What is Yoga?

Answering this question feels like opening a serious can of worms. 

How does one accurately, ethically and sensitively capture a phenomenon that stretches tens of thousands of years into the past, a phenomenon that has engaged and been changed by people across cultures and continents, a phenomenon that is practiced in innumerable ways to this very day? 

Pause. Take a second. Grab a post-it, a napkin, a piece of paper something you can write on. Grab a pen. What is yoga to you? Start writing. 

Guess what? You’re answer is 100% valid. But so are all the answers written on scraps of paper by all the other folks who took the time to sit down, reflect, and attempt to define what yoga means for them. 

Defining yoga is a little like trying to define God. Ask any person on the street what God looks like and you’ll get a lot of different answers. And while we can all agree what the culturally dominant image of God is in America (dude in the sky with a beard – is he white? Is he black? Is he brown? ) we all have our own way of imagining God and what he (I’m more inclined to go she) looks like based off of the religion we grew up in, the media we’ve consumed, the amount of time we’ve spent studying and thinking about God etc etc etc. 

The same goes for Yoga – there’s the culturally dominant understanding of yoga which is very asana (posture) based (in America) and then there’s the myriad of other definitions that each individual, community, culture, and civilization has agreed upon to be true. 

Yoga is perhaps best understood as phenomenon – a concept, an idea, a practice, a way of being, the way there and the goal itself – all wrapped up in four tiny letters Y-O-G-A, or more accurately, the three phonemes from the Sanskrit language YA-O-GA. 

In ancient Sanskrit texts we find the first codified expressions of yoga (check the Bhagavad Gita, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjai, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika), and in the image of the Pashupati Seal (circa 2000BCE) from the Indus Valley we find the first record of a yogi (historians theorize this image depicts a proto-Shiva figure – Pashupati meaning ‘Lord of the Beasts’, a designation similarly given to Shiva, one of the many Hindu gods associated with the practice of yoga – seated in meditation). 

Yoga is most commonly associated with early Indian civilization and Hindu culture, but there is no way of knowing exactly when or where yoga came from – the best we can do is trace yoga’s evolution and roots via its appearance in ancient images and texts, conclusions that are at best a mixture of modern conjecture and interpretation. And while the wealth of imagery and text pertaining to yoga comes from Sanskrit scripture and art from the Indian region, one can also find references and records of yoga and yogis in the Pali Canon (texts of the Theravadan Buddhist tradition) and in Persian art and literature, it’s parallels in Chinese and Egyptian philosophy, medicine and pyschospiritual practice, it’s influence in the tradition of Thai massage and Thai yoga (a direct corollary of Indian yoga). 

So, the question remains, what exactly is yoga? 

For most of us in the West today yoga is a physical practice we do with our bodies that brings about some kind of awareness. Some of us come to the practice of yoga to sweat and release, some of us come to strengthen and stretch, some of us come to find stillness of body, of mind or both, some of us come to heal, some of us come to get closer to truth, some of us come to get closer to God, some of us come to find freedom, some of us come to yoga come closer together. 

Srivatsa Ramaswami once said, yoga is any practice that gets you to yoga. 

Go back to your little scrap of paper. Would you change what it says? How? Why? 

If you’re feeling unsure, overwhelmed, confused, or you simply want to know more, hit the books (see below), there’s a wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, or, hit the mat, there’s a wealth of wisdom in your body. Then take the time to sit and reflect – is your yoga getting you to yoga? Is your practice getting you to your goal? 

If it is, great, keep at it. If it’s not, how might you engage your practice differently? Could you incorporate techniques and ideas that have proven effective for others? Is it time to find a teacher to help you on your path? 

But wait, seriously, what is yoga? 

That’s really up to you to decide!


Yoga Book List

  • Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Mircae Eliade)
  • The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice (Georg Feuerstein)
  • Yoga: The Art of Transformation (Debra Diamond)
  • Roots of Yoga (James Mallinson)
  • Yoga in Practice (David Gordon White)
  • Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (Mark Singleton)
  • The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Stefanie Syman)
  • Selling Yoga: From Counterculture to Pop Culture (Andrea Jain) 

Samantha Calvano is a student of yoga. She has studied at Loyola Marymount University (Masters in Yoga Studies, 2017; Yoga, Mindfulness and Social Change, 2016), with Srivatsa Ramaswami (Bhagavad Gita, 2017; Vinyasa Krama 200hr, 2015;), with James Fox (Trauma Informed Yoga and Mindfulness, 2015), and with Yoga to the People (Traditional Hot Hatha Apprenticeship, 2011; Power Vinyasa 200hr, 2010). She currently teaches yoga philosophy and practice in Los Angeles.