What is Yoga?

With so many millions practicing yoga, it is interesting to note how many wonder what it really means. I was reminded of this after meeting a devoted yoga practitioner today. A few years ago, I was asked the question by a woman doing her yoga teacher’s training. If all these gurus cannot agree on what it means, does anyone have the right to define yoga?

This was a rhetorical question that arose from a sense of deep frustration and confusion. There was emotion and anger. I did not think it required a verbal response and so I was quiet, silent.  Silence was the answer.

The incident started a process of contemplation on that question–reading, questioning, looking at conditioned thinking regarding yoga, and being very open. I eventually wrote, rewriting the draft countless times over an extended period.

Writing means seeing thoughts in black and white; it helps clarify and organize thinking. When thoughts take the form of visible words, are strung together to make sentences and paragraphs, they give shape and visibility to the mental conditioning and programming. What makes sense in abstract thinking may no longer make sense in black-and-white. We see our mental content and often do not like what we see; we see gaps, confusion. We are confronted with feelings we do not want to know, leave alone know that they are ours! So as we  go through the writing process, we reprogram and slowly, deliberately, consciously, shape our mental thinking (that was often unconscious). The gaps that are revealed may get filled. Some dots may get connected. Some confusion gets eliminated and we emerge with greater clarity in our understanding. For me, many dots that are not connected, end up connecting beautifully. Then writing becomes a transformative process. It becomes a practice in jnana yoga.  The yoga article finally took shape.

The article was then presented to my group of closest students to whom the mechanical response no longer had meaning–what does body-mind connection mean? Hardly anyone can explain. That piece of writing eventually became part of a workshop presented to the student club Dharma at Harvard University and they published it in their online magazine Swadharma.

For those who wish to read the piece, go to the Swadharma link or to www.mahasriyoga.com/articles. After the article came out in Swadharma, I have made some edits that are in the Mahasri Yoga piece.

If you need it in one small bite–think about the of-quoted yogaschitta vritti nirodha (block the fluctuations of the mind/eliminate fluctuations of the mind). What does this mean? Since writing that piece, greater meaning and simplicity have flowed in. To me the sloka means a mind free from past reactions, that no longer generates reactions (which arise from conditioning, programming, karma). The constant reactions, big and small, are the fluctuations of the mind–attraction, aversion, indifference to anything or anyone. The reactions cause suffering more than a situation. Yoga means an awareness free of all conceptions, dogmas, and all preconceptions–the “mind” before preconceptions. The mind is completely clear. This is also at the heart of vipassana.

Clutter in yoga/meditation practice does not really work has been my feeling now after 30 years at it.  After a certain point, there is no sense in accumulating teachers, workshops, this method or that technique. The constant state of acquisition in yoga meditation is a reflection of our lives. What is needed is divestiture. If it makes sense, keep it simple at every level–keep meditation and yoga practice simple without expecting a certain outcome.

2 thoughts on “What is Yoga?

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  1. I just read your piece on what yoga is and found it very helpful, clear, and illuminating. It really is a way of living. Thank you!



    1. Many of our Wednesday group say how their friends see yoga very differently from them. The friends see is it as a fitness routine based on some Indian texts. It is a way of living, a living philosophy that is independent of religion. Even the physical movements are essentially exercises in awareness and concentration as we learn to drive/steer/guide the mind instead of being relentlessly driven by an erratic, distracted mind that is not conscious of itself.


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