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What is Yoga? Investigation from the Source

Paramahansa Yogananda

Essay by Mariko Hirakawa, E-RYT, B.A.M.S.

Yoga is actually an enormously multi-dimensional, multi-faceted discipline built upon thousands of years of experiential knowledge. We speak of Yoga as if it were a single, homogenous body of knowledge, but Yoga with a capital ‘Y’ is actually built upon layers of contributions from various spiritual traditions of India. It is a synthesis of many paths with one common goal –  moksha, or freedom from identification with transitory existence.

Paramahansa Yogananda

We can capture the essential spirit of Yoga as a philosophy, a path of practice, and a way of life by looking at some of the prominent definitions of Yoga which occur in the classical texts. This is a great contemplation which puts us in touch with the living current of wisdom that still pulsates from the pages of the yoga shastras (authentic texts of Yoga). They point to the breadth and depth encompassed by Yoga with a capital ’Y’.

It is my deep conviction that there is no substitute for direct exposure to the original words of the sages. Too often in Yoga, we have swallowed second-hand knowledge without taking a critical look at its source. There is ample room for personal interpretations, but we must first know what the original statements were in order to lay the foundation for true knowledge.

With this in mind, I have provided the original Sanskrit verses along with their transliteration, and their word for word meaning. I hope they will be a useful tool in enriching your understanding.

 The Classical definitions of Yoga

1.    Etymology

Patanjali

Statue or murti representing Patanjali, the Father of Yoga

In the West, the first and most common definition of Yoga one comes across is ‘union of the individual consciousness (jivatma) with the universal consciousness (paramatma)’. This definition is etymologically derived from the Sanskrit root yuj,  meaning ‘to yoke, to bind, to join, attach’, and ‘to direct one’s attention on’. In the context of Yoga, this ‘yoking’ refers to the effort exerted by the individual consciousness (jivatma) to align and identify with the universal consciousness (paramatma), and the descent of the cosmic consciousness into the qualified individual.

2.    Definition According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Perhaps the most well known and authoritative definition of Yoga comes from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Dated 3rd century A.D., this text is considered to be the epitome of classical Yogic literature. The teachings of Yoga existed well before Patanjali’s time, but it was he who gave Yoga its classical format. In concise, meaning-packed aphorisms, he outlined the behaviors of the mind, and how to achieve the state of identification with one’s highest self through mastering the ashtanga yoga, the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The subtle and exacting observations recorded in these sutras testify to a razor-sharp intellect born of considerable adeptness and familiarity with the inner realms.

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