Introduction to Yoga: What Is Yoga?

What Is Yoga

It may seem like a really easy question to answer. The popularity of yoga is growing by the day.

There are tons of pictures of handstands, pretzel poses, and yoga pants on social media. New studios are popping up on pretty much every corner. You must live in a dungeon not to have heard about yoga.

Yoga is often seen as a way of staying fit, strong, and flexible. In reality, it’s not just about the poses.

The more you practice, you may realize that it affects your mind more than it does the body. To understand why that is so, we need to first look at what “yoga” means.

What Is Yoga?

The word “yoga” derives from the ancient Sanskrit root “yuj”, which means “to unite” or “to join”. Therefore, the literal meaning of yoga is “union”.

A concept so simple that it is actually difficult. You may have a brief “a-ha” moment before you give it some more thought. Yoga is union? What does that even mean?

Union with the Body

We are becoming increasingly disconnected from our bodies. Sometimes we treat them as temples and pay great attention to their aesthetics through working out, observing a healthy diet, and applying moisturizing lotions.

Or, on the contrary, we regard them as vehicles to get us from point A to point B not just geographically, but also in life. As a result, we may have insufficient sleep, skip meals, choose unhealthy foods, eat on the go, and push our bodies past their limits.

We’ve grown numb toward the subtle cues that our bodies are sending us, such as whether we’re thirsty and need some water, fatigued and need more sleep or better nutrition, or that we’re just about to get sick.

Yoga Helps us Reconnect with our Bodies

We are asked to stretch some muscles, relax others, and pay attention to how certain body parts are feeling. We’re encouraged to take notice of any pain and discomfort and modify our alignment accordingly. And, we may start feeling muscles we never thought we had, and we learn to accept our limitations.

Yoga helps to bring awareness of our minds back to our bodies and stop ignoring what they have to say.

What Is Yoga

Photo Credit: Cherie Ayman

Union with the Mind

There is a term called “monkey mind” which is used to describe the state of a modern human’s mind. I first heard it from a Thai Buddhist monk.

I started meditating daily when I was volunteering at a Buddhist boarding school in Northern India one summer. However, I eventually broke the habit when I got back to my regular city life.

A year later, I was backpacking through Southeast Asia and tried getting back into meditation. With all the gorgeous scenery around, you couldn’t imagine a more perfect setting for some meditation, but …

I just couldn’t sit still. All sorts of thoughts would race through my mind, and I’d give up feeling more frustrated than I’d been before I started.

Then, I found out about Monk Chats while in Chiang Mai, Thailand. These are sessions of informal conversations that travelers regardless of their gender, age, race, or religion can have with English speaking Thai monks. (I highly recommend those if you happen to be in Chiang Mai.)

What an awesome opportunity to talk about meditation, isn’t it? I went there with my questions and a bit of anxiety (come on, I was a female traveler dressed in sweaty rags about to speak to a Buddhist monk).

We had an amazing talk, and I came out with zero anxiety and a big smile on my face.

Taming the Monkey Mind

So, according to Buddha, our minds are filled with drunken monkeys that ceaselessly screech, jump around, chat, and swing, and, like monkeys catch onto branches of trees, our minds catch onto any thoughts, problems, worries, things that could go wrong, and so on and so forth.

In yoga philosophy, you may have heard of the fluctuations of the mind. It’s the same concept; though I see the monkey mind as an easier one to grasp,

There are multiple approaches to taming it and minimizing this mental chatter, and one of them is … bingo! You guessed it! Yoga!

When you practice yoga, you concentrate on your breathing, pay attention to your alignment, the muscles and body parts that the pose is targeting, listen to your body, and, basically, are in the present moment. No work problems, bills, or other issues to worry about. Just you, the mat, and yoga.

This allows you to develop mindfulness and, if you’re open to it, transfer it to your life off the mat. For example, you’ll take a shower and enjoy the feeling of warm water running down your body instead of remembering what you need to do today. Or you’ll appreciate the smell, texture, and taste of your lunch rather than eat at your computer while checking emails and afterwards have no idea what the heck you just ate.

