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What is Yoga


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What is the Real Meaning of Yoga

Is your image of Yoga a room full of lithe bodies in lululemon pants, contorted into various poses (asanas)?
If so, you are not alone. Yet performing these asanas can no more achieve Yoga than using a hammer alone can build you a house. Like a hammer, these asanas are a tool, one of many used to attain Yoga.

Four hundred years BC, Pantajali wrote the definitive book on Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Pantajali. Through a series of wise sayings(sutras), Pantajali defines Yoga and describes how to achieve it. In his second Sutra, he defines Yoga: 

“Yogas Citta Vrtti Nirodhah”. Translated literally: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga. 

Got it. Of course not! But combine it with the third Sutra and use a less literal translation, and it becomes clearer:

 If you still the mind, you will experience your true nature. You will experience Yoga.

So the practice of Yoga is all about stilling the mind.

So how do you still your mind?

First, you must understand what Yoga means by the mind. Yogic philosophy separates the mind into three distinct levels:

  • The Ahamkara is the ego part of your mind. It is the “I” feeling that makes you feel separate from your surroundings.
  • The Buddhi is the analytic part of your mind. The buddhi processes information coming in from your senses.
  • The Manas is the desiring part of the mind which gets attracted to outside things through your senses.

Imagine you are sitting quietly, entirely at peace, absorbed in nature after a good hike. Suddenly, your nose picks up a delicious smell. The moment the manas records, ” I am getting a delicious smell from somewhere,” the buddhi analyzes, “What is that smell? I think it’s coffee, no it’s mocha, with whipped cream”. Once the buddhi has determined its mocha with whipped cream, the ahamkara says, “Oh, is that so? Then I want one now”.
Suddenly, your mouth is watering, your peaceful state is gone, and you are heading for the nearest Starbucks.

One minute your mind was still, and you felt absolute peace absorbed in nature. The next, your manas, buddhi, and ahamkara took over and dragged you down the hill to find a mocha. The beautiful peace in the forest didn’t change; only what went on in your mind changed.

Through practices such as meditation, you get glimpses, then build awareness that you are not your mind. You begin to realize that your sense of “I,” good or bad, happy or sad, are mental processes going on in your mind. They are not you. They are “mental modifications ” of your mind.

The more you realize this stuff is not you, the less it controls you. When you are finally free of it, you can live in your true nature. You have achieved Yoga.

This explanation of Yoga explains why the most common translation of the word Yoga is “Union .”The union between self and non-self. Free of identifying with your mental processes, you experience a dissolution of self to become “One with the Universe.”

So to reside in our true nature and achieve this enlightened, blissful state, a.k.a Yoga, we need to still the mind.

But what do lululemon pants and downward dog have to do with stilling the mind? Have you ever tried to go straight from a crazy, hectic day and sit quietly, not moving a muscle? To still the mind, our body must be able to sit quietly. Do you know that wonderful sense of calm after a good asana session? That is the perfect state to start meditation. That is the purpose of asanas, to prepare the body to sit for meditation.

Besides performing asanas, there are seven other tools described to achieve Yoga. These eight steps, commonly known as the 8 limbs of Yoga, basically act as guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. They serve as a prescription for moral and ethical conduct and self-discipline; they direct attention toward one’s health and help us acknowledge the spiritual aspects of our nature.

  •  Yama (moral discipline)
  • Niyama (observances)
  • Asana (physical postures)
  • Pranayama (breathing techniques)
  • Pratyahara (sense withdrawal)
  • Dharana (concentration)
  • Dhyana (absorption or meditation)
  • Samadhi (enlightenment or bliss)

I encourage you to explore the eight limbs of Yoga and deepen your understanding of Yoga.

The most accessible translation of the Yoga Sutras is The Yoga Sutras of Pantajali by Sri Swami Satchidananda

When you read the Sutras, you perform one of the Niyamas (observances). Because every time you read it, you will get a deeper understanding of Yoga. Like asanas, reading spiritual texts is another tool to achieve Yoga.


Spiritual woman meditating on mountain top with lake in background

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