1. Home
  2. Yoga Basics
  3. What is yoga? Definition, origin, and goals

What is yoga? Definition, origin, and goals

Today millions of people around the world are practicing yoga and the numbers are increasing dramatically every year. Modern Yoga is in constant evolution, new styles are developing, influencing, and mixing with other traditions all over the world. However, Yoga is a very ancient system of practices that has been passed down through the generations from teacher to student. Yogic practices include breathing techniques, postures, relaxation, chanting, and other meditation methods. In this post, we are going to review its origins, definition, and goals so we have a wider a clearer idea of what this tradition really is.

What is Yoga, a general definition

Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices originated in ancient India aim to control (yoke) and still the mind in order to recognize a detached witness-consciousness which is untouched by the mind (Chitta) and mundane suffering (Duḥkha).”

What Yoga is not, a clarification

It is important to know that Yoga is not a religion.

As stated in the above definition it is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices. They include breathing techniques, postures, relaxation, chanting, and other meditation methods. Yogic practices are an integral part of all Indian religions and today are successfully used by millions of people who are not religious or belong to a non-Indian religion.

Quoting Sadhguru a modern-day teacher and yogi;

Yoga is a technology, and religion has nothing to do with it. What religion you belong to has nothing to do with your ability to make use of the yogic systems, because yoga is a technology. Technology does not make any distinction as to what you believe in and what you do not believe in.”

Meaning and Etymology.

The Sanskrit noun योग yoga is derived from the root yuj (युज्) “to attach, join, harness, yoke”. It is the origin of the Latin words “iungere” and “iugum ” and the modern English words “to join” and “ yoke”.

According to Panini, the great Sanskrit philologist, the word yoga can be derived from one of these two roots: yujir yoga (to yoke) or yuj samādhau (“to concentrate”).

In the context of the Yoga Sutras, the root yuj samādhau (to concentrate) is considered the correct etymology by traditional commentators. However, both meanings (join-union and concentration-samadhi) have been used interchangeably throughout history by most teachers and commentators.

Different Definitions of Yoga

The term yoga has been defined in a number of ways in Indian philosophical and religious traditions. Here are some of the most essential definitions used by different schools and traditions throughout history.

Patanjali Yoga Sutras (first centuries CE)

The definition most widely used and quoted in modern times comes from the Yoga Sutras composed by the great sage Patanjali in the first centuries of the CE. This treatise is considered one of the most important and foundational texts of the classical Yoga philosophy.

In the Samadhi Chapter (Samadhi Pada) of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives his famous definition of Yoga;

(YS 1.2): Yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ

“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of mind”

The next two verses explain further

(YS 1.3): Then the Seer is established in his own essential and fundamental nature.

(YS 1.4): In other states, there is assimilation [of the Seer] with the modifications [of the mind]”

The meaning here is that when the mind is stilled, the seer or real Self is revealed.

Katha Upanishad (last centuries BCE)

The first known appearance of the word “yoga” in the modern sense appears in the Katha Upanishad a text composed between the fifth and third centuries BCE. In this text Yoga is defined like this;

When the five senses, along with the mind, remain still and the intellect is not active, that is known as the highest state. They consider yoga to be firm restraint of the senses. Then one becomes un-distracted for yoga is the arising and the passing away” (6.10-11)

Here Yoga is defined as steady control of the senses which – with cessation of mental activity – leads to a supreme state.

You can read here more definitions of Yoga in classical texts.

Goals of Yoga

The ultimate goal of Yoga can be summarized as follows;

  • Stilling the mind and gaining insight,
  • Recognize and rest in detached awareness untouched by suffering.
  • Achieve liberation (Moksha) from saṃsāra and duḥkha:
  • Achieve unity (Aikyam) with the divine (Brahman) or with one’s Self (Ātman).

This goal varies by philosophical or theological system. For example in the classical Ashtanga yoga system, the ultimate goal of yoga is to achieve samadhi and remain in that state of pure awareness.

In a broader sense, the practice of Yoga allows us to transform and purify our bodies, minds, and souls. It expands our consciousness to help us connect with nature and the universe around us. It also gives us greater access to inner resources to teach us about self-awareness, acceptance, compassion, patience, gratitude, forgiveness, humility, love, peace, and joy.

Origins and Development of Yoga

The origins of Yoga can be traced back thousands of years. Its history is commonly divided by scholars into different stages.

Mythological origins

Shiva is considered the first Yogi, Adiyogi

The practice of Yoga is believed to have started with the very dawn of civilization. The legend goes that yoga has its origin long before the first religions or belief systems were born. In the yogic lore, Shiva is seen as the first yogi or Adiyogi, and the first Guru or Adi Guru.

