The Meaning of Yoga
In the time of Patanjali, yoga became a noun. But before that yoga was a verb. It was something you do.
To Get Involved
Yoga is a process. It’s active. It’s the way you engage with the world to create harmony. Yoga is how we participate and create relationship.
“There are (to be precise) 884 references to Yoga in the Mahābhārata, “and the common denominator of all the epic definitions is disciplined activity…by active means” rather than the more popular translation and cognate “union”. Bryant, Edwin F.. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary
The Mahābhārata is one of the two great Indian epic poems. While war and battle is a prominent feature it’s subject matter is so vast it is said that if it’s not in the Mahābhārata, then it’s not anywhere.
In an insightful paper by Colleen McDonough, Lulu Song, Kathy Hirsh Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Robert Lannon entitled “An Image is worth a thousand words: Why nouns tend to dominate verbs in early world learning” in Developmental Science they examine why nouns are easier to acquire than verbs.
They state that nouns are more concrete whereas verbs are “fleeting and dynamic and unfold in time and space.” “Learning the name of an action requires that children perceptually abstract the invariants of the action (e.g., running) across multiple exemplars that show wide variation.”
To illustrate this, think about the term “dancing.” All kinds of different activities and body movements count as dancing. And even though your idea of it might involve lederhosen while mine needs electric slides, we eventually come to agree they are both forms of dance.
It’s easier to put a label on something that is stable rather than a dynamic activity. There are exceptions, though. Nouns such as “idea or passenger” are typically learned after verbs like “hug” and “kiss.” McDonough et al. say that this may boil down to the idea of “imageability”; how easy it is to evoke a mental image. We can conjure up a hug easier than imagining an idea.
This “imageability” is why I asked you to picture yoga. It’s easy for us to think of yoga as a noun. But engaging in a process is harder for us to get our heads around.
The Benefit of Yoga as Something You Do
When we engage, we change how the situation unfolds. Instead of things simply happening to us, we become an active participant. We exercise our agency, the ability to act.
Yoga is an invitation to get off the sidelines and act. As we do so we can now affect how the game turns out. Our participation creates the possibility of change and gives us different options than if we just stood by.
If you were to break down the process of “doing yoga” it would be:
Act. Engage, Create Yoga by getting involved.
This will give you choices.
Make a choice.
Learn from that choice then repeat 1
Engage doesn’t mean to dive into a situation without thinking. On the contrary, you endeavor to see what’s going on. You want to understand.
In the Indian mind, actions are the ways we think, move and speak. By training our attention on something, we are engaging with it. We are connecting through yoga.
This connection is not only physical but mental, emotional and even spiritual. It involves your whole being and differs from getting on a treadmill and staring at a TV.
As you practice yoga you ask, how does this feel in my body? What thoughts or emotions am I having? How can I work with this? Elite athletes know about the importance of connecting your physical being with your mental and emotional state. They call it the mental game.
Why Is This Important?
Once we understand that:
Yoga is something we do; to connect and engage with the world; and that it takes our entire mind/body attention
…then it changes what we are doing when we “do yoga.”
We don’t practice yoga by jumping on a mat or going to a yoga class. It’s what we do on the mat, or in the class that matters. We do yoga when we connect with the process of acting and paying attention. It is a back-and-forth activity where one drives the other and vice-versa.
This also helps us understand the different “types of yoga”. If yoga isn’t a noun, then we can practice “yoga” in lots of different ways. And that perfectly describes the spectrum of yoga.
Some create the process of yoga through asana, physical postures, as is more common in the West. Others participate through meditation, breath work or chanting. They are all yoga.
What we are doing in asana is using the postures as a tool to help us pay attention. This is valuable if we have difficulty sitting still and cannot imagine ourselves meditating. Or, we are short on time and want to get maximum value, by “working out” our body at the same time we calm our mind. We move our bodies to pay attention to what is going on within.
Yoga is the process we can engage in to understand our body, the way it moves and the way we use it. We can engage with our mind and understand it, where it habitually goes and how to focus it. And we can work with our emotions and notice how we tend to react. Then we can build upon that and bring space so that we are not just responding to stimuli all of the time.
And finally, we wear attire that helps us engage in the process of relating to the world—the yoga pants. It always comes back to pants.