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What is Yoga?

Making sense of the philosophical-religious-power-workout-weightloss practice that has cemented itself in our modern culture.

It's everywhere. In movies, gyms, mainstream health. It's in podcasts, books, consumerism. It's a mainstay of social media, influencers and celebrities. But is the constant stream of yoga we see around us the truth and heart of yoga?

Patañjali focuses on yoga as a method of transforming the way we think, communicate, and act by directing our attention inward and cultivating inner contentment.

That's how Nicolai Bachman describes the heart of yoga in his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras, which I highly recommend for anyone looking to go a bit deeper into what yoga is all about. Before I get into Patanjali's Yoga Sutras too much, though, I want to look at the definition of yoga.

The Meaning of Yoga

Because I believe words are powerful and definitions and translations are profound, I want to quickly define yoga and what we're saying when we use the word. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root "yuj." The translation of yuj is "to yoke" or "to unite." When we practice yoga we are building a relationship, a connection, between our minds and bodies, man and nature, self and Self, the individual and the collective.

We use the physical practice to get us in the zone for the higher practices of meditation, pranayama, yamas and niyamas — but we'll get to those more later.

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

So that brings us back to Patanjali.

Patanjali is largely credited with establishing the philosophical guidelines of yoga through the Yoga Sutras. Though it's debated whether or not Patanjali was an actual person or ascetic, a collective of people or ascetics or something or someone else, the end result is the same. Patanjali itself translates as "fall into the offering of the heart." Could that be a coincidence? I'll let you decide.

According to what we know, Patanjali lived sometime between 500 and 200 BCE. The Yoga Sutras — or "stitches," think sutures — stitch together the philosophy and practices of yoga in a very particular order.

The most important piece is given first — Atha. Atha is an invitation simply to begin. When we begin we take a first step toward something — toward a goal or a change — but we have to take that first step, we have to begin somewhere, to reach the end destination.

"Until one is committed, there is a hesitancy, the chance to draw back. The moment one definitely commits oneself then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise never have occurred. Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it."

Most of us know yoga to be the physical practice and poses, or asanas. But less than 2% of the Yoga Sutras talk about asana. That's an incredibly small amount for a practice that has grown into a multi-million dollar physically-based exercise industry.

So What is Yoga?

The Yoga Sutras are broken into four books that cover basic understandings, outer behavior, personal practices and inner development. The Yoga Sutras lead us on a journey of bridging, or yoking, the gap between the physical and tangible and the intangible — the mental and spiritual.

Patanjali describes practices such as cleanliness (Sauca), self-care (Niyamas), and humility and faith (Isvara-pranidhana) all as practices of yoga. Because contrary to mainstream depictions, yoga is about self-betterment, mindfulness, and conscientiousness of how we move through the world and our relationship with it.

So next time you go into a yoga class, rather than going in with a goal of weightless or strength-building, go in with a goal to simply notice more — notice how your body moves, how your body feels, how your mind and body interact. And, then, take that mindfulness off the mat with you into your day. See if you notice more about your breath and how it feels, the weather and how it really makes you feel, even the way the fabric of your clothes feels against your skin. Because that, that practice of mindfulness, connection, relationship, is what yoga is really about.

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