My answer to the question of ‘What is yoga?’ has been in continuous flux since the first time I came across the word ‘yoga’. My understanding of yoga has been gradually growing, diversifying and opening up with each day of personal practice, shaped by my teachers as well as by reading about yoga in different texts and my practice of seated meditation. In order to provide an accurate account of my thinking about yoga, I would like to preface this text with the proviso of maintaining a degree of open-endedness to my answer, as I expect my understanding of yoga to keep developing for as long as I practice.
The Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ is commonly translated as ‘union’, although what exactly is being united with what differs according to each yoga tradition (Mallinson & Singleton, 2017). For me at this point, yoga as union denotes a practice of connecting with my body, or rather bringing my awareness to the inherent connection of mind-body as well as the always present interrelatedness of all things; both animate and inanimate. I found this concept somewhat easier to understand intellectually, however putting it into practice has become an unending process for me; one with many pitfalls and twists.
I viewed yoga as a form of physical exercise for the first few years of practicing it. I was focused on achievement; bettering myself, becoming stronger, better, more stretchy than the self that was me yesterday, and frankly, often compared myself to other practitioners in a competitive spirit. My approach was heavily informed by my previous experience with competitive sport and by the society that shaped and surrounded me; one dominated by neoliberal ideology, in which competition and productivity are valued highly and an idea of individualism is emphasised (LaMarre et al. 2018). If we define exercise as a process of increasing the strength and efficiency of the body or different body parts, an inherent separation arises. We separate the body from the mind, and further into parts like muscles, bones, tendons, fascia. We also separate the body from the day-to-day functions that it needs to perform. Working ‘on’ the body in this way implies a disconnection from the mind; an approach that creates risk of injury and distress (Blackaby, 2018). I decided to explore early historical texts on yoga in an attempt to gain a more accurate understanding of their approach to the body or physical posture in the practice of yoga and link this understanding with current Western scientific evidence.
Historically the knowledge of yoga was often disseminated by means of personal transmission. This notion is particularly important when trying to explore the historical origins of yoga as it first developed in South Asia. It is important to keep in mind that material sources such as text, painting and sculpture cannot be completely reflective of yoga’s development; however they can provide some insight into specific traditions of yoga at particular times (Mallison & Singleton, 2017). Some of the earliest texts that refer to sages practicing a mystical ascetic tradition similar to those of later yogis are the 15th to 12th century BCE Vedas; the textual foundation of orthodox, Vedic Hinduism. The practices described here mainly refer to mantra repetition and control of the breath, which are thought to be forerunners of later yogic techniques of posture and breath-retention (Werner, 1977).
Around 500 BCE a group of renunciant ascetics called Śramaṇas (strivers) arose in northern India and included Buddhists, Jains and Ājīvakas (Bronkhorst, 1981). These practitioners developed techniques of meditation intended to bring an end to the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) and suffering of human beings caused by karma. These practices later became known as dhyānayoga, or yoga by means of meditation. As a result the term yoga was increasingly used to denote such meditational practices. The ascetics of the Śramaṇa tradition also engaged in arduous practices called tapas (heat), indicating austerities designed to still the mind or annihilate past karma. The practices of tapas were frequently termed yoga. The motionless austerities practiced by the Śramaṇas were thought to burn away karma and prevent new karma from arising, bringing about liberation from the wheel of rebirth. An example of such austerities is the Jain practice of sallekhanā, where the practitioner assumes a standing or sitting position and fasts until death. Further practices included holding difficult squatting positions, never sitting down, as well as the ‘bat penance’ – hanging upside down from a tree suspended by the feet (Jātaka 1, 493). The body in the context of Śramaṇa tradition was viewed as an obstacle to the liberation of the mind, an approach that prompted the application of such harsh physical practices.
The earliest known definition of yoga is in the 3rd century BCE Kaṭha Upaniṣad, part of the early Upaniṣads. The Upaniṣads were Brahmanical (historical Vedic religion based on Hindu ideology) texts devoted to teaching ascetic renunciates. The Kaṭha Upaniṣad (6.10-11) likens living as a human being to riding a chariot. The body is represented by the chariot itself, the self (ātman) being the rider inside, the intellect (buddhi) the charioteer, the senses (indriya) the horses, the mind (manas) the reins, while the sense objects (viṣaya) were the paths taken by the senses. According to this text, if the senses are not brought under control, the person is reborn. However those that are able to control the senses using their minds will not be reborn. This condition of the senses being held still as one becomes undistracted is referred to as yoga (Larson & Bhattacharya, 2008.)
