Expanding what is the meaning of yoga through the ancients yoga texts and yogic philosophy
Today it’s easy to misunderstand what is the meaning of yoga.
Either because of an overwhelming offer of different yoga styles, and thanks to beautiful pictures on social media portraying the perfect yoga asana, we’re often encouraged to believe that what yoga is about it’s related to how flexible you are in the body, or how well-aligned one performs a posture.
What is the meaning of yoga nowadays is very far away, and different, from the definition of yoga, passed on by the sacred yogic texts.
Yoga is defined in the dictionary as “a Hindu philosophy that teaches you how to control your body and mind in the belief that you can become united with the spirit of the universe in this way” or as a
“system of exercises for your body and for controlling your breathing, used by people who want to become fitter or to relax”.
Although I don’t like calling yoga “a system of exercises”, both are correct and give an idea of what is the meaning of yoga in the modern world.
What is the meaning of yoga according to yogic texts
The science of Yoga has been studied by many different traditions, but they all come together when it comes to the definition of yoga.
The word comes from the Sanskrit word: Yuj, which means ‘to join’.
To join something you need to have two, or more, objects, for them to become one. So, in the same way, yoga is the idea of oneness, of becoming one with your mind and body.
Yoga is a spiritual, philosophic and holistic science, originated in the Northern part of India, over 5 thousand years ago.
The word yoga was first mentioned in the Rig Vedas, the earliest amongst the Vedas, the most ancient sacred texts known to humanity.
Yoga is also among the six schools of philosophy in Hinduism, as well as an important role in Buddhism and its meditation practices.
The main components of yoga are breathing practices, postures, mantras, bandhas and mudras aiming to boost mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing and elevate the human being.
The first classical definition of yoga is from Bhagavad Gita, a dialogue between Krishna and his friend King Arjuna.
Arjuna has a problem, a very important question about life and death, so he was very depressed, anxious, and asked Krishna for help.
He gave him the solution to his problem: yog.And he mentioned, “Samatvam Yoga Uchyate” which means Yoga is a balanced state.
Because yoga brings the balance of body and mind but it also balances emotions, thoughts, actions, and intellect.
Are our emotions always balanced?
I have never been in such a harmonious state, either one side or the other, too excited or too stressed, too sad or too happy, in pain or very joyful.
Are our thoughts balanced? No.
Most of the time they are negative, useless, random.
There’s no harmony of thoughts, our intellect seems to have a problem with harmony and balance.
And there comes to mind what is the meaning of yoga, helping to bring balance between emotions, thoughts, and actions.
Everything is in the mind and once the mind is steady, calm and focused we can experience true happiness.
The second definition is again from Bhagavad Gita “Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam”: Yoga is the art of working skilfully, with no attachment to results. This skill brings body and mind in harmony
In the Bhagavad Gita it also mentioned that we have three types of energy:
- Jnana shakti – wisdom, knowledge, gained through the intellectual process, intelligence.
- Bhakti shakti – emotional energy or willpower
- Karma shakti – behaviour, actions
Let me ask you: how are these energies within you? Do these energies work in balance?
Most of the time the answer is ‘no’.
Let’s try to understand the concept of these Shaktis.
A good example that my yogic philosophy teacher gave me is this: your friend smokes too much, his intelligent energy tells that it is dangerous and bad; intellectually she/he knows that, but the emotions suggest that it doesn’t matter, because “I need to smoke”.
So, he smokes! Hence, action follows emotions.
Sometimes the intellect overcomes emotions.
For example, when I like eating sweets but I am well aware that is bad.
Emotions say “eat it”!
Intellect says “no, don’t eat it”. I won’t eat it, so my action follow my intellect.
Not always an action follows emotions or intellect. Or either of them.
Let me give you one more example.
I want to write a book about yoga (this is one of my biggest dreams) because I know that is useful and can give great help to others, that is something that people need, but I don’t have time so it’s still a secret dream.
Thus, these three energies aren’t always in balance.
