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What is Yoga?

What is Yoga? What does "yoga" really mean, and where does it come from? Here are the answers to 10 of the most common questions you've always wondered.

Instructor: Sarah N.
Sarah has completed an intensive yoga teacher training program in Pune, India at the BKS Iyengar Yoga Institute. She has been inspired to continue practicing and teaching yoga for life.

A Beginner's Guide to Yoga, Practice, Meditation and the Sutras


What does "yoga" really mean, and where does it come from? Here are the answers to 10 of the most common questions you've always wondered:

What is Yoga? Yoga Sutras Benefits Types Om Poses

What is Yoga?

Yoga as defined in the Yoga Sutras means "to still the fluctuations of the mind, intellect and ego," or in plainer terms "to become steady and centered within yourself." Taken literally, the Sanskrit word yoga itself means "the union of the soul with its higher self or ultimate source of consciousness."

At its core, yoga is a discipline that builds mental and physical strength by turning the mind inward to find greater balance and inner peace. The reward of yoga practice is finding an inner contentment that doesn't depend on any external sources for happiness. As the body becomes flexible, so also does the mind become a flexible instrument that can adapt to face any situation in a balanced way.

No one person created yoga. Sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutras describing the full meaning of the "yogic path" or system of thought may be from around 200 to 500 B.C.; however, the practice had passed down for generations before Sage Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras. Descriptions of the yogic postures themselves appear in the ancient work titled the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and other ancient texts.

In the Yoga Sutras, Sage Patanjali details the eight limbs of yoga:

Sage Patanjali details the eight limbs of yoga

  • The Yamas and Niyamas are the dos and don'ts of the yogic code of conduct. These guidelines help practitioners save energy by controlling themselves and living in harmony with those around them.
  • The Asanas are the physical yogic postures practiced in yoga classes to purify the body and gain strength. Practice of asanas prepares the body to sit for long hours in meditation without pain.
  • After one becomes proficient in practicing asanas, then a student is ready to learn Pranayama, methods of regulating your breathing to tame the mind further. Prananyama practices are not advisable for people with serious health conditions, and learning it requires the personalized guidance of an experienced teacher.
  • Pratyahara comes naturally as the senses gradually turn more inward, and the mind becomes more reflective than reactive.
  • Dharana is when you achieve an unbroken stream of one-pointed concentration, which is preparation for Dhyanam, or meditation.
  • Samadhi is absorption in the source of consciousness. Contrary to some interpretations, Samadhi is not the goal of Yoga. The highest goal that Yoga prepares one for is to realize one's true nature, and after experiencing that, one develops a completely unshakable peace, fearlessness and endless patience that nothing and no one can disturb.
Those who follow the path of yoga are "yogis" if they are men, and "yoginis" if they are women.

What are the benefits of Yoga?

What is yoga? Benefits

What Does Hatha Mean?

The word Hatha in relationship to yoga comes from the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Sage Swatmarama. He described all the main yoga postures and focused mostly on the physical aspect of yoga while Patanjali addressed the philosophical scope of yoga.

The word Hatha alone means "by determined force," and it also refers to balancing the two largest energy meridians in the subtle body. These are the channels of heating, masculine and solar energy vs. the cooling, feminine and lunar energy naturally occurring within every person.

What are the types of Yoga?

The tradition of yoga practice is thousands of years old, so no one can technically copyright any yogic posture. However, the methods and techniques of practicing are as numerous as the personalities of those who practice yoga. Here we've put together the most popular types of yoga for you to help you decide which ones may be best for you.

5 types of yoga

What Does "Om" Mean?

In Hindu culture, the syllable "Om" represents the creation, sustenance and dissolution of the entire universe. Scholars write it as one letter, but within that one letter is the primordial sound of everything that exists. In the ancient texts, they say Om was the very first sound that came into being during the birth of the world.

The sound actually contains three parts. The beginning is "ah," which represents the creation. The transition through "oh" to "oo" in the middle represents the preservation of a life span. The final "mm" sound at the end symbolizes the dissolution of all that exists back into its original source.

What does Om Mean in Yoga

Yogis traditionally chant Om over and over repeatedly as a way to steady the breathing and relax the mind. After some time of chanting this way, one can experience how the mantra begins to feel like one continuous stream of sound without a beginning or end. Just as the sound Om feels infinite, so too does creation have neither a starting nor an ending according to Hindu philosophy. To put it scientifically, the vibration of particles always creates a subtle sound that exists in all matter on earth. One could also think of Om as representing that foundational sound vibration that permeates all that exists.

For these reasons, traditional yoga classes begin by chanting Om to steady the mind and remember the interconnectedness of all life. Chanting Om at the end of class helps students to stay focused within to become conscious of the benefits of their yoga practice. The syllable Om also appears as the opening to every Sanskrit mantra since it boosts the strength of the mantra following it.

