A word that’s been increasing in familiarity over the last three decades. Pre-pandemic, many U.S. cities were saturated with yoga studios, offering everything from Hot Yoga to Ashtanga Vinyasa to Flow, and all that’s in between. This influx in popularity has created an ever-growing conversation around how much yoga has changed in its practices as it moved from East to West and whether or not Western yoga is authentic.
As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I live a life of needing to do things “by the book”, so the history and philosophies surrounding yoga have always fascinated me. It would be easy to assume that someone with a drive like myself must know a lot about yoga, but let me tell you: the more I try to know, the more I learn that I do not. And this state of not knowing has left me with many questions, with the most profound being: What is yoga?…which draws a line straight towards, What does it mean to practice “authentic” yoga?
When it comes to even attempting some of these answers, we are met with two different paths: the first, is the work of scholarly research and the other is the succession of knowledge passed on from teacher to student, known as parampara. Now, these paths are not completely separate; they can intertwine and connect in several ways, but they can also veer off from each other as if they are going in opposite directions.
At times, I’ve found the contradictory ideas to be a conundrum, which has led to me continually ask myself, what historical perspectives are right? In one respect, it’s a very fascinating and important question, but the more I scratch my head, the more I seem to only make marks on my scalp. I’ve finally come to a place where I can let go of the big answers and instead, simply continue to learn how to honor the practice and be respectful to its culture, while holding space for what yoga means to me.
Appropriately so, this is what we’re doing here. Off the Mat was birthed from both my love of learning and my desire to share some of the teachings of yoga with my community. Aside from my own reflections and wording, I’ll be offering a lot of resources that will help further our knowledge and leave room for reflection and journaling.
So let’s get started.
Yoga is one of six fundamental schools of Indian thought, together known as darsana (sight, point of view). Yoga is derived from and practiced within the Hindu culture, traditionally known as Sanatana Dharma (Eternal Truth). Among the endless meanings of the word “Yoga” (which we’ll discuss later this month), the one that is closest to my heart was described by T.K.V. Desikachar: to tie the strands of the mind together.
One of the oldest Indian scriptures to mentioned yoga, the Rig Veda, dates back to about 3500 years ago. The Rig Veda is one of four texts, and is comprised of hymns or mantras. The word “yoga” was used to describe “the yoking of chariots to animals – often for fighting – or descriptions of priests absorbed in rituals” (Simpson, 2021).
Much of modern day Western yoga is taught from texts that were written some time after the Vedas, with one of the most notable being, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sutras describe one of the many paths to yoga in great detail, and is well known for outlining the eightfold path or ashtanga (eight limbs). The text contains 196 sutras (threads, strings), or concise statements/phrases, as Swami Satchidananda describes “each sutra being the barest thread of meaning.” These aphorisms weave together a collection of teachings on yoga. The very first sutra, atha yoganusasanam, can be translated as, “Here begins the authoritative instruction on yoga.”
This principle is ever present throughout the text, and is powerful in and of itself. Similar to much of yogic philosophy, there are different interpretations of this sutra, and the video I have linked below discusses one, along with practical applications.
One of the reasons I want to begin with this sutra is to help the general population understand that yoga is so much more than making shapes with out bodies. Patanjali’s teachings on asana don’t even refer to the thousands of poses we see today. Patanjali graced the world by transcribing the practices of yoga systematically, and created this text to pass down wisdom as simply as possible; wisdom that extends far beyond our skin and bones; wisdom that can hold truth and be carried through thousands of years; wisdom to help one tie the strands of the mind together.
I spent the first few years of my journey only practicing asana because I thought that was what yoga was. It took some time before I realized the vastness of the teachings and have been enamored since then. Though I am what the Western part of the world would consider a “Yoga Teacher,” I feel more like an individual who shares the teachings of Yoga while also deeply immersed in the teachings myself.
Truthfully, this writing series is very vulnerable for me. On one hand, I question the level of interest people have in the teachings. On the other, I have doubts that I’ll be able to pass on the teachings in a dignified way. Yoga contains a vast array of knowledge that has scholars still debating to this day, and I’d be lying if I said I have swam in the depths of it.
