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.


Creative Commons License photo credit: euzesio (seldom here)

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?

 

 

 

 

Posted by:

- who has written 6 posts on Yoga Modern.

Ifeoluwa (Ife) Togun is a freelance writer whose articles have been featured on Yoga Modern, Yahoo, Yahoo Finance, and Intentblog.com. He also maintains a blog dedicated to his adventures raising his newborn daughter, Skye Lily, at theskyechronicles.wordpress.com. 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.

14 Responses

  • Chelsea Rappel says:

    For me, Yoga is the window that opens to let God in. And when the window opens, there are no boundaries and all of the possibilities for my life extend out in every direction. It is here that I can touch what cannot be touched and join with all and everything. My practice is LOVE, pure love that expects nothing in return and gives unconditionally. Yoga is Me and Yoga is You. It is the un-learning, the taking apart and dissolving of all colors and shapes and concepts and the allowing of pure crystal transparent light. Yoga is every moment…on or off the mat. It is to shine.

    "Yoga is not one particular method. As soon as a person starts thinking 'I want to be a better person' that is the start of Yoga" – Baba Hari Dass

  • Jamie Davis says:

    Nice article, Ife! It seems impossible to define. The more i learn, the more I realize how much I don't know.

    • IfeTogun says:

      Thanks, Jamie. Another possibility is that there is nothing to know. After all, what does it mean to "know" anyway? Food for thought.

  • John says:

    Yoga a combination of spiritual and physical practices to achieve within an individual and with the world.

  • harikirtana says:

    I disagree with both the argument that yoga must be everything and its premise; that absolute unity is the goal of yoga and the litmus test by which one judges the validity of a definition of yoga. Yoga has a very simple and straightforward definition so I'm not sure why anyone would feel the need to complicate it by insisting that it be everything. The process of yoga is the progressive stilling of the agitations of the mind that obscure the reflection of the true nature of the self. Simple. The experience of yoga is the union of the true self and the Super Self in transcendental relationship; a duality. Patanjali makes this duality clear in his Yoga Sutras as does Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita. Nowhere in either text is an undifferentiated unity of consciousness embraced nor is the idea that anything and everything should be accepted as yoga advocated nor is random speculation about the definition of yoga by aspiring yogis encouraged. The yogi accepts what is favorable for yoga and rejects that which is unfavorable; a constructive duality based on knowledge, on being able to distinguish between two aspects of the one ground of all being; that which is spiritual and that which is material. If we think that yoga is everything and that there's nothing to know then we will go nowhere and know nothing, in which case there's no reason to practice yoga at all. Ifeoluwa, with all due respect, your post is just tail-chasing mumbo-jumbo.

    • IfeTogun says:

      My dear Harikirtana, what would I do without your challenging responses? I do enjoy this as it gives me an opportunity to challenge my beliefs (and that’s all they are, after all). Maybe that’s your goal. Maybe. Let’s start here:

      “Yoga has a very simple and straightforward definition so I'm not sure why anyone would feel the need to complicate it by insisting that it be everything. The process of yoga is the progressive stilling of the agitations of the mind that obscure the reflection of the true nature of the self. Simple. The experience of yoga is the union of the true self and the Super Self in transcendental relationship; a duality.”

      Simple? Your definition of simple and my definition of simple would not grab a beer together. Within your definition you’ve introduced at least 10 additional concepts that would need further defining, which would each likely give birth to 20 additional concepts that need defining, and so on and so forth forever, and still no definition in sight. Do you see? In your attempt to pin it down, you’ve caused it to grow more heads—you’ve created a linguistic hydra.

      Aside: By the way, you didn’t define yoga; you defined “the process of yoga.” Not the same thing.

      As to what the yoga sutras or Bhagavad Gita say concerning Oneness, I must say that we must have been reading two very different versions (isn’t that always the case?), because I’m pretty sure the goal of it all (whatever that means) is absorption into the One (but again what does that mean?). Who knows? I leave such esoteric interpretations to my scholastic betters.

      Based on your many responses (which are always erudite), Harikirtana, I must say that your knowledge of Yoga seems to be based largely on what others say about it. But what do YOU say about it? While the words of others is no doubt a fine starting point, surely at some point we have to set out on our own adventure? After all, whose knowledge of a jungle would your trust: A man who has read a lot about the jungle or a man who used his readings as a starting point before setting out himself (not saying I am either of these men)?

      If we keep ourselves confined solely (keyword solely) to the words of those who came before us, those who walked ahead of us, then how will we learn to walk? We’d simply be dragged along the beaten paths of life on the coattails of men who had the audacity to live it.

      I have read the sutras and I have read the Gita and I have read the Bible and I have read the Koran—and I love them all. But what I choose to say and how I choose to live come from I have learned myself from a thousand sleepless nights. Are the things I know true? Are they false? Don’t know; I’m still walking. Yes these men and women walk with me, but they walk beside me, not ahead of me. The man who stays behind the guide never gets to see the road ahead—he arrives at a place and knows not how he got there or where he is.