What Is Yoga

A Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Union with Emotions

There are usually two approaches to handling emotions. You either hide or suppress them, or you wear your emotions on your face. Neither one of them is good or healthy.

Balance is the key.

You should acknowledge your emotions, identify them and their cause, and maintain the clarity of mind rather than allow them to overcome you. It’s easier said than done, and a single yoga class probably won’t help you reverse years or decades of conditioning.

If you’ve been to a yoga class, you may have heard the instructor say something along the lines of “breathe into the (insert body part here) and observe how you’re feeling”.

What do you mean how I’m feeling? Sore and in pain. My left quad is about to collapse, my arms are shaking, and I’ll probably be able to fill up a bowl with my sweat. No more breaths, please! Release into child’s pose, por favor! Like, right now! No? Okay…how about… now, then?

No?

Okay, okay, okay…

…how about…now?

This is how I feel. While this would be an example of becoming aware of how you feel physically, you also need to take notice of how you feel emotionally.

How do you feel when you kick into a headstand for the 9th time and fall again or when you’re finally able to balance in Crow for more than a split second? Do you feel overwhelmed by any emotion? Are you angry, irritated, sad, thrilled?

Acknowledge that you feel it, identify what emotion that is, keep breathing, and let it go. Once you’re able to do it on the mat, try it in other areas of your life.

What Is Yoga

Photo Credit: Cherie Ayman

Union with the Community

I once shared an apartment with a girl who loved her job but had huge problems with her colleagues.

She tried to be the nicest person on the staff. She helped everyone out, took on extra shifts, and accepted shift changes that were incompatible with her personal life. At some point, she ended up working 16 hours a day and about 20 days in a row with no days off.

We initially got on very well. We shared meals after on our days off, talked for hours, celebrated holidays together, went out, and did lots of other things together.

Nonetheless, about a year later, all she was talking about was how bad and inconsiderate everyone at work was. She felt tired and miserable, had no time to rest, see her friends and family, or do anything that she liked or wanted. This was it. She wasn’t going to take any more shit.

But she never did anything about it, and, eventually, started taking everything out on me despite me having absolutely nothing to do with her work problems.

This made me dislike being in my own home and use the common areas of the apartment only when I knew she was away or sleeping. What a life, right?

I paid my bills and moved out a few months later early in the morning without saying goodbye or ever seeing her again. Not quite adult of me, but what a relief that was.

Your Actions Affect Those Around You

Now, rewind this and imagine what would’ve happened if she had acknowledged how she was feeling physically and emotionally, determined the cause, stopped worrying what others would have thought of her if she had said “no” and stood up for herself.

Chances are that she would have kept doing the job that she was passionate about and gotten more respect from her coworkers. And she would have become well-rested and attained a happy and balanced personal life at the same time. I wouldn’t have needed to creep around my own house, and we would have likely remained friends.

What I want to say with this is that whatever is affecting us is also affecting the people around us: our partner, kids, friends, colleagues, cashiers, clerks, clients, and pretty much anyone whom we interact with.

The more connected and content we are with ourselves, the more connected and present we can be with others. And people like being around happy people.

Yoga and Asana Practice

Asana means “a comfortable and steady posture”  in Sanskrit and refers to the physical practice alone. Yet, “yoga” is actually a lifestyle and a lifelong journey, which consists of eight steps or so-called limbs.

These include ethical guidelines for behavior and personal care, breathing techniques, meditation, and awareness. Asana or posture practice is only one of these steps.

It aims to condition the body so that you’re able to comfortably sit in meditation for an extended period of time in order to cultivate awareness.

That’s it.

Scorpion Pose and One-Armed Handstand look cool, but they are not what yoga is about. They’re only milestones of your yoga journey if that’s where you choose it to go. And at the same time, if you choose a different path, that doesn’t make you less of a yogi.

What Is Yoga


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