The oldest systematisation of yoga practice can be found in the Indian epic Mahābhārata (c. 3rd century CE), more specifically in the part named Bhagavadgītā, which contains teachings on the practice of yoga. The Bhagavadgītā aimed to strengthen the Brahmanical religion and can be seen as an attempt to move yoga away from the renunciate background, emphasising its use in worldly activity. Yoga as described in the Bhagavadgītā emphasises seated meditation and bringing the mind under control by concentrating on a single object, as well as moderation in eating and sleeping, and discipline in activities such as walking. In this way, yoga is said to destroy suffering (Bhagavadgītā, 6.10-18.) Furthermore, the Bhagavadgītā teaches a number of different yogas or means to yoga, for example karmayoga (yoga of/by actions), abhyāsayoga (yoga of/by repeated practice) and ātmasaṃyamayoga (yoga of/by self-restraint).
One of the main early texts about yoga is the Yogasūtra of Patañjali (finalised at around 425 CE); a series of 196 sūtras (short statements) regarding yogic techniques and states. The text describes practical means to escape the trap of existence characterised by suffering and rebirth and has been influenced by Buddhism. The Yogasūtra of Patañjali introduced an eightfold system called aṣṭāṅgayoga. The eight auxiliaries listed here are ‘the rules, observances, posture, breath-control, withdrawal, fixation, meditation and samādhi’ (Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.28-29). The Yogasūtra of Patañjali teaches five ethical rules (yamas): non-violence (ahiṃsā), truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), sexual continence (brahmacarya) and non-acquisitiveness (aparigraha). The five observances (niyamas) are: cleanliness (śauca), contentment (saṃtoṣa), austerity (tapas) recitation of sacred texts (svādhyāya) and devotion to the Lord (īśvarapraṇidhāna). The Yogasūtra of Patañjali emphasised the importance of practicing all eight limbs of yoga as a way to live a meaningful and enlightened life. In this text the emphasis was on the āsana to be steady and comfortable, and it provides a number of suggestions for seated postures, like the lotus, hero, stick as well as the ‘whatever is comfortable’ posture; allowing the practitioner to choose a posture appropriate for their body and mind. Patañjali teaches that the role of seated āsanas was to serve as a prerequisite for yogic breath-control and meditation.
The first time a formalised system of yoga called haṭha (force) was taught was in c.13th century Dattātreyayogaśāstra text. Haṭhayoga practice drew from Patañjala and tantric yoga, but also incorporated new physical practices, such as cleansing techniques, non-seated postures (āsanas), breath control and physical means of manipulating the vital energy. It was within the Sanskrit texts on haṭhayoga that the first systematic descriptions of āsanas that were more complex (some non-seated) than early seated postures can be found (Haṭhapradīpikā 1.17-18, 24-49,52-6). The methods of haṭhayoga were less extreme than the austerities undertaken by Indian ascetics, providing an important adaptation of earlier methods for a wider, non-ascetic audience. Another key feature of haṭha yoga, particularly with view of yoga’s spread beyond South Asia, was that it opened the practice of yoga to adherents of all religious traditions. Compared to the early arduous and often dangerous ascetic practices of the Śramaṇas, these texts emphasise the health benefits of yoga postures. Drawing from the early historical texts on yoga it becomes evident that the physical aspect of yoga; be it posture or breath work, has always been indivisibly embedded in the religious/philosophical context of this practice as well as marked by an approach of non-violence.
The importance of practicing yoga with a well-rounded attitude that includes the spiritual and philosophical elements is supported by current Western psychological research. The non-violence (ahiṃsā) or compassion quality of yoga specifically holds the potential to activate the soothing emotion-regulation system, marked by feelings of calm, safeness, connection and peace. Gilbert (2009) proposes that humans are equipped with three main types of emotion regulation systems, each associated with the activity of different brain regions, the release of different chemical substances in the body and different emotional states. All three systems are important to ensure our survival, however distress and indeed ill health is caused by an imbalance between these systems, most often associated with the under-activity of the soothing system. The soothing system is underpinned by the release of oxytocin, endorphins and endogenous opioids, which promote healing and create a state in which we can soothe ourselves as well as others. As such it is closely linked with feelings of compassion, both towards the self and others. Regular activation of the soothing system allows us to ‘take a break’ from the other two emotion regulation systems; the threat and drive system, which tend to be overstimulated in most people. We tend to alternate between feeling stressed/anxious (threat) and engaging in relentless pursuit of achievement (drive). Each of the systems trigger the release of hormones. Our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol when in the threat system, while feeling anxious, stressed or angry. Activation of the drive system leads to the release of dopamine and feelings of wanting, striving and being ceaselessly driven towards the next goal. The pattern of over-activity of the threat and drive system leads to exhaustion, distress, mental health problems and physical illness. As such, yoga is uniquely placed in promoting a compassionate state and therefore allowing our mind-body to benefit from the healing, calming and bonding potential of the soothing system.
Expanding my own definition of yoga has given me the tools to adapt my practice to respond with compassion to the fluctuating needs of my mind-body, rather than placing more stress on myself by pushing my body into achieving narrowly defined exercise goals. Combining knowledge from early texts about yoga with current scientific thinking to inform my practice allowed me to further tap into a sense of connection; which is what for me, at this point, ‘yoga’ or ‘union’ is all about.