Defining Yoga

Since I started writing for Yoga Modern I haven’t stopped thinking about this question: what is Yoga?  The reason these thoughts have been bouncing about in my head is less because I believe there is a definitive answer, and more because so many seem to think that there is one. We talk about Yoga being polluted or diluted or assimilated to create some strange hybrid that is not Yoga.

 But to say what something is not one must first know what it is.

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Rarely is there an attempt to say what Yoga IS.  Mostly, one finds a list of things that Yoga is not.  While a concept (and I am not suggesting Yoga is a concept) cannot be fully defined without some recourse to its “nots”, the “nots” are by no means the definition.  For example, telling you that a car is not a tree still tells you absolutely nothing about what a car is. If I went even further and said that a car is also not a house or a girl or a jungle, you would still be no closer to knowing what a car is.

So what is Yoga?

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The problem with attempting to define Yoga is that you run into the same problem you would if you tried to define “everything”. In your attempt to answer the question “What is everything?” you would inevitably leave something out—but to leave something out of the definition of “everything” is to fail to define it.

So what is yoga?  Answer: Yoga is everything, and therefore cannot be defined.  Experienced, yes, but never defined. 

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If Yoga cannot be defined then we cannot say what it is or is not; I can only say what I prefer or do not prefer based on my studies, experiences, practice, and limited understanding.

I cringe every time I hear someone attempting to define Yoga, just as much as I cringe when someone tries to define “God.”  At best, these definitions will be beautiful metaphors (as Joseph Campbell might say), and at worst, woefully misleading (though, paradoxically, still Yoga—more on that in a moment).

Yoga: what you say it is, it is; what you say it is not, it is.

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That’s about as good as it gets.  And if you really think about it you wouldn’t want it any other way.  If Yoga was so small as to be definable, then it would be containable; if Yoga is containable, then it is smaller than me; if it is smaller than me then it can do nothing for me and I’m back to where I started.

Now there may be aspects of Yoga that I find more attractive, but that doesn’t make them any more Yoga than the fact that I am attracted to beautiful things makes them magnets.

All the stuff we reject as not Yoga…well I’m afraid it is Yoga too.  And if we continue down this path of drawing lines in the proverbial sand over whose school of Yoga is the real Yoga, pretty soon we find ourselves saying silly things like “my Yoga is more powerful than your Yoga,” and not long after that we’re in the middle of the streets having Yoga pose-offs (which, by the way, is still Yoga).

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If you accept that yoga is everything—and I’m not sure how you would argue otherwise—then you must accept what follows: that there is no such thing as yoga and non-yoga behaviors—it is all Yoga.  Practice Yoga in a million dollar facility with state of the art equipment? Yoga.  Sat in an ashram for 15 years dining on nothing but rice cakes practicing 5 times a day.  Yoga?  Yes.  Better?  No.  Just Yoga.  What else would it be?  If it’s not Yoga, then what is it?

The concept of Oneness is one that is flung around freely and readily by anyone trying to show an understanding of interconnectedness.  But.  What.  Does.  It.  Mean?   It means everything is everything.  This discussion is Yoga.  Your acceptance or rejection of what it posits is Yoga.  Your decision to either say or not say something is Yoga.

One is One is One is One, ad infinitum. 

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The moment you say that’s not a part of it, then you no longer have One.  At best you have two, at worst…who knows.  In order for “my Yoga” to be, there has to be something called “not my Yoga” (keywords being “my”), but ultimately it is all Yoga.

Now you may tender a different definition of Yoga than the one that I have given. However, the moment you do so you must also move away from any statements of Oneness or Unity or Universality.

If Yoga is not everything, then what it prescribes is not oneness but separateness.  In order for Yoga to work, it must accept all things, it must be all things—it must be everything.  And everything requires the acceptance of the (supposed) opposite. Otherwise we might as well stop saying “Namaste” and just stick to “Yo” (not that there’s anything wrong with that)…but I prefer Namaste.  Namaste.


So do you agree that yoga can’t be defined?   If not, how do you define yoga?





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Ifeoluwa (Ife) Togun is a freelance writer whose articles have been featured on Yoga Modern, Yahoo, Yahoo Finance, and He also maintains a blog dedicated to his adventures raising his newborn daughter, Skye Lily, at He holds a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Grambling State University, a Master's degree in Clinical/Counseling Psychology from Southern Methodist University, and a Doctorate in Experimental Psychology from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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