Source: Pexels (free stock photo – adapted)
Yoga has been widely embraced across the world. In America, for example, over 16 million adults are estimated to have a regular practice1 (spending an astonishing $6 billion or so each year on classes and products2). So, in a week graced by the International Day of Yoga (on the 21st June), we might take the opportunity to express our thanks for an activity which so many people evidently find helpful. These benefits are not only reflected in its popularity, but also in an emergent scientific literature which only confirms what yoga teachers and practitioners have always known – that it can exert a powerful impact upon our mental and physical health3.
But even as we pay our gratitude and respects to this phenomenon, we can still pause to ask how well contemporary practices across the world truly live up to the ideal of yoga as traditionally conceived. Mind you, doing so does not necessarily mean criticising such practices. In whatever way people practice yoga, if they find it helpful, then that’s good. For instance, many people simply engage with yoga as a physical exercise, which of course is beneficial in itself4. But that doesn’t mean that yoga may not have yet more to offer. For as originally conceived, yoga constitutes a comprehensive system of personal development and self-realization5. To appreciate this point, let’s consider its origins.
The roots of yoga
Appraising the roots of yoga is no easy task. Its origins are shrouded in the ‘mists of history,’ as they say, predating the general keeping of written records that would allow one to know the historical details. But it is generally acknowledged that yoga refers collectively to a system of physical, mental, and spiritual teachings that crystallised in India around the 6th Century BCE. That said, its origins likely stretch back far further: excavations in the Indus valley have uncovered earthenware seals featuring figures in yoga-like poses dating to the third millennia BCE6. Such practices were then developed within the various religious/spiritual traditions in that part of the world that are now frequently referred to collectively as Hinduism. These practices also influenced other kinship traditions, like Buddhism, generating related contemplative activities, such as various forms of meditation.
But what does yoga mean? This is a complex question. In fact, yoga is an excellent example of an untranslatable word, i.e., a term that lacks an exact equivalent in our own tongue. I’ve become fascinated by such words, particularly ones relating to wellbeing (being a researcher in positive psychology). As such, I’ve been creating a ‘positive lexicography’ of these words, as I explore in two new books (please see bio for details). These words are significant for many reasons. Most intriguingly, they can reveal phenomena which have been overlooked or underappreciated in one’s own culture and language. This means we don’t have our own word for the phenomenon in question, which creates a ‘semantic gap’ (‘the lack of a convenient word to express what [one] wants to speak about’7). In that event, we often simply ‘borrow’ the word in question, which then becomes a ‘loanword.’ As indeed we have done with yoga.
But that still doesn’t get us closer to understanding what yoga means. We may gain some clue though from considering its etymology. It is a Sanskrit word which derives from the root yuj, which is often explained as meaning ‘to unite’ or ‘to yoke’. This gets us a little closer, in that yoga can be thought of as a system of techniques that may unite or yoke together the different aspect of our being – mind, body, and ‘spirit’. (If the latter is a contentious term for some people, one could perhaps think of consciousness instead.) In this respect, we can already see that simply viewing yoga as a form of physical exercise involving bodily postures – the dominant perception in the West – somewhat misses the mark. For in its original contexts, such exercises are merely one branch of a more comprehensive system of teachings.
Indeed, according to some taxonomies, there are no fewer than 12 branches. There is hatha yoga, involving the practice of asanas (i.e., physical postures), often undertaken in specific sequences and accompanied by breathing techniques, that ‘unify body and mind’ by training one’s attention on the body. People are probably familiar with this branch, and indeed, in the West this is often mistaken for yoga in its entirety, as noted above. But there are other important branches, which – in their various ways – contribute to the psychospiritual development of the person.
These include raja yoga, the path of meditation. This branch was systematised by the renowned figure of Patañjali, who authored the canonical Yoga Sutras, the earliest extant systematic work on yoga, thought to date from the 2nd century BCE8. There is also karma yoga, the path of selfless service, which is partly undertaken to ensure favourable future outcomes (as per the metaphysical cause and effect principle of karma, whereby our actions influence future experiences and mental states). There’s bhakti yoga, the path of devotion, whereby every thought, word, and deed is seen as an opportunity to express love, thereby embodying the sacred. Or there’s jnana yoga, the path of study and knowledge, of the cultivation of the intellect, involving the devoted contemplation of yogic philosophy and Hindu scripture. And the list continues.
These are all different pathways to the ultimate goal of yoga: the attainment of one’s ‘true Self,’ of mystical union with Brahman – the ‘ubiquitous, absolute, formless, immaterial, immutable’ all-encompassing sacred ground of being’9. As such, in that spirit, one can see that the power and potential of yoga goes far beyond physical tone and athletic flexibility. Perhaps that is something to bear in mind even as we celebrate the great benefits yoga has already brought to many millions of people across the world.