Back to Basics: What Is Yoga?

Let’s get back to basics with a quick look at some of the main features and benefits of yoga, by answering the question, what is yoga anyway?

While you are probably already at least a bit familiar with yoga if you find yourself reading this blog, sometimes it’s good to revisit the basics and remind yourself of why you do yoga, and what it can do for you. That’s why, from time to time, you’ll see a “Back to Basics” article on this site. If you’re looking to go deeper, please browse our archives for lots more articles, tips, poses, yoga workouts, and more!

But to kick off the year, let’s take a look at a very basic question:

What is yoga?

Before answering this question, we have to look back at the origin of the word “yoga” itself. Thought to be a derivative of “yuj” from the ancient East Indian Sanskrit language, the root word translates to yoking – as in hitching a team of oxen to a yoke. Yoking further suggests a union of two beings connected together as one.

So in essence, yoga is the union, or connecting together, of the mind, body, and spirit. But, how does yoga connect the two non-physical elements to the physical one? In yoga, this is generally accomplished through a series of poses or postures, combined with specific patterns of breathing and meditation. Some yoga styles also include chanting and the reading of inspirational passages.

The Physical Side of Yoga

Yoga develops strength, flexibility, and stamina through specific physical poses (also known as asanas). If done in quick succession, as with Ashtanga, Bikram, or Vinyasa, yoga can be a mild low-impact type of exercise that builds physical strength and stamina. If done more slowly, as in the styles of Anusara, Iyengar, and Yin, the focus is on doing the pose correctly and holding for a longer period of time to increase flexibility and/or stamina. Because most of the yoga styles use the same or similar poses or postures, which style you choose is a personal decision that depends on what physical benefits you want to get out of the practice and what style you most enjoy. (For some guidance on choosing a style that may work best for you, take our quick yoga quiz here.)

The Mental/Spiritual Side of Yoga

Yoga styles, such as Jivamukti and Kundalini may include call and response chanting. Other styles may include mediation, a focus on breathing or the reading of inspirational passages called aphorisms. Many that practice yoga find the performance of poses first provides an easier transition to the meditation portion of the experience. However, you can start with whatever type and aspect of yoga you feel comfortable with.

Yoga is non-competitive and highly personal, making it a good sport for those who enjoy individual activities, or those who simply want to get in touch with themselves and perhaps find a higher connection as well. It is a way to shut out the outside world and focus on just oneself; during your yoga practice, you are disconnected from the outside world and focused inward. This can provide great stress-relieving benefits, and may also help with anxiety, depression, and other related issues.

Advice for Beginners

When starting out practicing yoga, you may want to join a live class first to learn the proper form and technique for the postures and other aspects of your chosen yoga style. But don’t be afraid to try other styles as well so that you get a feel for what type of yoga may suit you best.

In this fast and over-connected world that we live in, making time for introspection and self-care can be difficult; practicing yoga on a regular basis is a wonderful way to get back in touch with yourself, tap into your inner wisdom, connect with your spiritual side, and maintain mental and physical health and fitness at the same time!


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