The word yoga comes from Sanskrit—an ancient Indian language. It is a derivation of the word yuj, which means to yoke, as in harnessing together a team of oxen.
In the past 60 years, yoga has gone from a little-known, esoteric Indian practice to a central activity of the cultural mainstream. But while it is commonly available in cities throughout the world and almost everyone has heard of it, yoga still remains something of a mystery to people who have never tried it. That’s because it resists an easy definition.
The word yoga is often interpreted to mean union. Yoga is said to be for the purpose of uniting the mind, body, and spirit.
Yoga is a diverse and diffuse practice with numerous threads that can be interwoven in many ways. Complicating matters further, the term yoga has been in use for several thousands of years and has shifted meanings many times. To start to unpack what contemporary yoga is, let’s take a look at yoga’s evolution and how it is practiced today.
Most modern yoga practices rely heavily on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a series of aphorisms written c. 250 CE, as the basis for their philosophies. The Yoga Sutras specify eight “limbs” of yoga. The three most commonly practiced limbs are pranayama (breathing exercises), meditation, and asana. Asana is what most of us have come to know simply as yoga, the physical poses.
So what should you expect when you head to a yoga class? While meditation and breathing exercises may be included, asana has assumed a primary role in most types of contemporary practice. Some classes may also include chanting or inspirational reading, depending on the individual teacher and the yoga style.
Generally, yoga classes at a gym or health club will focus primarily on the physical aspects of the practice, while people who want a more spiritual approach are more likely to find it at specialized studios.