Yoga glossary: What does ‘yoga’ mean?

“Yoga is a more comprehensive practice than simply stretching and breathing,” says Darren Main in his book ‘Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic.’ So, what does ‘yoga’ mean?

The word comes from the Sanskrit meaning to ‘yoke’ or ‘unite’ and the physical postures (asana) only make up one part of it. Yoga is about the uniting of the body with the mind, the soul, and the breath; but also between the individual and a sense of connection to a oneness around them.

The physical poses are a great place to start, because we learn so much about ourselves as we learn the different poses. Poses that seemed impossible when we first tried them do, after time and practise, become easier. But originally, the physical poses were about preparing the body to be ready to sit in meditation for a long time, rather than the vinyasa and ashtanga flows we know now. 

Pantajali, a Sage in ancient India wrote the Yoga Sutra around 1800 years ago and in it he outlined the principles of yoga: he described it as “the cessation of mental fluctuations” and to get there the student should follow the path known as the ‘Eight Limbs.’

The Eight Limbs include the Yamas (ethical and moral observances to live by), Niyamas (spiritual observances), Asana, Pranayama (control of the breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (liberation). I will go over the Eight Limbs in more detail in another post, because there is so much to say about them, but in effect yoga is as much about how you live your life off the mat as it is what you do on it.

How can we practise off the mat? Do something that brings you joy, get out in nature, express gratitude for the life you are living and don’t live grasping for more, being kind to others and yourself. As my yoga teacher says, there’s no point in having a great class where you hold every posture perfectly to then get in your car to drive home in a fit of road rage. But sometimes it’s hard to feel content with where you are in life, and sometimes the guy that just overtook you on a roundabout really did deserve all the swearwords you showered him with. Yoga isn’t a quick journey where you learn the poses and you’re done, it’s an ever changing, continuous journey that takes time and discipline. But that’s what makes it so interesting.

As Darren puts it: “Remember that yoga…is a practice, not perfection. It’s the process of returning to your yoga practice over and over again that gives you the benefits. Doing the perfect yoga pose or clearing your mind of all thought is well and good, but in the end it is the practice of returning to yoga that allows you to live life to the fullest.”

So, my questions to you are: what does yoga mean to you and how do you practise it off the mat?

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