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What is Yoga?

Updated: Jun 18

Hint: It is probably not what you are thinking.

The first time I experienced true yoga was about 8 years after my first yoga class. I wasn’t doing any fancy poses or breathwork, nor was I meditating or chanting. I was covered in ash and sweat, trembling from the adrenaline coursing through my veins, and crying the best kind of cry. 

For most people when they hear the word yoga, it stirs up images of hyper-flexible humans in spandex and mala beads contorting their bodies into shapes generally only accessible to acrobats and young children. This is, afterall, what social media leads us to believe is what true yoga looks like. I am not here to say that this isn’t yoga, but it is kind of like seeing a ball of snow and assuming it is a whole iceberg. In fact, that image of yoga has really only developed within the past century. Yet, we can trace the roots of yoga to the Rig Veda, one of four ancient Sanskrit texts that dates back approximately 1,500 years ago, and it is believed that the oral tradition from which the written text is derived, dates between 5,000 - 10,000 years ago.

This kind of time scale is difficult to understand. For most of us, the length of one human lifetime is about as far as our imagination goes. So for reference, 5,000 - 10,000 years ago is the approximate end of the Stone Age; what is now the Sahara Desert still had water on it, and it is the time period when we see the first record of a wheel being used. When you hear teachers say that yoga is ancient, we mean REALLY ancient.

So what is yoga? 

More importantly, what does it mean to practice yoga?

The short truth is, it means a lot of things and it is different for each person. If that is as clear as mud, keep reading and I am going to lay this out into three main qualities that should help you answer this question for yourself. 

The Heart of Yoga

If we are to answer the question “what is yoga”, we have to first understand the most fundamental tenet of yoga philosophy - Everything, everywhere is inextricably connected. The idea that anything could possibly be separate is an illusion we humans developed through our egos. This is the essence of yoga, and all the practices that we commonly associate with it are merely tools for helping us to remember and reunite with this truth. 

Asana, the physical poses and exercises, are tools that help us care for our body. We pair asana with pranayama (breathwork) as a way to focus our energy and our mind so that we can move into dhyana (the meditative state). It is from this meditative state that we might then experience Samadhi, a deep state of consciousness that is hallmarked by profound interconnectedness - you might think of Samadhi as a state of unshakable bliss. In other words, we use all these tools to help us get to a state where our sense of separation falls away, and all that is left is unity and therefore bliss. 

The thing with tools is that their usefulness is subjective, and there are often many different tools that can achieve the same purpose. For this reason, and despite what “guru culture” has led many to believe, there is no universally accepted limit on what practices can be considered within the realm of yoga. As with all things in this postmodern life, it is up to you to determine what your yoga is. If that sounds overwhelming, I have three questions for you to ask yourself about any practice that can help you determine if it is indeed yoga. 

  1. Does it help you care for your WHOLE self - mind, body, and spirit? This is an important first question, because if a practice causes you harm (or anyone else) then it is going to encourage a sense of separation and possibly dis-ease, which are antithetical to the core philosophy of yoga. 

  2. Does it help you feel a sense of connection to BOTH yourself and everything around you? This really is essential to a yoga practice because connection is yoga. 

  3. Does it make you feel shame? You CANNOT practice yoga through shame. Shame isolates the person experiencing it and begets separation. Not only does this contradict the foundation of yoga philosophy, but it also is a bedrock for violence and hatred. Unfortunately, shame has permeated far too many studios, ashrams, and yoga centers, which has confused many students into believing that shame is a part of the yogic journey. This is a symptom of performative gurus seeking control and power, and it is NOT yoga. 

I have taken yoga classes for almost 20 years now, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the first time I actually experienced yoga, I was not in a studio or even a yoga class. I had just climbed up the edge of a volcano in East Africa. I was covered in blood, sweat, and tears. The sun had just started to peak up over the horizon, and new earth was being formed just below where I stood. It hit me all at once, as though I had been asleep my whole life until that point. I had arrived, and with absolute clarity I felt at home. I didn’t have thoughts, just the clear sense that I belonged, and that sense of belonging overwhelmed any pain or fear that might have otherwise been present. 

Since that day, 12 years ago, our world has become a little darker; It is harder to understand, harder to find hope, and certainly harder to feel connected. I believe that yoga offers a powerful antidote, but that doesn't mean we need to start contorting our bodies in lycra suits in order to create a better tomorrow. If you want to practice yoga, find something that helps you care for your whole self, and that when you practice it, reminds you that you do indeed belong here. 

This will make tomorrow brighter for all of us. 

The three questions above are meant to help expand and clarify the practices of yoga, but if you are not sure where to start, reach out. At Onward, we believe there is a path in yoga for everyone, and we are here to help you find yours. 


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