      I did say at the end of the blog that you can give a different definition of Yoga than the one that I have given, but in so doing you have to avoid statements of Oneness or Unity or Universality. You have done just that. You have made it very clear that you do not believe in One, and prefer a dualistic view of yoga (or at least a semi-dualistic one). If that’s the case, I am really curious to know who the “other” is and where he/she/it came from?

      Thanks for the comment, Harikirtana. As usual, thought provoking.

      Ife

      • harikirtana says:

        Hi Ife. Without my challenging responses you might do the same thing I would do without your inspiring posts; sit here and wonder what to write? But you have been more independently prolific than I lately; inspiration to get off my duff and get writing.

        I think that, according to your logic, we shouldn’t be able to define anything. We always have to use words that require subsequent definitions in order for the original characterization to be comprehensible. Whether we are defining ‘perspective’ or ‘petunia’, at some point a reasonable person with a basic grasp of the language in question arrives at a point where a definition is comprehensible; there isn’t a never-ending string of definitions proceeding into infinity. I think it’s safe to assume that most people interested in yoga or familiar with washing machines can define “agitations” (or fluctuations or movements or changes if you wish) but you raise a good point in that the yogic conception of the mind is very different from the western psychological concept of the mind. Fortunately for all of us the mind and its agitations are precisely what Patanjali spends the 5th through the 11th sutras (succinct statements) of the first pada (chapter) describing so if one is in need of a yogic definition of the mind I recommend those 7 sutras along with the traditional commentaries on those sutras. Edwin Bryant’s translation and commentary is my preferred edition of the Yoga Sutras, along with Shyam Ranganatham’s (in spite of my disagreement with his ideas about Ishvara and guru, two terms that I trust your readers either know the meaning of or are willing to look up).

        My definition of simple prefers mango lassi, anyway.

        You are right, of course: yoga is a word that describes both a process and an experience. But I did offer a definition of the experience as well as the process by which the experience is attained: “The experience of yoga is the union of the true self and the Super Self in transcendental relationship”. I would be happy to offer a definition of 'transcendental' if you think one is required.

      • harikirtana says:

        True, we have probably been reading different editions of the world's spiritual wisdom texts and it’s equally common for people to think that all paths must lead to the same One place in order for them to share a common truth at their core. In fact we often assume that our hopes for worldly peace depend on the agreement of spiritually realized souls that the same “One” or “Oneness” is the connecting thread (sutra!), the common secret hiding in plain sight. One area of agreement I share with Professor Ranganatham is that translator/commentators on yoga wisdom texts like the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita often superimpose their own philosophical point of view onto such texts in a way that obscures their self-evident meaning. Or, as Graham Schweig phrases it in his translation and illumination of the Bhagavad Gita, it isn’t necessary to “privilege aspects of the text that the text itself does not emphasize” in the course of imposing “a doctrinal or even esoteric vision…ungrounded in the text’s essential message.” I’m inclined to think that non-dualistic schools of thought are commonly superimposed on essentially theistic texts, giving readers the impression of a non-dualistic intention behind the text. If you want to read an edition that illuminates the essentially dualistic nature of the Gita, Professor Schwieg’s is among the best.

        I’m happy to share my personal experience of yoga, both as a process and as a result of my practice. But you asked for a definition of yoga, not for our personal experience of practicing yoga: not the same thing. At the core of my experience is what I have heard from my teachers, who definitely walk ahead of me, not beside me. The qualification of someone who writes about the jungle is that they’ve been to the jungle and know it from direct experience. Similarly, the words left behind by the masters of yoga are gifts that are meant to facilitate our replication of their revelatory experience. If I demote them to an equal footing with me (or promote myself to their level) then my pride will surely be my downfall. My point is that the traditional wisdom texts of yoga, which offer definitions and guidance from those who have been where we want to be, can tell us how to get there, and can describe the path’s landmarks along with the means to verify our proximity to the destination, are of far greater value to us than our own speculation. The magic of the qualified guide is that he is a transparent medium: by walking behind him we see the path revealed ahead while following in the footsteps of the guide through whom we see.

