What is Yoga? A Brief Beginner’s Guide

So you’re looking to get into yoga? Welcome to the cult!

Juuuuuust kidding. Whatever your reason for arriving to yoga at this time in your life, congratulations! The practice has something to offer everyone — whether you’re looking to explore yoga poses to enhance your physical health, breathing techniques to ease your troubled mind or seeking a deep dive into Eastern philosophy to expand your soul, earnest students will likely find that the practice touches many parts of their lives, often in profound ways. 

More of a listener? Check out our podcast, episode 2 for our definition!:

To start, the word “yoga” itself is Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language many classical Indian texts are written in) for “to yoke,” or “union” — between body, mind, and spirit, between self and others, and between practitioners and the Divine (or insert Universe, God, collective- whatever floats your boat). It can be thought of, in very simple terms, as a system of techniques engaged in to cultivate more fulfilled, meaningful, and connected living. In essence, yoga aims to help us feel whole.

While yoga poses and breath work are likely the most accessible and well-known elements of the yoga practice, there are a number of other components that make it more akin to an entire way of life — slightly more expansive than just your Saturday morning sweat sesh.

No matter the reason for your interest in yoga, it’s important to familiarize yourself with its roots in order to more fully appreciate how it touches your life today. Yoga is a vast system of knowledge that spans literally thousands of years (and that being said, it’s tough to distill its history down into just a few key points), first coming into fruition in India around 1700 BCE with the Vedic Period, when the oldest yogic texts were written — a body of work collectively known as the Vedas. The Vedas are spiritual scriptures, composed in Sanskrit, that comprise the philosophical crux of yoga. Post 1100 BCE brought the Vedanta Period, characterized by more important written work, including the Bhagavad Gita, which can be thought of as a look into how to be a practitioner of yoga, related as a massive parable through the lens of Arjuna, who, through his experience in battle, takes a deep dive into no shortage of existential themes. We’ll end our odyssey through yogic time around the year 400 CE, when the Yoga Sutras were written down by a sage named Patanjali. This text contains 196 aphorisms on the practice of yoga thought to be synthesized from older yogic thought traditions, and that were part of a larger oral tradition for hundreds of years prior to their written composure. 

 

Maybe it’s painfully obvious, but it’s crucial that we’re all familiar with the fact that yoga hasn’t always existed in the western world! Rather, it’s been graciously gifted to other parts of the world by the system’s oldest and most devoted Indian practitioners and teachers (often known as gurus, or “one who imparts light” unto a student) via a long history of complex connections, interactions, and touchpoints that have ultimately allowed western people access to it. The array of gurus ultimately responsible for the proliferation of the practice can be traced back to a man named Shri Adinath, the “primordial guru” of yoga, from whom the contents of a text known as the Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā are attributed to, though they were actually written down to form the text itself by a man named Svātmārāma, in the 14th century. This manual of sorts outlines many elements of the practice that are likely the most familiar ones to westerners, including asanas (physical postures), pranayama (breath work), mudras (symbolic gestures), and bandhas (energy locks). The system of hatha yoga is derived from the Pradīpikā, and forms the umbrella under which subsequent lineages and styles of yoga like vinyasa, Iyengar yoga, and Ashtanga lie — to name a few. The latter is thought to be the first form of yoga the west was truly exposed to, brought by Sri T. Krishnamacharya. 

