as leading to integration of human personality (mind, body and spirit), making the human being wholesome, harmonious and holistic.

2. ‘Yoga’ means ‘concentration’, or to get engrossed, to absorb

This seems to be the most appropriate meaning of Yoga. Yoga is concentration. While ordinarily man’s concentration is always activity-oriented or object-oriented, depending upon his interests, concentration in Yoga or Yogic Concentration is second nature of the mind. It’s a quality of the mind irrespective of time, place and activity. Wherever the Yogic mind goes, it is concentrated!

3. ‘Yoga’ means ‘discipline’

Yoga is a discipline; a process of disciplining the lifestyle. It is a lifestyle and not a style of life! Yoga makes us take charge of our lives. It is a disciplined process leading to a logical conclusion.

An philosophical understanding of yoga

As a philosophy, Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian Philosophy – orthodox because it believes in the authority of the Vedas. The basic text of this philosophy is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is completely practice-oriented. These practices are established upon the metaphysical foundations provided by Samkhya philosophy. Like the other Indian Philosophies, Yoga is considered as a Moksha Shastra, a science of liberation. The goal of Yoga is to set man ultimately free from the miseries and sufferings of human life. Patanjali gives the most famous definition of Yoga, “Yogaha Chitta Vritti Nirodah”.  All practices of yoga, whether they are asanas or pranayama or meditation, have this liberation as the final goal. Health and happiness are by-products of yoga practices and not the end-products.  The Yoga Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the several Hatha Yoga Texts, the Yoga Vasishtha, etc. are some of the other important Yoga texts.

An practical understanding of yoga

Yoga practices may be delineated as follows: kriyas, yamas, niyamas, asanas, pranayama, mudras and bandhas, pratyahar, meditation practices (dharana, dhyana and samadhi), mantra chanting, relaxation practices, etc. These practices are hierarchical in nature and cater to all the dimensions of human personality – the social, the personal, the physical, the physiological, the mental, the psychological, the intellectual and the spiritual. Thus, Yoga is said to be holistic.  Furthermore, all these practices have concentration leading to pure awareness as their distinguishing feature when compared to other fitness and health regimens.

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Ganesh Rao
Ganesh Rao

Dr. N. Ganesh Rao, a Professor and Ph.D. Guide in Yoga and Philosophy, is one of the most highly learned and experienced teachers and practitioners of Yoga today in India. He is a highly successful Counselor and Therapist. His academic qualifications include M. Com., D.M.S., M.A., Ph. D (Philosophy), Diploma in Naturopathy, Diploma in Yoga Education, Madhyama Yoga Shiksha Certificate and Specialist Instructor in First Aid & Home Nursing. Dr. Rao has conducted till date more than 15000 sessions in Yoga and innumerable Workshops and presented several Papers on Yoga in National & International Conferences.

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