What Is Yoga?

By Kerry Porter Wills

Yoga has come to mean many things to many people. Our growing numbers attest to the growing interest of mainstream America. We are showing up for group classes in studios and gyms by the millions. We are buying videos, props, Eco-friendly mats and snazzy yoga pants. We want a yoga body and a yoga mind. We want our lives to live up to the glowing reviews of yoga professed by celebrities and renowned gurus.

But what, exactly, is Yoga?

Just to be fair to the dissenting views out there, I’ll just say that there is some intelligent disagreement about this issue. My definition of yoga comes from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the most important text on Yoga according to Krishnamacharya, who is the founding father of most yoga approaches on offer in the West. It was his students who became the premier teachers of yoga in our country and many others. Whether it’s vinyasa, or alignment-based or therapeutic yoga, it’s on the shoulders of Krishnamacharya that our teachers stand. And as we stand on theirs, I think it is an important act of respect to acknowledge this text and how it defines a yoga practice.

Yoga has two roots by which we could derive the meaning of yoga. The first is ‘yujir yoge’ and  translates as ‘yoga is to unite’. Some texts and teachers derive the meaning of yoga from this root. However, the Yoga Sutras defines yoga based on the second root, ‘yuja samadhau’ which translates as ‘yoga is samadhi.’

OK, so what is Samadhi?

Samadhi is a state which arises when the mind becomes one-pointed, when one is deeply focused on the object of meditation and this focus can not be shaken—a volitional state of one-pointed attention to the object of meditation. This focus leads to a state of permanent peace, or samadhi.

Yoga refers to a state of Samadhi and the methodology for achieving this state.

If that sounds a little intimidating or a bit lofty for a life’s goal, then keep Samadhi in this perspective: all along the way to permanent peace, we will experience greater and more profound levels of peace, whether we ever achieve Samadhi or not. Peace is on a continuum and practice takes us in the direction of increasing levels of well-being and personal freedom.

I’ll take those odds any day.

Thank you to A.G. Mohan for his clear explanation of the Yoga Sutras. If you would like to more about Yoga as defined by the Yoga Sutras, visit his website.

We’d love to have your feedback about this article and whether you would like to know more about the deeper meaning of this practice. Leave comments below.