What is Yoga?

Yoga has become immensely popular over the past decade as a form of exercise that makes one strong, flexible, and relaxed through regular practice. This reputation is deserved, but it represents only a small part of the picture. In its totality, Yoga is applied philosophy, an art and a science, and a spiritual practice.

B.K.S. Iyengar makes it clear that yoga is for everyone, whatever one's cultural or religious background or state of well being is when one starts with a first yoga class. He calls yoga a “practical method for making life purposeful, useful, and noble.”

Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Indian philosophy. It is said to have originated in the foothills of the Himalayas over three thousand years ago and was codified by the sage Patanjali around 200 C.E. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali describe the eight limbs (ashtanga) of yoga, which are stages of practice that interact with each other over time.

The Eight Limbs (Ashtanga) of Yoga

  1. yamas (disciplines for social harmony)
  2. niyamas (self-purification by discipline)
  3. asanas (yoga postures)
  4. pranayama (rhythmic control of the breath)
  5. pratyahara (withdrawal and emancipation of the mind from the domination of the senses and exterior objects)
  6. dharana (concentration)
  7. dhyana (meditation)
  8. samadhi (state of super-consciousness in which the individual becomes one with the Universal Spirit)

The word Yoga, according to B.K.S. Iyengar in his classic book, Light on Yoga (1966), “is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one's attention on, to use and apply. It also means union or communion.” Thus, a dedicated yoga practice unites mind, body and emotions, and, at its highest level, the individual self with the Universal Self, or Soul.