What Is Yoga?

Is Yoga a fitness program? A religion? A cultural artifact? A clinical psychology tool? A physical therapy modality? A way of life?

Yoga is a challenging field of study because of these questions. No one asks if cardio-kickboxing might convert them to another religion and few ask about the use of Zumba in clinical PTSD trials. No one wonders about whether or not Jazzercise is cultural appropriation or offensively misconstruing something intrinsic to another nation’s identity, while not enough people worry about these issues in Yoga! Yoga, depending on who you talk to, is all of these things, and even more besides!

A quick textual & cultural history of Yoga

Yoga began with roots in Samkhya, a system perhaps more early physics as much as metaphysics, and both Yoga & Samkhya are considered darshan, or traditional approaches to Hinduism. However, Yoga and Samkhya are not necessarily theistic approaches, i.e., they don’t necessarily involve a particular deity or methods of worship. These methods can, however, have a religious significance and can incorporate a variety of deities, most notably Shiva, mythologically the inventor of Yoga and the influences of Medieval Shaivism on Hatha, although tales about Krishna and Arjuna, Rama and Hanuman, and Vishnu come up.

The earliest text dedicated to the study of Yoga is the Sutra. The Yoga Sutra is believed to have been written by a single person, Patanjali, although it could have been a compilation over time from a variety of sources. It is often dated to 2nd century BCE, although many will also place it to 2nd century AD. This dating can matter, as it contextualizes the philosophy in relation to the early foundations of Buddhism, and practices such as meditating on the Four Abodes are present although not explicit. The Sutra is not the only text to mention yoga, but it is the first in-depth instruction manual and mostly is concerned with methods of meditating and ethical practices. It describes eight limbs of practice, and was sometimes called Ashtanga Yoga before the more physical practice using that name became more commonly known. Now it is often also referred to as Raja Yoga, in contrast to later developments.

Other significant ancient Indian texts mention yoga before or at approximately the same time as the Sutra. The word is used in the Rg Veda, the oldest of the most sacred of Hindu texts, the Vedas. A classification of yoga occurs in the Bhagavad Gita, an epic tale in which Krishna advises Arjuna that there are 3 paths of yoga: service (karma), bhakti (devotion), and jnana (scholarship). All paths combine to lead to the same place: enlightment. Some students will feel a stronger pull in one or more directions, but all three aspects of yoga are valued and practiced regularly.

Yoga has been incorporated into Buddhism and Jainism in addition to Hinduism, and in the centuries to follow Sikhism, further showing it’s utility as a generalized system beyond a belief in Vedic scriptures as canonical. Over centuries, the secular Sutra-based practice, almost entirely based in meditation and philosophical perspective, began to change and take on more physical aspects, and over the centuries more poses were added and new approaches arose.

Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and other texts outlining a Hatha style of yoga began to emerge. Some of these were designed to counter some of the more harmful or disconcerting practices emerging in Tantra systems. Already the practice shifted away from overcoming the material world, and instead focusing on bodily practices, including more asana, more ritualized cleaning of the body (flossing, toothbrushing, nasal cleaning, and other more esoteric practices), and a different view of how energy manifests in the body. The body was viewed as a microcosm of the external world, made up of the same raw material and treated with the same respect, despite there being more important aspects of Self. Even with a greater balance of attention between the two poles of body and the mechanics of the brain, there was still a faith in a nature of Self beyond mind and matter.

The Sutra view of overcoming the body, if taken to extreme, could cause physical distress, and Yoga incorporated or increased attention toward more “embodied” practices. The chakra system and the idea of nadis, energetic channels throughout the body, began to take on more prominence, as does the idea of Kundalini, “she who coils,” an energy created by combining masculine (Shiva) and feminine (Shakti) energies in such a way they build an energetic coil that bursts out of the base of the spine up and through the crown of the head. This style of practice has even lead to the name of a medical syndrome!

Modern Postural Yoga: Innovation versus Authenticity

But even these early texts outlining physical practices looked nothing like the yoga manuals people are accustomed to seeing today. Recent research, including Yoga Body and Original Yoga, reviewed ancient yoga texts for asana (poses) and have found that many poses considered “ancient” today, may have actually emerged in a post-colonial, turn-of-the-century, pre-World War I India. Because this research was done by Westerners, and the accuracy of and faith in oral tradition are higher in Indian culture than most Western ones, some traditionalists are concerned that an Orientalist agenda may have caused this research to be in error. However, very little textual evidence of standing, balancing, and complicated poses now considered fundamental existed prior to the early 20th century.

