What is the Meaning of Yoga?
In 1999, I was on a plane flying home from India, after nine years of living in the Himalayas. I’d been meditating, studying meditation, practicing yoga and living the everyday bliss of self-awareness. On the plane I picked up a glossy magazine and was amazed to see photos of North Americans practicing power yoga poses and talking about how yoga is good for getting a fit body. Now, I agree that yoga is great for your body and your health, but I had to giggle at how differently I’d learned the purpose and meaning of the Sanskrit word ‘yoga’. In India, yoga has been studied and practiced for thousands of years, but it’s not the look of the physical body that is the main aim of yoga there.
Yoga, in Sanskrit, means to completely know yourself and to be at peace in yourself. It is not possible to define this peace except to say it is freedom from all suffering, freedom from doubt and freedom from confusion. A natural blessedness unfolds in you as you feel this peace and you increasingly realize this as the core essence of your life. This realization is called yoga: a clear knowledge of the oneness of your self with the source of all life.
Being established in this knowledge, your life starts to flow with a vital freshness and harmony, with clarity, mental alertness and a fullness of loving understanding. This yoga state is expansive, creative and life-supportive.
You might doubt that this kind of expanded awareness is possible for anyone but a Himalayan sage; but yogis, including myself, have found that self-knowledge is a natural state and is possible! Our consciousness is self-reflective; in other words, you have the capacity to know the essence of your own life and mind. This potential has been researched for thousands of years by meditators. Yoga is an exploration into this nature of consciousness and existence. Yogis have discovered, through deep personal inquiry that at the root of their own life exists freedom and an ever-present space.
But how, you might ask, is this relevant to the everyday life that I live? Once you understand that life’s activities, situations and happenings never alter your essential unchanging existence, your ego doesn’t have to prove its superiority, nor believe in thoughts of inferiority. This pure space of yourself is not affected by praise from anyone, nor is it diminished by criticism. Imagine the relief of living with this sense of perfect ease!
In this state of awareness, the body and mind continue to function perfectly of course, but you don’t need to believe all your thoughts or reactions. One benefit is that negative and painful thoughts in your mind such as anxiety, anger, fear, neediness or confusion no longer seem so real. When ideas are not repeated or re-enforced, after time, they just go away! Try it and see for yourself!
A yogi is someone who engages in practices in order to realize this essential existence and their own potential power of awareness. It’s great to have a healthy body, but this awareness is real power yoga!
The Science of Yoga
Stress has become a way of life. Whether the days are full of multiple goals and endless obligations, traffic jams and transit delays, complex systems of bureaucracy and finance, or an overwhelming array of in-person and virtual relationships, the pace of current human existence is bursting at the seams.
For centuries, sages have relied on yoga to transcend earthly limitations. Each meditative pose is an effort to identify pockets of pain that accumulate inside the body. Each inhale confronts suffering. Each exhale is an attempt to transcend it. Through this process, worry is replaced with loving-kindness.
Now, bodies of research are proving that yoga is more than a niche spiritual force for enlightened beings.
Yoga has the power to heal the world, one human at a time.
The Rise of Yoga
A system of poses, breathing exercises, and meditations that originated in ancient India to inspire physical, mental, and spiritual well-being first started to spread around the world as a form of exercise in the twentieth century.
For decades, in the US, yoga seemed to capture the interests of quirky, white city dwellers and affluent suburbanite moms, but over the last decade, it has expanded from the studio and can currently be found in public parks, hospitals, outpatient clinics, workspaces, elementary schools, military bases, rehab centers, and even airports.
In fact, the 2016 Yoga in America Study commissioned, by Yoga Journal and Yoga Alliance, estimated that more than 36 million people were practicing yoga in the US by 2015, compared to 20.4 million in 2012. A staggering 80 million people are likely to try yoga in 2016.
The Origins of Yoga
Yoga is first mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita, an ancient collection of Sanskrit poetry that is sacred to the Hindu religion, dating as far back as the second century BCE. Verse 48 of Chapter Two essentially describes yoga as a state of equilibrium.
In the series Introduction to Yoga Sutras, Nicolai Bachman references the authoritative text on yoga to explore what it means to live a yogi life. He teaches that yoga is a path to positive transformation. Through a dedicated yoga practice, one can root out negativity and plant loving kindness. Citing Sutra 1.2, “yoga-citta-vritti-nirodhah,” Bachman describes yoga as a powerful tool for calming the noise.
While the validity of ancient texts may invite skepticism, the first professional-level medical textbook on yoga was released in the US in 2016. In Chapter One, “Introduction to Yoga in Health Care,” licensed medical practitioners recognize the importance of developing habits that balance emotions and modify unhealthy thought-patterns and acknowledge that yoga can play an integral role in preventing disease.