 

While yoga poses and breath work are likely the most accessible and well-known elements of the yoga practice, there are a number of other components that make it more akin to an entire way of life — slightly more expansive than just your Saturday morning sweat sesh. Yoga on the whole can be likened to a tree. There are eight limbs on this tree, and they are as follows, as recorded in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as the eight-limbed path (the Sanskrit word ashtanga literally means “eight limbs”):

  1. Yama: There are five yamas, which outline the way in which a yoga practitioner should conduct his or herself in the world in terms of relating to others. 
  2. Niyama: Similarly, there are five niyamas, and these principles offer suggestions as to how a yoga practitioner should behave intrapersonally — think self study and the way we act introspectively, while the yamas offer a prescription for how to treat those outside of ourselves.
  3. Asana: The postures of yoga live here. Ultimately, they offer us an opportunity to tune into our physical bodies so that we can unravel into further layers of self inquiry. Postures are traditionally taken in order to purify the body, and prepare the body to sit comfortably in meditation for long periods of time.
  4. Pranayama: In yoga, the breath is considered to be the life force (“prana” = life force), or spirit, of our existence. Pranayama as a practice refers to breath work or breath control, either done in tandem with physical postures or own its own, as a means to connect to our life force come into remembrance of the intimate connection between body, mind, and spirit. 
  5. Pratyahara: The next few limbs are related to the intentional practice of meditation, starting with pratyahara, which is generally translated as sensory withdrawal. Here, we make a concerted effort to draw our senses inward and away from the stimuli of the outside world. Within the context of meditation, you can think of this stage as the part where you close your eyes and begin to set the intention to tune in, even (or especially!) in the midst of distractions.
  6. Dharana: Building upon the previous limb, after sensory withdrawal comes the practice of concentration. Calming the chatter of the mind (in Sanskrit, this is known as citta) isn’t easy, but can be remedied by focusing on/directing thought to a solitary mental object, like the image of something that makes you feel calm, or a specific part of the body, or a word or phrase repeated in your head (this can be a mantra of sorts). This concentration, when held for a period of time, naturally lends itself to meditation. 
  7. Dhyana: This limb refers to true meditation, which is ultimately a product of the elements cultivated in the preceding limbs. It is the sustained flow of mental stillness, distinct from the previous two limbs in that it is without actual focus — the senses have been withdrawn (pratyahara), the mind has been calmed already and the object of earlier focus (dharana) has dissipated, leaving one in a space of clear, calm, neutral awareness.
  8. Samadhi: In its fullest expression, the dedicated and earnest practice of yoga over a long period of time culminates in the union between the practitioner and the Divine. It is here that a practitioner realizes that any lines of distinction initially perceived between them and others dissolve, and the connection that threads everything in existence together becomes in them a truly embodied, unshakeable, reverberating knowing. Samadhi is also known as enlightenment.

 

Pretty casual stuff, right? But no matter your reason for coming to the practice of yoga, I’d venture to say you’ll likely find much more than you initially set out looking for — in the best way imaginable. Committing to your Saturday morning sweat sesh with the intention of opening to something more than you might expect certainly won’t make you a realized being, but it will expand your perspective and stretch your worldview. And maybe your hamstrings, too. 

Interested in getting started? There are three ways we can help you start your yoga journey!

  1. Foundations of Yoga: This 5 private session course will take you through the fundamentals of yoga postures, breathwork, meditation and philosophy so that you feel confident and excited to start your yoga practice. Whether that’s on the mat with us or at another studio, or picking up a home practice, this course will confidently give you the tools to begin safely and effectively! Investment: $250
  2. Beginner Classes: Jump right into our beginner classes offered weekly. These classes are here to guide you safely through each posture in a group setting. Look for *Beginner denoted in the class title, or join our Deep Stretch, The Honoring or Competitive Napping classes any time for a beginner friendly experience! Investment : $15 per drop in or Memberships/ Punch Cards available starting at $59
  3. Unlimited Month: Are you the all or nothing type? Wanna just jump right in? Try us out for a month (limited time offer) for $50 of unlimited yoga. This will be the least hands on approach, but the most bang for your buck. Try out classes, dive right in and see if a yoga practice is right for you!

*If finances are the main issue, we always invite you to join one of our All Levels Donation classes! Every Sunday at 3:45p and 5p. Come one, come all. Pay what you can. Proceeds go to local organizations quarterly.

 

Written beautifully by Lauren Daeger

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