Coming back to what is the meaning of yoga according to Bhagavad Gita, yoga is the skill where we can bring harmony and balance between intellect, emotions and actions.
yogaḥ karmasu kauśhalam
Bhagavad Gita: Chapter 2, Verse 5
The third definition of yoga according to yogic texts come from the text Yoga Vasishta.
It is the dialogue between King Rama and his guru.
During their conversation, the king asked the definition of yoga and the guru said: “Yoga manah prashamana upaya’, Yoga is the cure to achieve absolute peace and stillness of the mind.
The fourth definition of yoga comes from Ashtanga yoga.
Patanjali in his sutras described what is the meaning of yoga in the second line “Yoga chitta Vrtti Nirodha”, which means: Yoga controls the fluctuations of the mind.
Why fluctuations? Because the mind doesn’t listen to us! When we are depressed, or angry, the mind controls us.
One depressing thought of fear, anxiety ruins our day! Our lives. Because one negative thought brings another, and so on, and a series of problems will eventually arise.
If you change your mind you change your body, if you control your mind, you control your body.
Yoga is not merely a physical or psychological therapy though it surely contains a therapeutic element.
It is a tradition of psycho-spiritual growth leading to inner peace and freedom.
Yoga’s comprehensive methodology includes many techniques that serve the goals of enhancing or restoring wellbeing and health.
So, this definition of yoga is about the mind and how to control it.
It is based on the power to concentrate on any desired subject or object and the capacity to remain peaceful at all the time
The fifth definition comes from another important text: Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
The meaning of ‘Ha’ means sun and it is related to Pingala Nadi, or physical energy/body. ‘Tha’ means moon and it’s connected to Ida Nadi, mental energy, or mind.
Pradipika means “light” or “to illuminate”, and yoga, or yug means, to “join”: the union of the sun and the moon.
So again, yoga is the balance between body and mind, between man and feminine energy, harmony between the two energies of life: the pranic and the mental.
The Hatha yoga system says that bringing body and mind in harmony will establish all the control for mental and physical functions.
The mind is hard to control, often it is referred to as a crazy monkey, jumping from branches to branches; jumping from one thought to another, to another and to another thought.
The mind always moves but this is not healthy, it’s like being drunk all the time.
If we balance body-mind the monkey mind can sit down and be still.
The definition of yoga according to Bhakti and Gyana
There are two more definitions of yoga worth mentioning.
They are given by the intellectual path, Gyana, or Jnana Yoga, and the devotional path, Bhakti yoga.
The idea of oneness is the concept of Bhakti.
Thinking of God in personal terms, such as father, mother, friend, or beloved.
Eventually, this leads one to see and love God in all forms, rather than just in a chosen deity.
For deeper understanding: when I become one with everything around me at an emotional level, when I experience the same sadness for friends and I get tears in the eyes, this is becoming one.
Bhakti yoga is becoming one with the little flower or a tree, with mother nature, or when I am happy for others’ success.
Experiencing emotional oneness is what yoga is about.
It also says that yoga is oneness understood at an intellectual level, Gyana yoga.
Intellectually we know that if people suffer we have to help or contribute to others well being.
We all know that all kinds of inequalities exist and intellectually we understand that they are not correct, that we must try to have a system for everyone.
So this process of implementing an analytical mind is also yoga.
To conclude and understand what is the meaning of yoga is important to understand that yoga starts with the mind, ends with the mind.
Mind is the bottom line, the focus of yoga, not perfect asana or perfect body.
Body, emotions and thoughts are tools, as well as breath, meditation and mantras, to achieve the state of mind which is experiencing oneness.
And that state of mind experiences oneness is a peaceful, evolved, balanced, positive, state of mind.
Yoga is the conscious art of self-discovery, a process by which a human being expands its narrow, constricted, egoistic personality to an eternal and blissful state of reality.
Yoga is an all-around development of personality at a physical, mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual level.
And this is what yoga is about.