An answer to the perennial question (without a single reference to postures)
Most yoga teachers, on being asked ‘What is yoga?’, will probably pause for a moment to think about who is asking the question and how best to answer it, because the truth is there is more than one definition and the answer does require some reflection.
When asked, many teachers will perhaps refer to the etymology/root of the sanskrit word yuj, which is often translated as meaning ‘to yoke, join or unite’. It can then be implied that yoga means a union of mind, body and spirit. This is certainly not wrong, but it is only part of a much larger picture.
Across thousands of years the meaning of yoga has meant different things at different times. Even more confusingly it is a word that has been used differently in the same period of time across different communities.
Perhaps it is more helpful to think of the word yoga as an empty vessel, into which whoever uses the word fills the vessel with meaning. In short yoga means different things in different contexts. For dualists like Patanjali and for Buddhists yoga is not ‘union’, but some Buddhists do maintain yoga is ‘union’ and some commentators think Patanjali’s yoga is not dualist! In the Vedanta philosophy yoga is union; as is the case with Tantra later on. Those seeking the answer to the question ‘What is yoga?’ discover that there is active competition for the word’s ownership.
So in attempting to define what yoga is, where best to start? Perhaps a good place to start would be by reframing the question and asking what the goal of yoga is in the system it is practiced. At the considerable risk of falling into the trap of being too reductive; throughout the ages, the fundamental goals of yoga have been two-fold:
- Spiritual liberation – transcending one’s given circumstances
- The attainment of powers – heightened abilities to control one’s worldly environment and circumstances
There are various techniques of discipline and methodologies of practice that are said to lead to the above attainments and spiritual liberation is often cited as being by far the most superior goal of the two. The techniques of yoga ultimately equip and empower the human individual with a technology that helps them navigate their worldly circumstances more skillfully, which perhaps helps us better understand what people mean when they say, ‘Doing yoga makes me feel better’.