What Is Yoga?

Yoga is enigmatic in that it is both a vast field of study and an expression of the deepest part of our own being. Yoga is a discipline that requires years of dedicated effort; it is also the art of effortlessness in which nothing needs to be done. Yoga is an ancient science developed by people of great wisdom in the distant past; it is also our everyday life and as near to us as our own breath. Yoga is a philosophy and psychology of great depth; it is also as simple as living a life of truth and freedom.

Because of its multifaceted nature, the definitions of yoga are also multifaceted. Rather than seeing these as contradictory, we can compare them to the Indian story of the blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. Each touched the elephant in a different place and came up with a different description. All were true, but each failed to describe the entire elephant. By looking at a number of different aspects of the definition of yoga, we will be able to better understand this multifaceted gem.

Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word yuj, meaning to link or join together. The root word is related to our English word yoke, as in the joining of two oxen to pull a cart. When we discuss what exactly is being linked together, it takes us immediately to the very heart of yoga. Yoga makes a distinction between our everyday self, the self that includes our physical body and our personality, and a larger or cosmic Self, the entire web of creation of which we are a small strand, a drop in the infinite ocean of life. This larger Self is usually distinguished from the smaller self by the capital S at the beginning of the word. The individual self is sometimes referred to as Jiva, while the cosmic Self is called Brahman. Yoga brings these two together as a single unity. When fully identified and integrated with the cosmic Self, the individual self is called Atman.

From the perspective of the universal Self, yoga is actually linking together two things that have never been separate. From the perspective of Brahman, all of life is one unity with no separation anywhere. The function of all the various techniques of yoga is to bring us into connection with and help us remember and become increasingly aware of a unity that is already always present.

A main resource for defining and understanding yoga is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These 195 short aphorisms compiled some 2,000 years ago give a concise and, at the same time, in-depth portrait of the system of yoga as a whole. In the second sutra, yoga is defined as control of the modifications of consciousness. These modifications are all the thought patterns and emotional patterns that keep us tied to the illusion of the limited self and keep us separate from an experiential understanding of the larger Self.

So, yoga is the vehicle that helps us see through patterns of thought and emotion that obscure the experience of unity. Yoga is also the experience of unity itself. Yoga as a vehicle is important because we use it to get where we’re going. Yoga as the experience of unity is fundamental since this is our ultimate destination. It is important not to confuse the vehicle with the destination. In spiritual lore, this mistaking the path for the goal is expressed as confusing the moon with the finger pointing toward the moon. The vehicle is fundamental for the journey, but at some point we’ll need to leave the vehicle to arrive fully at our destination.


*extracted from the Teacher Training Manual