What is the meaning of yoga?

There’ve been many explanations offered for the meaning of the word yoga and perhaps the most commonly accepted one right now is that it’s derived from an ancient Sanskrit word, yuj, meaning to yoke. So ‘Yoga’ is a metaphor derived from the action of joining a cow or horse to a plough or cart, a symbolising of union, but a union of what?

There are many possible layers here (and interpretations!), the most popular seem to be the joining of the internal Self with the wider Universe, the meeting of Prakriti and Parusha (Nature, as in the physical world and Spirit) or less commonly offered, the joining of the mind with the body. As a Tantrika (a follower of Tantrik philosophy) I believe we’re not just already firmly joined with the Universe, not even inextricably part of it but actually the agents that bring the Universe into reality!

So for me the idea of bringing mind and body together resonates most fully as the meaning and purpose of my practice. In our yoga at SSY that’s what we aim to share with you, the experience of being fully in our bodies, as far as we can, in each breath. We practice this on the mat, be it in seated meditation, in quiet poses, pranayama (breathwork) or in a fiery, dynamic practice. As we all experience, so much time can be spent in our internal world, living within our vikalpas (larger thought constructs – stories, opinions, judgements) and yoga is the bringing of our mind into this present moment, through whatever means, so that we actually inhabit our bodies as fully as we can, not dwell in what has already been and what may (or may not so often!) come to pass as we imagine it.

In this way yoga is a journey of both the inner and outer worlds but it hasn’t always been this way. Yoga evolved in India from the blending of pre-historic shamanic wisdom and practices, with more ritualized Vedic practices (the History of Yoga is a fascinating one that I’m keen to bring more of to you soon!) and there are still many other yogic paths around the world that our modern postural yoga, is just part of.

We might refer to all postural yoga as Hatha Yoga, which is a little confusing as within that are multiple styles – vinyasa, yin, Iyengar, Ashtanga etc but also Hatha, which is a style of postural yoga under the wider umbrella of Hatha Yoga! Other types of yoga include Bhakti Yoga – the practice of devotional chanting and singing, Karma Yoga - giving your time in complete service to others and Raja Yoga – meditation practices only.

Returning to the idea that yoga is a joining of the mind and body, we can perhaps come to understand how we can take our yoga off the mat. Often in class I refer to the other yoga practice, the main one that is happening in all the hours in wider life, not just the hours spent in the studio! There are many tools we learn in class - to pay attention to the moment, to all feelings that are rising up, to the wisdom of our body, to the way our thought patterns move within the internal world. These tools, alongside the physical health that we cultivate in our practices, bring us into our mind-body union, our yoga and in that way more fully into each moment, into life. That, for me, is the meaning of Yoga.