But, you know what? I’ve loosened my grip on that fear. I have dedicated this space on my little corner of the internet to learning, unlearning, questioning, messing up, and making amends. I want to be able to share the philosophies and practices of yoga with my community by not only sharing my insights, but by sharing resources and voices from a diverse group of yoga practitioners, teachers, and scholars.
I come back to this sutra, time and time again, as an inquiry into why I began this practice, why I teach, and a reminder that I am forever a student. We don’t reach or attain the ripened fruit of yoga in 200 hours, or even 1,000. Heck, I don’t know if I’ll ever achieve it in this lifetime. But the best part of that is, I have let go of that expectation. Instead, I walk on this planet as a vehicle for acquiring knowledge, yet knowing I know less than what I do know. And as I contemplated how I would share this all with you in the most organized way, I came back to 1.1 and realized I needed to approach it from a beginner’s mind.
Because that’s the beauty of this practice. You can revisit any part of the teachings several times and learn something new. And with that, I thought it was fitting to start from the beginning. We’re never too deep into the journey to go back to where we started. And as I am not an expert in the deeper teachings of yoga, I will be supplementing my writing with other resources and videos for you to access. I’m still learning too, ya’ll.
So here we go. Time to practice. Grab a journal, if you’re ready.
Reflection: What does this sutra mean to you and your understanding of yoga? Why do you practice? What does it mean to truly practice, beyond asana?
Research: Of all the styles of asana you have practiced, which are you most drawn to? Research the origins of whichever you have chosen. We’ll discuss what I connect to most on another day.
References and Resources:
The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
The Truth of Yoga by Daniel Simpson
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras by Sri Swami Satchidananda
There are several perspectives on the meaning of yoga, and although we know my favorite, it’s always helpful to look at the word itself; to break it down into its simplest form. The word “yoga” is derived from the root word, yuj, meaning, “to yoke,” “concentrate on,” or “join.” As mentioned above, the first known written use of the word was found in the Rig Veda, more specifically, I.51.10.
Trying to define yoga beyond breaking it into root words is complex and could never be answered in one blog. Because of the endless sea of texts and perspectives dating back thousands of years, I don’t know if we can ever narrow it down to a single meaning. Over the years, I’ve found it helpful to take my knowledge and experiences of yoga to come up with my own meaning, while appreciating what yoga means to others.
To me, yoga is both the journey towards and the state of being blissfully connected with my Self and the entire Universe, so much so, that there is no difference between the two.
And here are a few of my favorite explanations:
The first is from Parmarth Niketan, an ashram located in the Himalayas. It’s a quick read, but contains definitions as written by the author, as well as from the The Bhagavad Gita. We can begin this week here.
Next, I’d like to quote T.K.V. Desikachar (who we’ll learn a little about later on), right from his book, The Heart of Yoga:
Many different interpretations of the word yoga have been handed down over the centuries. One of these is “to come together,” “to unite.” Another meaning of the word yoga is “to tie the strands of the mind together.” these two definitions may at first glance seem very different, but really they are speaking about the same thing. While “coming together” gives us a physical interpretation of the word yoga, an example of tying the strands of the mind together is the directing of our thoughts toward the yoga session before we take on an actual practice. once those mental strands come together to form an intention, we are ready to begin the physical work.
…to attain what was previously attainable.
…to be one with the divine.
…Yoga has its roots in Indian thought, but its content is universal because it is about the means by which we can make changes we desire in our lives.
The above italicized quotations are from Chapter 1 of The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T.K.V. Desikachar.
Lastly for this week, I wanted to share this wonderful video of a talk by Srivatsa Ramaswami. He discusses the meaning of the word yoga itself toward the end, but I highly recommend watching this in its entirety (along with Parts II – IV, which you can find on YouTube as well). This is the most well explained, high level overview of yoga I have found in video format.
Reflection: From what you knew prior to what you know now, what does yoga mean to you? Has anything about your definition changed over the years or even recently?
The knowledge derived in these teachings is said to be older than written language. The ability to find evidence from a time before text does make validation difficult, but to me, that doesn’t make it any less true. Just as we’ve had seers and mystics throughout written history, seers have existed even before.
So, where exactly did this knowledge come from?
