This seems to be, without any doubt, the most sensible question to begin with. In fact, very few will have entered a class, rolled out their mat and gone into the “downward looking dog” pose without first asking what yoga is all about.
People who practice instead of training, go barefoot, fold and stretch in impossible positions, breathe through their nose despite the effort, sing mantras, close their eyes, lay down, sit down to meditate, and leave class calm and relaxed. Seen for the first time, yoga can be anything but familiar. Therefore, knowing the meaning, the sense of practice and what is known about its origins can help many people to enter into this world without fear and with sheer curiosity.
The term yoga comes from Sanskrit (the classical language of India) and derives from the verb yuj, which means placing the yoke, between two oxen, for example, to unite them. In Spanish, words like the same “yoke” or “conjugal” come from the same Indo-European root. Therefore, in short, yoga literally means union.
But union of what? Was it not about exercising, stretching and relaxing?
For yogis and yoginis (this is how yoga practitioners are called), this union refers first to the union with oneself. That is to say, to the harmonious unification of all levels of the human being, which includes body, mind and spirit. To understand it better, think of those situations of your life that are important, fun or pleasurable in which you are so concentrated, present, absorbed and conscious that time seems to stand still completely, there is only one thing, your mind stops its usual flow and the rest of world becomes completely irrelevant. Surely you’ve ever experienced something like this, even if you do not know how. That’s yoga. And yogis practice it – in the form of body postures (asanas) and other techniques of breathing and meditation that we will see – to train and learn to access that state of peace in any situation and at any time. In fact, the ultimate goal of yoga is to be able to bring that state to each and every one of the moments of your daily life, whatever they are. So no, yoga does not “just” involve exercising, stretching and relaxing.
On the other hand, yogis consider that deepening in that state of pause and total presence, a second union can be reached: that of the individual being with the Cosmos. This is the experience of feeling one, united with all that is, with all that exists on Earth and in the Universe. You may have perceived something like that watching the sea, or surrounded by mountains or under a starry night. That feeling of knowing that you are insignificant in the immensity that surrounds you but that, at the same time, you are an inseparable part of all that is around you. This also is yoga. And, in this sense, yoga is considered one of the oldest personal and spiritual development systems known today.
So, then yoga is a religion?
No. Yoga is not a religion because it lacks dogma. It is a universal knowledge that offers no theory, but a complete life practice through which the individual can develop all of his potential, beyond the limitations of his body and his mind. Yoga is something you experience. Therefore, you can be a Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Agnostic or atheist and practice yoga without any interference in your beliefs.
Even so, it is true that yogis feel an inner essence and that, from a spiritual perspective, they seek the union of the individual being with the universal being. But, even if you do not feel at ease with this perception, you can continue practicing yoga without any reluctance. Simply leave out singing Mantras or do not follow what makes you feel uncomfortable. Focus on the physical part, on the postures, on the breath. Focus on how each corner of your body is feeling when you practice, move on to the practice of asanas and “be” each position consciously. Yoga, in whichever way you practice, will generate a huge benefit in you.