Similarly students today will consider Sun Salutation to be the only legitimate “traditional” practice, and believe they are practicing the one true sequence that is 2500 years old, despite the fact multiple traditions have different Sun Salutations and few have found evidence of one of today’s regimented sequences existing prior to the 19th century. Janita Stenhouse has identified over a dozen variations on the sequence. Although there are traditions practiced today for religious and spiritual reasons, they are often not the same as they were several thousand years ago, despite the claim to such authenticity.

Even some of the philosophy many yoga students consider traditional isn’t found in the original texts or scripture, but is based in interpretations. Different gurus brought different aspects of the system into the West dating as far back as the late 19th century when yoga began to infuse into American theosophic and new age cultures. One of the first women teachers in the US, Indra Devi, returned from India in the 1920s and taught celebrities in Hollywood. In A History of Modern Yoga, Elizabeth De Michelis has traced intersections between Eastern and Western thought occurring in India before the export of Yoga to the US, and continuing in the philosophical intermingling that has occurred since the 1890s.

Although I’ve only been practicing since 2003, I know that there are many poses that have come into fashion since even then, developed by yoga systems Westerners invented between the 1960s-1990s that have recently gained increased popularity and media exposure. Many asana that appear in Yoga Journal magazine and that people use as tools of authenticity and thus superiority, are actually very recent innovations, and many made up here in the US of A. Yet many use the idea of tradition or authenticity to enforce that these new fads are allegedly more legitimate than older, meditative practices.

The philosophical and meditative healing practices have also become secularized by modern Western yogis. As Yoga Nidra and Buddhist Vipassana techniques became clinical, atheistic treatment modalities in psychology, people have disconnected this important benefit of the practice from the contortionism celebrated on magazine covers.

How ironic, that this practice touted as ancient and authentic by Westerners and Easterners alike, is a constantly growing, emerging, and self-innovating one. How further ironic is it that the Western view of a Jazzer-Pilo-Zumba-cise that continues to get faster paced and more active by year is the only “Real Yoga,” when the practice was largely sedentary for thousands of years?

But Do You Do REAL Yoga?

Unfortunately, this leads to concerns, particularly in the US. Are these innovations to the practice an aspect of cultural imperialism? A humanistic improvement designed to make older philosophies relevant in a modern context? By taking many philosophical aspects of the practice away in the interest of secularizing it, so we lose it’s center and cheapen it into the latest Tae Bo home workout? Is the only valid practice one of an ascetic hermit in saffron robes somewhere in the Himalayans?

I have been asked the question, “Yes, but do you teach REAL Yoga?” several times. I’m never quite certain what the person is looking for. They might think Real Yoga is only the Ashtanga system, developed in the 20th century by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois or perhaps Iyengar Yoga, developed in the same time period as B.K.S. Iyengar. These men came from the same lineage, the same teacher, Krishnamacharya, but their interpretations of the practice are profoundly different. Is one of the less real than the other? Or are they both “inauthentic” because Krishnamacharya deviated from some of the other branches of yoga that had been taught in the centuries prior? Is “Real Yoga” only the practices of Integral Yoga? And if so, which of the TWO systems using that name?

For me, the answer is being mindful of these factors. I am mindful of the fact that a thing I’ve been doing for under 15 years, that has provided me immense value and a greatly improved life, has a rich cultural history. I remember that my practice is different than that of others, because I am a different person. I try to avoid being ignorant or offensive toward other people’s perspectives. But I also avoid dogmatic views, particularly toward a philosophy that avoids dogma in many ways, in favor of scientific innovation. Even as I’m bound by what is scientifically proven or suggested, I still recognize that there are things that occur inside of me everyday that science has yet to satisfactorily explain.

Because of the US discomfort with religious indoctrination, many studios, including ours, focus on secular aspects of the practice. However, the ethical principles are not innately religious ones, (except for some translations of Brahmicharya and Ishvara Pranidhana.) Many of these practices are ones present in all social civilizations, whether based in religion or not: Do not steal, or even grasp or cling to things you do not need. Be truthful to your best ability in word, thought, and deed. Do no harm. Even the words above that have great Hindu significance, Brahmicharya (in the path of Brahmin) and Ishvara Pranidhana (Surrender to the Lord) have modern secular interpretations, similar to the ideas of 12 step programs today of moderation and relinquishing control to a higher power.

In Conclusion

The more I study the texts and traditions of yoga with both critical thinking and open-heartedness, the more I study and sit with the tensions and seeming contradictions found between the Yoga Sutra, Hatha Yoga texts, or even Tantric or Buddhist texts, the more questions arise that I can’t answer, and the more I believe Yoga is unable to be accessed by only body, or only mind, or only heart, or spirit. Yoga is complicated to define, characterize, and authenticate because it just is. We are the ones trying to categorize it.

What is Yoga?


Is Yoga This, That, Something Else?

To someone, yes.

What is Real Yoga?


What is Not Real Yoga?

When it matters, you’ll know.