Home » The Meaning of Yoga

This articles discusses: the evolution of Yoga through time.

  • Did the meaning of the word change? If you believe that it did, how did it change? Refer to interpretations of the texts to support your discussion. Include in your discussion the different paths of yoga and whether you believe these paths were connected to changes in Yoga through time.
  • How can we now understand the fullness of the meanings implied in the term yoga and how would you live this understanding in your life/practice/teaching? (i.e. bring together the different aspects of Yoga).

The meaning of ‘yoga’ is so expansive and fluid that it can simultaneously connect the beliefs of many and mean something subtly different to every practitioner. As Mohan puts it ‘It may mean holding a position or remaining in union with God- in either case, yoga is both the means and the end. Throughout this essay I will be exploring several of the myriad of approaches to practicing yoga, as well as the shared beliefs and goals underpinning each approach.

The origin of the word is yuj- meaning to unite, yoke or join. Mohan asserts that the second root word of yoga is Samadhi, which he describes as ‘the state of mind in which we voluntarily become so deeply joined to the object of our enquiry that the limits of our personal identity are temporarily set aside. When we are in such a state our perception is completely clear’ This state could be understood as the shared goal, therefore one of the strongest connections between the different styles of yoga. The state of Samadhi can be reached through devotion (Bhakti yoga), wisdom (Jnana yoga) or action (karma yoga) - or a combination of these different approaches, for it can also be argued that love, wisdom and action are all part of a balanced practice. Speaking personally, the meaning of yoga has evolved (and will continue to change) throughout my own practice. Yoga defies a rigid definition and is not practiced dogmatically. According to Worthington ‘Yoga had in fact tended all along to be anti-intellectual, even anti-religious. To be true to itself it must stand ever close to the spontaneous font of human creativity. It is more intuitive than reasonable, more experimental than formalistic, more otherworldly than of this world and more akin to an art than a science.

The concept of unity/oneness implied by the roots of ‘yuj’ and ‘Samadhi’ can be discerned in the following assumptions about reality believed (to varying degrees) by all schools of yoga. I have also included my personal interpretation and connection to them. The possibility and desirability of transcendence. At the moment, for me, that means glimpses of what is beyond my everyday experience- and of the world and of my (small s) self.

Relative existence is suffering. I interpret this as a lack of unity and connection to that which is beyond us. I have had many experiences of getting bogged down in the material world- a frivolous example of suffering in my relative existence is the insatiable desire for new shoes, being not quite able to pay my rent because I could not resist the allure of the shoes, thinking they would make me happy (or knowing that they wouldn’t bring lasting happiness and wanting them anyway).

Rebirth/reincarnation and therefore dharma (our path/duty) and karma (the cycle of cause and effect). While I am a little hazy on what happens after death, I can clearly relate the cycle of cause and effect (see shoe analogy). I am also fond of the expression ‘what goes around comes around’. Also in times of confusion, especially when I have made a major decision, I have wondered aloud whether I ‘have gone down the wrong path’, an example of how I relate to the concept of dharma.

Practitioners of yoga believe in a reality beyond the means of our senses (as the powers of these senses have limits, and thus they limit what we can know). What is currently beyond the means of my everyday perception is the concept of the Ultimate Reality, otherwise known as Atman/Brahman, Sat chit Ananda- which is single and complete- I’d imagine that unity with this ultimate reality would be enlightenment and therefore our highest good- no more of the suffering of relative existence and boundless love, strength and compassion. Many schools of yoga believe that this state is utterly blissful.

The earliest practice of yoga (that we have detailed record of) occurred, at about 1800 BCE at the time of the Upanishads- Jnana yoga. This yoga was a reaction to the Vedic system, which practitioners renounced, along with all their possessions, when they began their practice. The Upanishads describe the goal of yoga, however not the way to get there. Teachers of this approach did not believe in spoon feeding their students, or encouraging permanent dependence- rather than teaching their students what to think, they thought them how to think, the role of the Upanishadic guru was

‘to make the student stand on his own two feet…to make himself superfluous’ It was practiced in the forest, and consisted of secret knowledge passed from a guru to a worthy student. The student would take the knowledge, dwell upon it, meditate upon it and practice svadaya (self study). Until that (learned) knowledge become wisdom (experiential). Jnana yoga utilized the ‘technique of transcending the mind with the help of the mind’ .

This approach required a withdrawal from the world, in my own practice I have found my mind to be no help at all in transcending the mind. Although other practices may differ in approach, all require Jnana- ‘Whatever yogic path we follow, all paths unfold through wisdom.’

As opposed to Jnana, which requires renunciation of all attachment, Bhakti uses the human condition (which is to be attached), although the Bhakti practitioner uses wisdom to separate attachment to a God/Goddess from their attachment to their smaller self (ego) or desires. The Bhakti yogi does not pray because they want something, rather they live in a state of constant praise of god and selfless action. The Svetasvatara Upanishad referred to Bhakti, the yoga of devotion, which utilizes total devotion to the divine in order to merge with the divine (transcendence).

