What is Yoga?
Yoga is a a set of physical, mental and spiritual practices originating in ancient India. Today, it tends to refer more specifically to a set of physical exercises derived from an offshoot called hatha yoga. The word yoga is derived from the sanskrit root word: ‘yuj‘ literally meaning to attach, join or yoke.
Yoga likely originated in the Indus Valley (3300-1900 BCE) and pre Vedic India. This is still a contentious area of archeological research and I don’t want to risk being yelled at for historical inaccuracy, so let’s just say that yoga’s origins are old and nebulous and that it has had many different schools that were incorporated and influenced by Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism.Practitioners of yoga (yogins/yogis) performed practices of austerity (tapas) to control the mind and attain enlightenment. For some, this involved spending years without sitting and for some it involved holding one arm above their head until it withered.
Get ready, this next sentence has a lot of parentheses.
Many systems of yoga also focused on harnessing a supposed nectar of immortality (bindu) or life energy (prana) through various bodily seals (mudras), locks (bandhas) and postures (asana). Ancient texts often claim that the sustained practice of yoga would lead to supernatural abilities and immortality.
“After two or three years the semen of the yogi whose body is filled with the nectar of immortality moves upward and the powers of becoming as small as an atom and so forth arise. Poison does not trouble the yogi’s body if it is constantly filled with the [nectar from the] digits of the moon, even when he is bitten by a snake.” Vivekamartananda verse 129-130.
This is an intentionally brief, surface level description of yoga’s history. I’d be ignoring the plurality and mutability of yoga, as well as of Indian civilisation, if I were to treat pre-modern yoga as a singular, unified spiritual practice. Yoga is old. There were lots of different people doing lots of different things which all fall under the description: yoga.
In our modern setting, the word yoga is often used to describe exercise focused posture practices (asana) which you can find in yoga studios (oh hey, like mine!) and gyms. However, there is little or no evidence that asana (excepting certain seated postures for meditation) were ever the primary aspect of any Indian yoga practice tradition.
What we commonly refer to as yoga in the modern context is such a departure from the ascetic practices and lifestyles of yogis before, that it may be accurate to say that the word yoga now refers to two wholly different activities. For further insight into the fascinating, relatively recent invention of posture focused yoga, read Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: the origins of modern postural practice.
Both modern and pre-modern yoga (again, the terms modern and pre-modern yoga should not be read as describing clearly defined systems of practice) are about trying to quiet the mind and find peace within ourselves and with the world around us. This can be a spiritual experience for some and a secular one for others.
What’s Yoga to me?
I enjoy various asana focused yoga practices (hot, vinyasa, hatha), all of which fall under the umbrella term ‘transnational anglophone yoga’. Transnational meaning an exchange of ideas between cultures of different nations and anglophone meaning the practices and philosophies were shared in European languages.
I value yoga both as physical exercise and as a meditation practice. These two practices feed into each other, since it’s easier to sit quietly for a long time when you’re tired and have had a long stretch. I’m a secular person but actively try to learn about the religious/spiritual history of yoga. This is out of naive curiosity and a desire to respect cultures foreign to me. It’s a lot easier to avoid misappropriating religious symbols when you learn about their meaning and significance.
My Aim for Yoga with Stuart
My aim for the studio is to be provide an accessible and engaging session of physical activity for people looking for exercise/recovery and also a quiet place of contemplation for people looking to calm down the restlessness in their minds.
This commonly boils down to lots of slow push-ups, arm balances, lunges, hamstring stretches and then sitting cross legged while trying not to fall asleep.