        So, what do I have to say about it and who is the “other” of which I speak? I experience yoga as a perpetually unfolding revelation of my identity as an infinitesimal part in relationship to a complete whole. And as I am both complete unto myself and yet more than the sum of my parts so, too, is the complete whole more than the sum of all being and all beings; complete unto him/her self and then some. And as I am a person so, too, do I experience the complete whole, from whom I derive my person-ness, as a person; without the quality of person-ness they would be incomplete. The deeper I take my practice the more I experience myself as residing within the heart of that supreme being who, in turn, resides within my heart. The deeper I take my practice the more my vision clears, revealing the presence of the supreme person everywhere, within everyone and all things, and fully able, willing, and even anxious, to offer me 100 percent of his attention, which he is uniquely qualified to give while simultaneously offering 100 percent of his attention to all others at the same time and all the time. And when I meditate on the ultimate paradox of the limitless, inconceivable, supremely beautiful and wholly spiritual form of that absolute truth within which all things reside residing within my own heart my mind is blown to pieces and the desire to surrender to that fountainhead of everything and ultimate shelter of everyone increases in proportion to that contemplation. Being categorically different from me and all other sentient beings and unconscious energies – situated beyond the influence of the illusions to which I am subject – I meditate on the supreme independence of that absolute truth, on the absence of any contingency upon which the existence of the supreme person, and by extension existence itself, depends.

        The Brahma Samhita offers a very concise descriptive along these lines that I regularly use as the basis for my contemplation: “Krishna, who is known as Govinda, is the Supreme Godhead. He has an eternal blissful spiritual body. He is the origin of all. He has no other origin and He is the prime cause of all causes.” (isvarah paramah krsnah – sac-cid-ananda-vigrahah – anadir adir govindah – sarva-karana-karanam).

        BTW: I really like the photos you have accompanying your post.

        - Hkd

        • IfeTogun says:

          Harikirtana,

          There’s no way to reply to everything you’ve said here without generating a lot of words on a page. So rather than respond to it all, I’ll focus in on a your idea of a definition. You said:

          “ “The experience of yoga is the union of the true self and the Super Self in transcendental relationship”. I would be happy to offer a definition of 'transcendental' if you think one is required”

          Not only would I require a definition of “transcendental”, I would require a definition of “true self” and “Super Self”, maybe even “relationship”.

          I think you missed my point when I said yoga can’t be defined. I’m sure anyone can grab a dictionary (or some other book) and gain a conceptual understanding of these words—but yoga is beyond concepts. You say as much when you use the word “transcendental.” A transcendental experience is one you CANNOT talk about—that’s why it’s transcendental (it beyond the known; words are part of the known).

          Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to talk about it, but when we do we will inevitably invoke metaphors, just like we do when we define something like, say, Love.

          “Love is friendship set to music” (Joseph Campbell)

          This post was reposted on the Himalayan Institutes Facebook page, and one woman’s comment was: “Those who know don’t talk.” I wasn’t sure if she was agreeing with the idea that yoga can’t be defined or suggesting that there was too much talk already. If it is the latter, then even that comment is too much (and telling). But it raises an interesting point. She got that statement from the Tao Te Ching—which begs the question: “why did Lao Tzu bother to write it down if “the way” can’t be spoken?”

          When these men sat down to write their books (or someone else wrote down what they said), they understood that they could not explain what can only be experienced. What you are taking literally are metaphors for the indescribable. These metaphors are the guides (the men too are guides, but only in the sense that they are metaphors). As long as they stay open they are helpful, but metaphors will die under the weight of concretization.

          Nothing can be defined. Not even a tree. We can certainly experience a tree, but the moment we set about talking about it we’ll inevitably replace the thing itself with an idea of the thing, and then we are truly lost (and possibly unaware that we are lost).

          That’s really the heart of what I’m trying to say.

          Ife

          • harikirtana says:

            Thanks Ife. If you ever decide that you know something I hope that you won't stop talking as a result; then how would we have these very enjoyable conversations? I really like that quote for Joseph Campbell. Metaphor does not necessarily negate the possibility of being: literal and allegorical readings are not mutual exclusives. Transcendental means that state where there is no difference between the idea of a tree, the sound vibration "tree", and the tree itself: not an experience we can know with our mundane senses, but I'm convinced we can get there from here if we use transcendental sound vibration to purify and awaken our dormant spiritual senses.

            Please forgive me for violating my usual rule: it's your post, so you should always have the last word (my sense of etiquette). I think I understand what you're trying to say, though, and by your way of thinking perhaps there is no point in talking but I look forward to hearing more of what you have to say anyway. – Hkd

  • IfeTogun says:

    Will do. Thanks, Harikirtana.

  • @_inbliss says:

    I'm glad you brought up Joseph Campbell and used some of his quotes to express what you meant by saying yoga is undefinable. Anytime I try to capture the essence of yoga in a word or brief description, I feel like I'm leaving out all the rest of what it is and can be. It is an experience with infinite variety and meanings.

    I recently reviewed Yoga Body, and Mark Singleton's history of the development of contemporary yoga helped me realize that all the little parts of yoga we concentrate so much on in class (alignment principles, breathing techniques, etc.), these parts that seem to separate yogis into different camps, are only tiny fragments of a vast and unitive practice.

    Zoë http://www.in-bliss.com

  • IfeTogun says:

    I'll always find an excuse to slip in some Joseph Campbell. Thanks for your comment, Zoe.