Many thousands of years ago, on the banks of lake Kantisarovar in the Himalayas, Adiyogi poured his profound knowledge into the legendary Saptarishis or “seven sages”. The sages carried this powerful yogic knowledge to different parts of the world, including Asia, the Middle East, Northern Africa, and South America. Interestingly, modern scholars have noted and marveled at the close parallels found between ancient cultures across the globe. However, it was in India that the yogic system found its fullest expression. Agastya, the Saptarishi who traveled across the Indian subcontinent, crafted this culture around a core yogic way of life.

Indus Valley Civilization

Seals of Indus Saraswati valley civilization with Yogic motives

The Number of seals and fossil remains of the Indus Saraswati valley civilization with Yogic motives and figures performing Yoga Sadhana and postures suggests the presence of Yoga in ancient India and its roots can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization lasting from 3300 BCE to 1300 BCE

Earliest references (1000–500 BCE)

The Vedas, the only texts preserved from the early Vedic period and codified between c. 1200 and 900 BCE, contain references to yogic practices primarily related to ascetics on the fringes of Brahmanism. The Rigveda’s Nasadiya Sukta suggests an early Brahmanic contemplative tradition. Techniques for controlling breath and vital energies are mentioned in the Atharvaveda and in the Brahmanas (the second layer of the Vedas, composed c. 1000–800 BCE).

Second urbanization (500–200 BCE)

In this period Systematic yoga concepts begin to emerge in texts dating to c. 500–200 BCE, such as the early Buddhist texts, the middle Upanishads, and the Mahabharata’s Bhagavad Gita and Shanti Parva.

Around the sixth and fifth centuries BCE yogic practices developed in the same ascetic circles as the early śramaṇa movements (Buddhists, Jainas and Ajivikas), these traditions were the first to use mind-body techniques (known as Dhyāna and tapas) but later described as yoga, to strive for liberation from the round of rebirth.

The Upanishads, composed in the late Vedic period, contain the first references to practices recognizable as classical yoga. The first known appearance of the word “yoga” in the modern sense is in the Katha Upanishad (probably composed between the fifth and third centuries BCE)

Nirodhayoga (yoga of cessation), an early form of yoga, is described in the Mokshadharma section of the 12th chapter (Shanti Parva) of the third-century BCE Mahabharata. Nirodhayoga emphasizes progressive withdrawal from empirical consciousness, including thoughts and sensations, until Purusha (self) is realized.

The Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord), part of the Mahabharata, contains extensive teachings about yoga. In addition to a chapter (chapter six) dedicated to traditional yoga practice (including meditation), it introduces three significant types of yoga: Karma yoga: yoga of action, Bhakti yoga: yoga of devotion, and Jnana yoga: yoga of knowledge.

Classical era (200 BCE – 500 CE)

Key works of the era include the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, the Yoga-Yājñavalkya, the Yogācārabhūmi-Śāstra, and the Visuddhimagga.

Sage Patanjali, the author of “The Yoga Sutras”

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are considered the first compilation of yoga philosophy. Influenced by Buddhist, Jain, and Samkhya traditions it culminates the systematization of yoga which began in the middle and early Yoga Upanishads.

Patanjali defines the word “yoga” in his second sutra and made the famous classification of Ashtanga yoga “the eight limbs of yoga”. He defined the eight limbs as yamas (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breathing), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (absorption).

The eight limbs form a sequence from the outer to the inner. Postures, important in modern yoga as exercise, form just one limb of Patanjali’s scheme; he states only that they must be steady and comfortable. The main aim is kaivalya, the discernment of Purusha, the witness-conscious, as separate from Prakriti, the cognitive apparatus, and the disentanglement of Purusha from its muddled defilements.

Middle Ages (500–1500 CE)

The Middle Ages saw the development of Tantra and satellite yoga traditions. Hatha yoga emerged during this period.

The first references to hatha yoga are in eighth-century Buddhist works. The earliest definition of hatha yoga is in the 11th-century Buddhist text Vimalaprabha. Hatha yoga blends elements of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras with posture and breathing exercises. It marks the development of asanas into the full-body postures in current popular use and, with its modern variations, is the style presently associated with the word “yoga”.

Modern revival and Introduction in the West

Yoga and other aspects of Indian philosophy came to the attention of the educated Western public during the mid-19th century. Swami Vivekananda, the first Hindu teacher to advocate and disseminate elements of yoga to a Western audience, toured Europe and the United States in the 1890s.

Later in the 20th century, modern yoga has been led by different gurus for over a century, ranging from Vivekananda with his Vedanta-based yoga philosophy to Krishnamacharya with his gymnastic approach, his pupils including the influential Pattabhi Jois teaching asanas linked by flowing vinyasa movements and B. K. S. Iyengar teaching precisely-positioned asanas, often using props.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.