The Bhavagad Gita (550 BCE), also described a yoga to live in the world, rather than a withdrawal from the world, it ‘creates an active yoga for everyday life’ this encompasses Karma Yoga (yoga of action) as well as Bhakti Yoga. The Bhavagad Gita has been referred to as a manual on how to act- it explains an actionless action, where you do your best in every task but are unattached to the results of that labor. According to Wood A karma yoga practitioner is ‘not working for results, but to do his [or her] best….in practice this means that he will be free from anxiety, fear, pride and attachment to things and will quite naturally acquire a great deal of knowledge of his body and his mind’ This way of life, freedom from attachment to the outcome of your actions, also freed the practitioner from the burden of karma (both inherited and accrued). My own conscious practice of karma yoga has been short term but rewarding- I dedicated a shift at work to being very helpful and kind to everyone, without expecting my actions to be acknowledged or rewarded, I found it to be an uplifting, though exhausting experience.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanajali (150BCE or 150 CE) describe yoga as ‘the stilling of the modifications of the mind’. Raja yoga (the yoga practiced by Patanjali), offers more guidance along the path than the previous approaches described, including obstacles that we may encounter. Before starting, it is recommended that Kriya Yoga is practiced as the busier the mind is, the more difficult it is to still, and the practices of Tapas (austerity), Svadhyaya (self study), Isvarapranidhana (devotion to God/ self surrender) help us gain control over the mind. Patanjali also describes the eight limbs that work together, walking us towards our true nature, wiping smears of our mirror of perception that is distorting our view of reality. I have included explanations of how I have tried to follow them.

Yamas, deal with our relationship with the world around us- providing us with ethics, that if practiced help us still the mind and live with peace and integrity. This makes a lot of sense, basically because the more I lie, steal and overdo the sensual and sexual enjoyment, the less time I have to worry about enlightenment- I’d have to many other dramas to sort out. Whether looking for enlightenment or not, this is how I aim to live (on a good day). Niyamas, strengthen our relationships with ourselves. Once again, regardless of goals, I try to stay clean, healthy and content. Asanas, the limb where my yoga practice began, and I feel that I still need to use my body to have any hope of stilling my mind. Pranayama, the practice utilizes the breath to put us in touch with our own energy. I have found that tuning into my breath has taught me a lot about myself, especially as a means to balance energy and emotions, and has provided me with a previously unknown strength and energy to draw from. Pratyhara sense withdrawal, less distractions for that fluttery mind that I am trying to still. A simple example of this, for me, is to practice in a calm, quiet, uncluttered room, and to hope that my mind is in the same state after practice. Dharana, single-pointed concentration. I am still working on the ability to be completely undistracted, internally absorbed and focused. I have experimented with this approach in my drawing, trying to stay unattached to the final image, staying in the moment- in a sense surrendering myself to the act of drawing. There have been mixed results.

Dhyana, meditation without a focus, where there are no thoughts – just stillness and emptiness. I have let go of trying to push for this state- I just get frustrated, I think that the more my mind grasps for it, the further away that stillness retreats. Samadhi, the state of union of with the universe. Like Dhyana, I’ve only had fleeting glimpses of this state. Although the Yoga Sutras provide us with instructions, it is generally understood that ‘They are not meant to be understood, but to be meditated on’ , in this way, raja yoga shares the approach of Jnana yoga- that you cannot really be taught the answer- you have to experience it for yourself.

The Tantra movement (300-400 CE) and the offshoot of hatha yoga, differed from the previously mentioned approaches as it utilized rather than renounced the body, and pleasure, the movement does not imply that it is easy- but discipline and enjoyment can be simultaneous. Hatha yoga is that approach that I practice most regularly and feel fits me best, at this time. As expressed by Aadil Palkhivala ‘In this magnificent pose, Parsva Savangasana (side shoulder stand), the shoulders and arms remain rooted to the earth while legs extend towards the horizon, reaching out to touch infinity. This suggests the true purpose of yoga: to be grounded while simultaneously stretching into the vastness of the unexplored Self. To do yoga is to be fully rooted in the present while at the same time embracing the possibilities of the future- a state in which we are both being and becoming.

I feel more capable of eventually achieving the state of Samadhi, during and after my asana practice than at any other time, I also feel more balanced, focused, energized and calm- which enlightened or not- can only be a good thing for me.

As demonstrated above, there are many different styles of yoga which have evolved over time. I believe that important factors as the focus of yoga teaching has always been on what you learn (by yourself- about yourself), rather than what anyone could teach you, and a goal that is also both the same and expressed differently by individual practitioners. As expressed by Ferrucci ‘treading a way doesn’t consist of mechanically applying a technique until liberation is achieved. There are no magic formulas or assembly line techniques. Each person must come up with his or her own way- by giving up most dearly held convictions and habits and making use of all resources, by doing the most extraordinary spiritual somersault.

The wave/ocean analogy applied to atman/Brahman in the Upanishads could be applied to the practice of yoga as a whole (the deep, powerful, fluid ocean that gives rise to the little, individual waves, constantly in flux, that represent individual practices of yoga. The direction that the waves flow in (the beach/transcendence) is the same, but at the same time every wave will arrive in a slightly different way. This analogy is something that I like to think about at the end of my asana practice, while breathing ujjayi breath (that sounds like an ocean in my ears), it helps me feel a connection to something beyond my self- I feel honored to be a drop in the yoga ocean.


  • Notes from lectures by Lisa.
  • Worthington, Vivian (1982) A History of Yoga
  • Feuerstein, Georg (1998) A Short History of Yoga (essay at internet site, essay yogahi.txt)
  • Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga Lotus Light:Silver Lake,USA
  • Ed. Feuerstein G & Bodian (S) (1993) Living Yoga- A comprehensive Guide for Daily Life.
  • Mohan, A. G. (1993) For Body, Breath and Mind.
  • Mehta R (1970)The Call of the Upanishads,
  • Iyegar BKS (1993)Light on the Yoga Sutras.
  • Mehta R. (1973)Krishnamurti and the Nameless Experience.
  • Feuerstein G,Wisdom Palkhivala A. Parsva Sarvangasana (essay at internet site
  • Worthington V., The Bhvaagad Gita, Pengiun

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