Before scripture, it’s said that the Seers received downloads from the Divine during time spent meditation, deep within the vastness of and beyond their consciousness. Some time later, these downloads were written as scriptures and compiled into the Vedas. The Vedas are referred to as shruti (that which is heard) because they are written based on knowledge directly from the Divine source; a revelation. Scriptures such as the Puranas (briefly touched upon in the video below), are referred to as smriti (recollection) because they are written based on what was remembered and are meant to elaborate on what is heard (thus, can change over time).
This week is dedicated to a high level overview of some of the most notable Hindu scriptures, in an effort to paint a picture of how far out this knowledge extends. We’ll revisit some of these scriptures in better detail down the road, and if any of these lessons get confusing or overwhelming, take a deep breath and remember that they’ll always be here for you. We can’t consume the knowledge of every text or teaching in one lifetime, and today’s list isn’t even an exhaustive one. What you learn is meant to enter your consciousness with plans to be relearned time and time again.
This is a short, four-ish minute video that contains an overview on Hindu scriptures that does a great job of touching on some major bodies of text in such a short period of time:
Next, let’s take a look at this educational resource from The Vedic Foundation. This page provides a great overview of the scriptures, with an interactive chart for both visual learning, as well as links that direct you to brief descriptions of each. You can read this information here.
Finally, this resource from the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), linked here, gives us a connection between yoga and the scriptures. HAF provides excerpts of texts such as Svetasvatara Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita, and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (which we briefly learned about in week 1). I love this resource because you are given an added bonus for reading the page in full, including a short discussion on the over-value of asana in the Western part of the world, and the issue of the commercialization of yoga.
We must continue to be reminded of what yoga has become, in an effort to preserve its roots and allow it to flourish as it was originally intended. As practitioners (and teachers), we need to examine how we behave, both on and off the mat, to ensure we are honoring (and not appropriating) yoga. I have been working on holding myself accountable within the yoga-sphere and believe me: I have a lot of work to do.
With all of that said, it’s time for some reflection.
Reflection: What are your thoughts about the deeper meanings of yoga? From what you’ve learned thus far, do you feel drawn to the true essence of a life of yoga? What, so far, might not be resonating with you?
References and Other Resources
Shruti and Smriti: Some Issues in the Re-emergence of Indian Traditional Knowledge, written by P. K. Gautam
I’m ending this month’s post where yoga began: with OM, but more appropriately, AUM.
AUM, among many other meanings, is said to be the first human sound. AUM is considered the very first primordial sound; a mantra with tone, and others followed thereafter as a way of both connecting to and passing on wisdom and knowledge.
The first time I learned about the meaning of AUM was while reading Sri Swami Satchidananda’s The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. His interpretation was so powerful and still buzzes through my bones today. I’ll share a small excerpt here:
“The name OM can be split into three letters: A, U, and M. Every language begins with the letter A or “ah.” A is pronounced by simply opening the mouth and making a sound. That sound is produced in the throat where the tongue is rooted. So audible sound begins with A. Then, as the sound comes forward between the tongue and the palate up to the lips, U or ‘oo’ is produced. Then, closing the lips produces the M. So the creation is A, the preservation is U, and the culmination is M. A-U-M includes the entire process of sound, and all other sounds are contained in it. After the verbal sound ends there is still a vibration. That is the unspoken, or anahata sound, which is always in you even before saying the A and after finishing M. It is heard only when all other sounds cease. Even thinking creates a sound, because thought itself is a form of speaking. By thinking, you distort the original sound that transcends the beginning, continuation, and end of the OM sound. To listen to that sound, you have to keep your mind quiet, stop the thinking process, and dive within” (The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda).
AUM connects us to the three energies of life: Brahma, the creator, connects with the “ahh” sound; Vishnu, the sustainer or preserver, connects with the “ooh”; and Mahesh, the destroyer or transformer, connects with the “mm.” If you pay attention to where you feel these three sounds coming from in the body, you’ll notice they coincide with these energies: “ahh” within the stomach, “ooh” within the chest, and “mm” throughout the head.
To really grasp this idea, I recommend listening to and practicing with the below video. It’s worth EVERY minute. Khurshed Batliwala guides you through each sound, and provides incredible correlations, not just to the sound of AUM, but to the way the Indian culture was far ahead of their time, thousands of years ago.
