What Is Yoga?

Yoga is now. That’s it. That’s all there is to know. Good night and thank you. Okay, it’s far more than that. But that sentence, Yoga is now, is the whole thing boiled down to three words. The problem is that “now” is a pretty hard concept to put into practice in our daily lives. Have you ever tried to live in the moment, right here, right now, with no distractions and no other thoughts in your head? It’s difcult. That’s why a man named Patanjali, who lived during the second century BC, wrote the Yoga Sutras as a guide to yoga. “Yoga is now” is the first of his 196 sutras. But it’s only the beginning of his teachings.

Patanjali, who is considered to be the founder of the philosophy of yoga, defines yoga as the ability to cease
identification with the movements of the mind—in other words, to “live in the now.” The literal translation of yoga is “to yoke” or “union” or “to join.” Modern yogis translate this as the union of the mind and the body. This is why when most of us think of yoga, we think of Down Dog or fancy balancing poses.

Much of the work that we do in the physical practice of yoga is meant to carry over into our mental states. For example, if we hold a pose and work through some discomfort in our thighs or our arms, then we learn to understand that when we are faced with the pain that comes from the difcult times in our lives, we have the strength to get through it.

The physical helps the mental and vice versa; therefore, one cannot exist without the other, and that is why
we have yoga—or the union of the two.

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

Patanjali understood that there was more to yoga than just moving the body. Achieving the now is hard work. Using the lessons of his Sutras, he broke yoga down into the following eight areas or “limbs,” known as ashtanga.

methods of discipline
physical postures
breath work
assistance with withdrawing from the senses
absorption or liberation from the mind and the body

As you can see, yoga is more than just a kickass workout. Asanas—the physical postures—are just one part of the yoga practice. In order to comprehend yoga as a whole, we need to understand all eight of these principles.

I recognize that for now these Sanskrit terms probably mean nothing to you, and you might just want to move on to the poses. That’s perfectly fine. However, if you begin to practice yoga in a yoga studio or start to follow videos online, it is inevitable that some of these Sanskrit words will come up in one or more of your classes. That is why I mention them here, so they will reveal themselves in ways that help you.

Besides asana, the most referenced of the branches of ashtanga are the first two principles: the yamas and niyamas. Patanjali breaks down each of these into five diferent areas, which are described below.


The yamas describe ways in which we can control our actions and our reactions. The five yamas are as follows:

  1. Ahimsa
  2. Satya
  3. Asteya
  4. Brahmacharya
  5. Aparigraha


Ahimsa literally translates to “not injury.” The easiest way to think about it is like the doctor’s Hippocratic oath, which says, “First, do no harm.” It is the guiding principle that physicians use in making any major medical decision. According to ahimsa, it should guide yoga practice as well.

This principle can be as simple as the lessons taught to kids, such as do not hit and do not fight, or it can get more complex in the form of exercising restraint. Examples of this are not talking ill of others or trying not to harbor hatred of those who have done wrong. But ahimsa doesn’t solely apply to how to treat others. It applies to how you treat your own body as well. In a sense, it asks you to be your own doctor. Ahimsa encourages you to consider the following issues:

  • Preventing injury or sickness
  • Learning to rest when you’ve overdone it
  • Finding ways to cope with stress at work or home

Some yogis also translate ahimsa to being vegan and not harming animals. This works great for some, but not for all. Deciding what it means to do no harm to your body can be a personal matter.


Satya is the practice of honesty—not only with others but also with yourself. Being truthful is one of the biggest lessons that you can translate to the yoga mat. Once you start to learn the poses, how can you be honest with yourself? How can you listen to your body and understand when you’ve pushed it too far or not far enough? Practicing satya can help you feel better about yourself.


Asteya is the practice of not stealing. It can also mean not coveting the things that belong to others, whether they are material or intangible. It’s the practice of letting go of jealous feelings and ceasing to compare yourself with others.


Brahmacharya is perhaps the most interesting yama. It has been translated to mean abstinence, and Patanjali did believe in celibacy. However, in today’s modern world that might not be possible, so we translate this one to mean “not spending your time on things that waste your energy.” There are plenty of examples of this. Perhaps you’re always saying yes to every invite you get and you’re exhausted. Maybe you’re holding on to relationships that no longer serve you or the other person. Brahmacharya urges you to rid your life of the things that drain you.


Aparigraha means “nongreed.” This yama encourages you to stop living in excess. Have you ever had thoughts like, “If I had more money, or a bigger house, or better clothes, I would be happy”? Aparigraha encourages you to let go of those thoughts and be content with what you do have. To live by the principle of Aparigraha, do your best to derive happiness from yourself and the love around you rather than preferring things that you can buy or obtain.


The niyamas consist of the following:
✦ Saucha
✦ Santosha
✦ Tapas
✦ Svadhyaya
✦ Isvara Pranidhana

These five concepts lay out ways to act in the world. They encourage you to contemplate how you act as an individual, consistently.


Saucha means “cleanliness.” This can mean everything from keeping the house clean to eating pure and good foods to freeing your life of things that do not serve you. It’s a simple concept and one that can relate to just about every aspect of your life.


Translated as “contentment,” santosha is all about being happy with where you are right now. It’s still fine to have goals, but even as you strive for them, be content with what you have in the moment. Have aim and intention, but don’t be fixated on the outcome.


Tapas means “working through the difcult things in life in order to create change.” Sometimes in class teachers will talk about building tapas, which can mean “heat.” This heat is meant to create a literal change—perhaps by making you more flexible or stronger or leaner. In the general sense, however, it is about working through problems and finding solutions. You know that saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Well, whoever came up with it might have read a little bit about tapas.


Svadhyaya is the act of self-study. It asks you to become your own keeper. Through self-study you begin to learn which tapas are good for you, which pain is going to help you grow, and which pain takes you away from the practice of ahimsa and causes harm. Svadhyaya concerns taking responsibility for your life and contemplating what you need to grow.


Isvara pranidhana acknowledges that something “out there” is bigger than humanity as a whole. This principle emphasizes that individuals have no real control over anything, regardless of their belief systems.


Asana is the physical practice of yoga. These are the poses, the Down Dogs and the Up Dogs, and all the stretching and balancing in between. Later, as you learn more about the physical practice, asana will help you grasp the other aspects of yoga.


Pranayama is breath work. There are many types of yogic breathing out there, but one of the simplest is learning to breathe slowly and deeply. It is said that most people use only a small portion of their lungs’ capacity to breathe. Making a conscious efort to fill your lungs with air can create a calming efect that relieves stress.


Pratyahara is the practice of withdrawing from the senses in order to focus in on your own thoughts, by being able to look inward. It’s like sitting at your desk to work and turning of your phone and the Internet so that you don’t get distracted.


Dharana is the ability to concentrate on one thing and let all else drift away. Think about a professional athlete, the golfer making that winning putt or the football player running that last touchdown. He or she is so focused on the task ahead that everything else disappears. This ability to concentrate intently leads to taking the next step—meditation.


Dhyana is the practice of meditation. I have a teacher who describes meditation as being able to tune everything els out and focus on one thing. She prompts students to focus solely on their breath and when their minds start to wander to come back to the breath. This is the simplest way to meditate as discussed later in this book.


Samadhi is the highest point of yoga. It’s that perfect balance where the mind is calm and the body is in a state of internal stability. It is what all the other principles of yoga are designed to help us achieve. It is the ultimate “now.”

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