What is and is not Yoga

What is and is not yoga | Philosophy Shorts

This is the first in a series of posts we will publish in the upcoming weeks.

These posts are based on our philosophy module, which I’ve been teaching for YogaJaya for the past 5 years. As a preamble, I’d like to post a comment from one of our TT graduates, who had studied our philosophy module.

“Although there are schools within yoga, I was always under the impression that to be in a position to teach yoga means to keep the yoga sutras of Patanjali as one’s own main scripture. And the foundation of that idea was destroyed, which was very shocking. There was no discussion about which school I should belong to, and I think it was good that I was given the knowledge to see the whole picture. Thanks to that, I was able to understand where I stand now, and I thought I would be able to make new choices from there. Without being told, “this is the correct answer,” I was able to simply look at different ways of thinking, as in, “in this period, the philosophy was like this, and in this period, it was like this.” I feel that my horizons have expanded considerably. There were moments when I felt that my perspective had broadened even in everyday life that had nothing to do with TT learning. It was a great learning experience because it promoted changes within myself.”

I like this comment because it both captures the stance common to many modern yoga teachers and shows that when presented with an overview of different ideas in a neutral way, one can reorient themselves and find where one stands.

I always feel very sad when I see how the so-called “yoga philosophy” is equated with Patanjali’s 8 limbs or, even further, with the idea that the greatest wisdom of Indian sages is that you need to aspire to be a good person before doing asana practice as a tool to find a balanced state of body and mind (yama and niyama before asana).

Below is a blog version of the video above.

Philosophy of yoga?

Let’s say right away that rather than focusing on studying the “philosophy of yoga,”our first objective should be to try and understand the word “yoga” as a category.
What kind of things can be called “yoga”?
What is yoga?

Unless you already have a deep interest in Eastern philosophy, or maybe even some academic training in the subject, the most likely avenue for a person outside India to arrive at a point where they want to learn about “yoga philosophy” is after being exposed to a yoga class (consisting of asana and maybe some pranayama and meditation).

Then, either such a person may want to know more about this “ancient Indian practice” or they enter yoga teacher training, where the curriculum requires they study this quote-unquote “yoga philosophy.”

And at this point, most internet resources and most teacher trainings will offer a very simple and convincing story:

“Yoga is not just exercise!”

/ turn on some spiritual music and light up scented candles, read the following in a soft voice /

This yoga practice that you do at your local yoga studio is not “just exercise…”
It can be traced back to an Indian text called “the Yoga Sutras,” written by an Indian sage Patanjali, so it’s called Patanjala yoga…
And this text explains that yoga is not just asana, but it is a complex system of “eight limbs.”
The first two limbs are ethical observances, yama and niyama.
The third limb is the asana, that is your physical practice, that you do when you go to a yoga studio.
And the culmination of this all, the 8th limb, is the Samadhi, some kind of a transcendental state.
And at the same time, because there’s this popular idea that yoga is about balance and unity of body and mind, it’s easy to imagine that this final transcendental stage, Samadhi, is the state of balance, happiness, peace of mind, and “the unity of body in mind…”

/ stop the music, blow the candles [ an allusion to can-you-guess-what ], and continue reading in a normal voice /

Shades of Truth

This picture usually satisfies most students / web page readers. It spreads. And because so many resources and people share the same vision, they think of it as true. And because so many people believe that this is true, in some sense it is true.

But this picture is very limited, and it doesn’t capture the diversity of yoga in the course of history of development of its many forms. So we will not be focusing on this very limited common vision of what yoga is, but, instead, will try to look at the bigger picture.

/ to be continued /

Asia Shcherbakova

Asia holds a Master of Science in Human Genetics and a PhD in Biotechnology. She has been researching the effect of stress on DNA, learning, and inflammation. Having suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy, Asia successfully eliminated all medication through diet and movement practices. She is now focusing on mechanisms underlying brain health and disorders and working on approaches to help others to regain their health. As a BASEWORKS developer, she is deeply interested in understanding the mechanisms behind practice-related experiences, especially the intersection of motor and cognitive functions. She has been interested in Eastern philosophy since age 5, and her biggest interest in this area is related to Japanese tantric Buddhism.


Physically, my body was changing. I felt physically and mentally stable, and I felt my feet firmly on the ground. I was able to concentrate and pay attention to the details of my body and my mind.


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