AUM’s connection to the beginning of the universe is one of the most common interpretations I have heard of the mantra. AUM is said to be the sound of the Big Bang, and some past discoveries have confirmed the Big Bang did, in fact, make very distinct vibrational sounds. I couldn’t find any reputable resources directly connecting AUM and the Big Bang, but I did find a video released by the LISA mission that contains a recreation of sounds from the Big Bang. And though it doesn’t contain any reference to the beginning sound of AUM, the vibrational sound itself gives me reason to pause and appreciate the ancient Sages of India for making such a remarkable connection.
For all of my science enthusiasts, I wanted to provide a resource that speaks of the research done on the chanting of AUM, in an effort to connect the Eastern and Western sciences. There’s an incredible amount of research that supports the many practices of yoga, including chanting, with effects ranging from decreased heart rate to mental alertness. You can read up on some of the research here.
The mention of science brings me to my final point this month: You do not need to practice a particular religion, or any religion for that matter, in order to practice yoga. Yoga is derived from the Hindu culture and is not an organized religion; there is no single prophet, text, or organization from which it operates from. “Hinduism is a collection of many religions, schools of thoughts/philosophies and belief systems that may seem contradictory but are somehow held together as a mysterious whole” (Understanding Hinduism – A Misunderstood Worldview Part 1). In fact, there’s a notable percentage of Hindu atheists, who denounce the existence of a God.
There’s a lot of information on the web regarding the above mentions, and I’ll leave it up to you to do more of your own research on the topic. Instead, I’ll give a little bit of my point of view. What follows is simply my opinion, and as always, you can take what resonates and leave what doesn’t.
The word God, itself, has so many meanings tied to and wrapped around it. Some people picture God as a form: an old man with a white beard (confirmed by my 11 year old niece); a strong feminine deity; many deities and incarnations, etc. God has gotten a heavy reputation throughout history, and it’s taken me a long time to form my own interpretation. As someone who doesn’t belong to an organized religion, yet feels a sense of spirituality within my existence, I have cringed at using the term God because I associate that word with form. Instead, I’ve adopted an effortless devotion to energy.
Because in the end, that’s what God is. When you boil God down to the most basic elements of the meaning, you’re left with a formless expression of energy. Bringing it back to yoga, although there are many stories of deities, they tie back to the three distinct energies glorified in the sound of AUM.
Whether that energy is intelligent or Divine, is entirely up to you or your faith.
And that could also depend on what your definition of ‘intelligent’ is. The energy that sparked the Big Bang seems pretty intelligent to me.
Are you looking for energy that is really good at math and science? Capable of intellectual thought? Well, we could make a case for that. Technically, the first humans who discovered math and science could be linked to the same energy as the Big Bang. And if you believe we’re all made of stardust, so could we. Energy cannot be created, nor destroyed, right?
We, as humans, will never truly understand our existence. Our brains can not possibly comprehend something so profound and put it into words. We try time and time again, but we’re always missing several pieces to the puzzle. Language, though extraordinarily helpful for survival and sharing knowledge, has its limitations.
When it comes to religion, faith, and even atheism, the most important thing is your devotion to something greater than yourself. Humans all throughout time and all over the world have taken this formless energy and created their unique interpretations of it. Even some of the most well known atheists have spiritual practices.
History and science tell us very matter-of-factly that attachment to the external world creates the suffering we experience throughout our lives. Happiness, contentment, and insight come from within, and it’s up to us to discover that within ourselves. Some will find it through prayer or meditation; others through mindful living; and some even combine faith and science.
You don’t have to devote yourself to every yogic principle. There very well may be some aspects that don’t resonate with you; and that’s completely okay. Yoga has the capacity to bring you closer to your religion, whatever it may be. And if you do not practice one, it can bring you closer to yourself; your purpose. Even Maslow argued our highest need is one of self-actualization.
If yoga has taught me anything, it begs me to ask the question, ‘who am I to judge?’ with every interaction I have. We are all on this Earth, on the same journey through life to death, but walking different paths. I can only foster growth within myself, aim to inspire others, and live with love and compassion for all beings, including myself.
Reflection: Write about your experience chanting, AUM, via the video within this post. Could you feel the vibrations moving from low to high? What aspects of yoga are you able to take with you throughout your journey, as relating to your religion or lack thereof?