I’m betting you chose either a yoga pose or pants. It always comes back to pants.
Now imagine you are “doing yoga?” Where are you and what are you doing?
Again, a yoga posture was probably involved, and a “yoga mat,” and pants. Some vivid depictions might envision a Sun Salutation or eclectic arm balance—but most likely it was physical.
Why This is Important
I ask these questions because they go to the heart of how we think about yoga. In turn, this colors our approach to the practice.
But if we change our understanding of the meaning of yoga, then we will change not only what we associate with yoga but also what we do on the mat.
And that’s what we’ll be exploring. We’ll move from the most common, definition of yoga in the West, to the more helpful, and prevalent definition in the East.
Dictionary Definitions of Yoga
Two of the dictionaries I trust most are Merriam-Webster and Oxford. Unsurprising they give a similar definition of yoga.
Definition of yoga
1: capitalized : a Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation
2: a system of physical postures, breathing techniques, and sometimes meditation derived from Yoga but often practiced independently especially in Western cultures to promote physical and emotional well-being
A Hindu spiritual and ascetic discipline, a part of which, including breath control, simple meditation, and the adoption of specific bodily postures, is widely practised for health and relaxation.
Both of these explanations take on a distinct Patanjali flavor, as in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and this is important.
Yoga as in Yoke Not Yolk
Patanjali, who we know next to nothing about, is credited with compiling his (most likely his) yoga sutras. What we do know, from the text he put together, is that he was an ascetic.
Ascetics come from the second period of yoga and approach the world by turning away from it. This is known as Nivrtti yoga or the yoga of renunciation. You can see this language in both of the definitions of yoga above.
Both dictionaries also add an interesting “fact.”
Merriam-Websters states the first known use of yoga is 1785, but in their help section mentions that:
The date may not represent the very oldest sense of the word.
The date most often does not mark the very first time that the word was used in English.
The date is subject to change. Many of the dates provided will undoubtedly be updated as evidence of still earlier use emerges.
The first known use of the word yoga anywhere comes from the Rig Veda, dating back to 1700-1100 BCE, or about 3000 years before it appeared in English. The Oxford Dictionary gives the origin of yoga as:
Sanskrit, literally ‘union.’
The definition of yoga as “union” is also associated with Patanjali, and more precisely, the union between you and the divine called Purusha. This is where the term theistic, relating to god, applies.
Let’s move beyond Patanjali and even god to explore the earlier meaning of yoke.
The Sanskrit word for yoke is yuj, a physical device used to join cattle. They are big, and heavy and strong. What they were yoking long ago, were war horses. Yoga was both the device and technique to calm the horses down so that you could focus them and do the work of war.
I love that they were war horses for they are the perfect symbol of frenetic beings “chomping at the bit.” If you couldn’t control them, then there weren’t useful.
But why were we at war in the first place? In the Vedic period it was the priestly Brahmans who practiced yoga through ritual and mantra. But with the advent of the Upanishads, we move to the warrior caste and with that comes warring metaphors.
The Katha Upanishad, for example, compares these same high energy horses with our mind. In a famous passage, the Katha says that we should seek to understand because without it the mind runs “hither and thither like wild horses.”
This was a significant change because they took the external act of yoking aggressive out-of-control horses and applied it to the internal act of calming the mind. They recognized how stubborn our minds are and that the salve is to calm. In both cases, bringing equines or minds into equanimity was for another purpose—to go to war or move through the world with skill.
And the stakes were high because it doesn’t get more intense or life-and-death than in an epic war. This bodes well for us because if yoga works in such dire circumstances, it can work for us today.