What are the best yoga poses for beginners?

Here's the 10 most popular yoga poses for beginners:

  1. Pigeon Pose
  2. Child's Pose
  3. Crow Pose
  4. Cobra Pose
  5. Tree Pose
  6. Warrior Pose
  7. Happy Baby Pose
  8. Camel Pose
  9. Boat Pose
  10. Triangle Pose

View all 100+ poses here:

Yoga Poses

Browse 145 yoga poses in our complete guide. Everything from basic to advanced poses, seated and standing poses, twists, challenge poses, and more.
145 lessons 10.5 hours All levels English

Do I Have to Be Vegetarian to Practice Yoga?

The principle of ahimsa means "striving not to harm or wish anyone ill in one's thoughts, words or actions whenever possible." It's a yogic virtue that is difficult to practice, but mastering this principle is important for strengthening the mind, body and spirit. The point of ahimsa is to always consider the consequences of your actions to avoid causing unnecessary harm.

In India, most Hindus are vegetarian as a way of following the ideal of ahimsa. For example, the culture views cows as sacred animals because they produce much more than they take from nature, so breeding them solely for consumption seems disrespectful. Beyond that though, eating a vegetarian diet helps to make the mind more calm and less reactive, which is very important to help a yogi deepen their practice. They recognized thousands of years ago that everything you eat affects you on a deep level because it becomes a part of you. Many point out that vegetarian diets are also more environmentally friendly in many ways since you can feed more people efficiently while creating less waste and pollution.

However, no one should feel that they must become a vegetarian to practice yoga. It is a personal choice. Furthermore, one needs to consider their own circumstances. For example, those living in extreme conditions near the North Pole must eat fish and whatever is available to survive. If a doctor tells you that your health conditions require you to eat meat, then you should listen to that advice because it's your duty to take care of yourself. The point is to avoid unnecessary violence. It is up to each individual how they wish to put that ideal into practice.

How Many Times Per Week Should I Practice Yoga?

Practicing yoga gives great benefits even if you only do it once weekly. Attending at least one yoga class per week will greatly inspire you when you begin learning yoga. If you can attend a weekend retreat, that is the best way to learn the essential elements quickly.

Start out by practicing one pose per day or at least every other day. Then the next week, try adding one or two more poses. Every week, gradually increase your practice, and you'll find it gets more fun the more you work on it. When you become very flexible after a few months, then you can maintain your strength even if you only practice twice a week for 30 minutes to an hour.

Those who want to become yoga teachers should practice every day and keep a personal yoga journal to remember what they've done and record what they've learned. Training to become a teacher requires experience that only comes from attending as many classes as possible with different teachers. Before you consider becoming a teacher, you should enjoy doing up to 2 hours of asanas six days a week.

What is the Difference Between Yoga and Pilates, Stretching or Other Kinds of Fitness?

The physical stretches of yogic postures are just the beginning of the yogi's path, the first step to help start purifying the mind and body. The goal of each asana is to bring complete awareness and steadiness into every movement to focus the mind. In this way, real meditation, mental purity and inner peace become attainable.

Is Yoga a Religion?

Yoga is the science of mastering the body, mind and breath that embraces the traditional Hindu Sankhya philosophy, which is more than 5,000 years old.

The practice of yoga is about self mastery. It is a way of life, a regular discipline. Therefore, it doesn't matter what religion a person does or does not have in terms of practicing yoga. Even if you only practice the postures to strengthen your body without ever reading any yogic texts, you will still benefit from practicing yoga.

If I'm Not Flexible Can I Do Yoga?

Anyone can do yoga. Neither your current flexibility level nor your age should ever be a barrier to learning yoga. Today so many yoga props and excellent teachers are available to accommodate people in almost any physical condition. Practicing yoga helps both your body and mind become more flexible. You can become stronger, more balanced and develop more confidence through practicing yoga.

What Do I Need to Begin Practicing Yoga?

When you come to class, you will feel more comfortable if you wear clothing that breathes well when you sweat and will not get in your face when your head hangs down. Stretchy pants like leggings or long shorts are ideal. You will practice barefoot, so do not worry about footwear. If you are going to a Bikram yoga class in heated rooms, then it's nice to bring a towel with you since you will sweat much more there than in other yoga classes. You can bring a yoga mat with you, but most studios will have yoga props and mats available for you.

Why Should You Refrain From Eating 2-3 Hours Before Yoga Class?

It takes at least two hours for your last meal to travel through your stomach. Practicing asanas while your stomach is still processing your meal can upset your digestion. You could feel somewhat nauseous and uncomfortable if you try to do postures that require you to balance upside down, twist and bend backward on a full stomach. Practicing asanas on an empty stomach is much easier and will allow you to go deeper into the poses.

If you are very hungry before class, have a juice no sooner than 30 minutes before practicing.

Next Article:

Yoga 101

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