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What is Yoga? Part 1

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Yoga is a vast topic and you can't define it in one short blog post. Think of this as an introduction.

What is Yoga?

There are many types of yoga and they are all evolving. Here are some quick facts.

Yoga refers to a set of practices which help us work with the mind, gain spiritual understanding and reduce suffering.

All human wisdom traditions have the same core themes of being our best selves, abstaining from killing and stealing, etc. Yoga is just one lens to look at spirituality and wisdom. You can practice Yoga alongside any other spiritual or wisdom tradition you already practice.

The physical asanas (postures) we do today were largely invented in the 1920s! They aren’t ancient. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be profound.

Yoga originated in India. Most yoga techniques were originally meditations, rituals, cleanses, epic poems and religious songs. Most asanas were seated postures.

Many of the meditations, breathing techniques and rituals of ancient yoga are still useful to us today. Meditation and breathing techniques have been scientifically proven to have benefits, including: increased immune response, decreased activity in pain centers in the brain, increased activity in love centers in the brain, and increases in neural pathways in the brain associated with higher functions.

The first mention of the word “Yoga” was in the Rig Veda, around 1500 BCE. For context: the Pyramids came about in 3200 BCE. The Vedic period is considered late bronze age.

I need to research this more, but I recently heard that Yoga should actually be spelled "Yog." The 'a' sound kind of just happens at the end. Adding the 'a' at the end of the spelling might be a western adaptation. Here is an article about this.

The term yoga means “to join, to unite” and also “to harness up, to set seriously to work.” Followers of the monistic Vedanta tradition understand yoga as the process that brings about conscious union of one’s own soul with the world Soul. Other Hindu groups think of yoga as any systematic program of meditation. (Religions of Asia Text)

Image of oxen and yoke © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons

Here is a translation from the Rig Veda:

The illumined yoke their mind and they yoke their thoughts to the illuminating godhead, to the vast, to the luminous in consciousness; the one knower of all manifestation of knowledge, he alone orders the things of the sacrifice. Great is the praise of Savitri, the creating godhead.

In this context, the “illumined” –or wise person– yokes their mind and thoughts to God. Instead of thinking about food, drink and sex, or worrying about what the neighbors think of you, the wise one thinks of God.

Another translation of “yoking” is to concentrate. Instead of letting the mind run all over, we concentrate. Concentration, itself, is the yoke.

One of my teachers explained it another way. We are already expressions of the energy of the universe. We are not separate. We don’t have to “try” to “Yoke” ourselves to that. This life is a dream. Yoga is the practice of choosing to wake up and realize that we are already one.

If you don’t believe in God, you can think of yoga as a technique of connecting your actions with your higher ideals. I know sometimes when I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and someone else gets on my nerves, I might be tempted to be snippy with them because “I’m not in the mood for their crap.” But if I take a moment to connect myself with my higher ideals, I am more likely to practice patience and kindness–and protect my own peace by choosing not to “stir the pot.”

I want to finish with a quote that I just love.

Hindu teachers of meditation offer guidance in subjective processes through which it is possible to dissolve desires, still one’s passions, enter into equanimity and relieve the tedium of life with inner feelings of joy that are believed to be a foretaste of an everlasting freedom and immortality. (Religions of Asia, Second Edition)

Next post I plan to talk more about Hatha Yoga and Asana.

May this practice serve for our awakening, and the awakening of all!

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