What is Yoga?

When most people hear the word “Yoga” they think of downward facing dogs, stretching, yoga pants and mats. This is the physical practice known as the “Asana” of yoga. However, there is much more to Yoga than simple moving and stretching.

The origins of Yoga go back thousands of years. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defined the purpose of Yoga as “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha”, which roughly translates as “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind”. It is these fluctuations of the mind that cause us to interpret, define and colour the nature of reality as we experience it through our senses. Think of your mindset as the lens through which you see reality. This lens might be colourful, sharp and clear; or it may be foggy, unfocussed and dark. For example, we have all experienced times when we have been feeling down, apathetic, frustrated or anxious. When we are in this mental state, our experience of reality accordingly becomes very negative. We may find certain people or situations difficult, whereas in another time we could take these same people and situations in our stride. We can seem to go from experiencing life as slow, difficult and scary one week to viewing life with an abundance of joy, opportunity and intrigue the next. If you have ever experienced this then ask yourself the question: did reality change from one week to the next? Or did your experience of reality change? 

Patanjali’s definition of yoga therefore is a method for recognising our mental fluctuations for what they are – temporary and changeable – and moving beyond them so that we may experience reality as it is, from a place of calm and peace, without distortion from the mind.

In order to remove our mental fluctuations and move towards this clear state of mind, Patanjali identified eight yoga practices, or the “Eight Limbs” as he called them:

  1. YAMA (Ethical standards such as truth and non-violence)
  2. NIYAMA (Self-disciplines, such as hygiene, work and gratitude)
  3. ASANA (The physical practice of yoga postures)
  4. PRANAYAMA (Positive breathing techniques)
  5. PRATYAHARA (Positive detachment from the material world)
  6. DHARANA (Concentration)
  7. DHYANA (Meditation)
  8. SAMADHI (The final stage, enlightenment)

As we can see, there is much more to Yoga than simply practicing postures. However, what we consistently find is that by positively practicing one habit, the benefits leak into other areas of your life. For example, when we make a commitment to practice yoga Asana once or twice a week, most people experience increasing feelings of gratitude (Niyama), peace towards others (Yama) and they find themselves less distracted in their day-to-day life (Dharana).

Give it a try for yourself and see what you notice!


A brief history: Yoga explained in 2 minutes