What Is Yoga?

Much emphasis has been given to yoga as a practice of physical postures. While the practice of yoga postures is one of the tools of yoga, classical yoga texts make clear yoga was envisioned as a holistic practice, “engag[ing] all limbs/elements of one’s body.”

Yoga’s holistic model of the human system envisions five interrelated dimensions – the physical body, the breath or energetic body, the intellect, the personality, and emotions. Our yoga practice, if it is to engage all the elements of the body, must touch all dimensions of our system – it is more that just a body focused activity.

Classical yoga texts also describe the purpose of yoga as being the alleviation of something called duhkham, which refers to any kind of pain or suffering, be it physical, mental, emotional, etc. Yoga is to guide us to find a sense of spaciousness or comfort, called sukham. This makes sense as when we suffer, whether it be from fear and anxiety or a herniated disk, the feeling is that of tension, tightness, constriction. When we feel at ease, there is a sense of lightness and openness, of space.

The most important yoga text, the Yoga Sutra makes it clear that is through our work with the mind, that we move from suffering to openness. Our work with postures is important in helping us to function with greater comfort in our daily lives, preparing us for meditation, and in giving us a concrete place to start our practice, and develop greater self-awareness. We miss the profound potential of yoga to transform our lives, however, unless we look at ourselves and our practice holistically, using the various tools of yoga applied appropriately for our age, our condition, and our life situation.