What Does Yoga Mean?

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Once an esoteric and exclusive practice, yoga is now a transnational product worth more than $37 million.  One in four Americans has practiced yoga at some point in their lives, making it easy for yoga to be contextually many things to many people. With a rich and complex history dating back thousands of years, “what does yoga mean?” doesn’t have a simple answer.

“… yoga refers to that enormous body of spiritual values, attitudes, precepts, and techniques that have been developed in India over at least five millennia…” – Georg Feuerstein.

In this article, we’ll take a look at:

  • The meaning of the word yoga
  • Interpretations of yoga – both modern and traditional
  • Whether yoga is a religion, a practice, or a goal
a group of people in a yoga studio doing lunges

What does yoga mean? Translation

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit word Yuj which you’ll frequently hear translated as ‘to join,’ ‘to yoke”, “to unite,” or ”to connect.”

The Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary is an excellent place to start if you’re looking for a thorough definition. The word yoga is one of the longest entries in the entire dictionary.  This confirms that there are multiple meanings for the word we seem to identify with so well but often know so little about.

Most do not associate yoga with the alternative definitions you’ll find in the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary, which are often unexpected and illuminate the complexity of the word yoga.

Yoga means:

  • Remedy/cure
  • Trick/fraud/deceit
  • Business/work
  • Gain/profit/wealth
  • Opportunity
  • Means/way/manor
  • Application of concentration

More commonly, yoga is translated as union, which is one of the more common themes and explorations you’ll hear in a modern yoga class

  • But union with what?  There are many interpretations here, including the union of mind, body, and soul or union with God/Absolute/Universe.
  • And, what happens after?  You’ll find a good deal of literature and interpretation on what yoga means, how to practice, and its goal but not so much about what happens when you attain it.  Samādhi? Death?  Mokṣa?

“Yoga means union. The union of the individual soul with the Universal Spirit is yoga.”

B.K.S. Iyengar
a graphic od someone meditating with a pink psychedelic background

What does yoga mean? Common Perceptions

In a landscape where the more frequent question is what style of yoga? the tradition of the practice is often overlooked or blurred at best.  In modern times we have to consider that the speed with which yoga as a practice is changing ultimately changes its context and meaning. Standard interpretations of yoga range from the physical to the spiritual. Is yoga…

  • A stretching, strengthening, and exercise class
  • A mind-body approach to well-being
  • A spiritual/religious practice
  • A path to liberation/enlightenment
  • A global product
  • A practice that requires you to renounce the world in search of samādhi
  • Living life as a kind human being
  • The path to the end of suffering
  • Finding peace
  • Mastery of the mind through concentration

Arguably all of the above is yoga, but it’s important to note that there are similarities and that yoga, while somewhat fluid and malleable in its translation, should not be interpreted as yoga can be anything

a woman doing reverse warrior in the water at sunset

Yoga Interpretations In Ancient Texts

Let’s step back and reflect on some of the oldest interpretations of yoga from some of the most renowned yoga texts, including Patañjali’s Yogasūtra and the Bhagavadgītā.

yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ
“Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind” – Patañjali | Yogasūtra 1.2

ātmeśvarasaṃyogo yogaḥ
“Yoga is the union of the self and the Lord” – Pañcarthabhāhāṣya* 1.1.43 (*Seth Powell)

Yogaḥ karmasu kauśsalam
“Yoga is skill in action” Bhagavadgītā 2.5

Atha tattvadarśanābhyupāyo yogaḥ
“Yoga is the direct means to perceive reality” – Śaṅkarācārya’s Brahmasūtrabhāṣya 2.1.3

the bhagavad gita with mala beads and a chime

Modern Yoga Interpretations

Now let’s look at different interpretations of what yoga means from a range of modern scholars and practitioners.

“[Yoga is] the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India.”Georg Feuerstein.

“[Yoga consists of] disciplined and systematic techniques for the training and control of the human mind-body complex, which are also understood as techniques for the reshaping of human consciousness towards some kind of higher goal.”Geoffrey Samuel.

“Yoga is not a work-out; it is a work-in. And this is the point of spiritual practice, to make us teachable, to open up our hearts, and focus our awareness so that we can know what we already know and be who we already are.” — Rolf Gates.

“Yoga means union with the Self: not the self in the limited sense of mortal self-body/mind/ego/personality-but the higher Self-the Divine/eternal/limitless Self. The practices of Yoga are concerned with freeing the atman, the Sanskrit term for the inner divine Self, from avidya, or misidentification-that is, identifying with the “lower case” self instead of the “upper case” Self. By means of these practices, nirodhah is achieved, and the practitioner comes to know the Self-the atman, the Divine soul within-and this is Yoga.”Sharon Gannon.

“Yoga is a dance between control and surrender — between pushing and letting go — and when to push and when to let go becomes part of the creative process, part of the open-ended exploration of your being.”Joel Kramer.

a group of students pravticing yoga

What does yoga mean?  Is it a practice or a goal?

We’ve looked at several interpretations from a wide range of sources, and it’s essential to define the context before defining yoga, especially when there are so many ways of interpreting the word.Here it’s worth looking at whether yoga is the practice leading to the goal, simply the goal, or if it is both

Let’s look at some interpretations of yoga as a practice, a goal, a state, a method, or an outcome, all of which provide a platform for yoga being all of the above.

Yoga as Practice

“Practically speaking, yoga is about our relationship with everything.” – Daniel Simpson.

“Yoga returns people to their bodies and breath, allowing for a contemplative space to arise.”Christopher Key Chapple.

“It is the practical means by which the ideals of an inspired life can be actualized.” – T.K.V. Desikachar.

Yoga as Goal

“Samādhi is the end of the sādhaka’s quest.  At the peak of his meditation, he passes into the state of Samādhi, where his body and senses are at rest as if he is asleep, his faculties of mind and reason are alert as if he is awake, yet he has gone beyond consciousness.”B.K.S. Iyengar.

“Yoga is not about bending and twisting your body or holding your breath. It is a mechanism and a technology to get you to that state of experience where you see reality just the way it is.”Sadhguru.

“The purposes of yoga were to cultivate discernment, awareness, self-regulation and higher consciousness in the individual.”David Surrenda.

someone doing downward dog on a green mat

Is yoga a religion?

A common question when considering what yoga means is if it is a religion.  When we find words such as God, the divine, and the absolute, it’s easy to view yoga as a religion, but Daniel Simpson states that “Although it is not a religion in itself, it has roots in religious traditions from ancient India.  Texts often teach yogic techniques alongside metaphysics and spiritual doctrine.” As usual, it’s not clear cut.

During the early 20th century, there was a movement of New Thought and positive thinking in America. This, combined with Indian gurus traveling to the West to disseminate the teaching of yoga spoke to the cultural shift taking place around religion in the West. 

Part of the spreading of yoga at this time was based around making the teachings of yoga accessible and non-conflicting to those with an existing faith such as Christianity.  This resulted in a more popular view of yoga in the West but ultimately changed the transmission of yoga and its aims as a spiritual practice.

Many believe that yoga, from the physical to the spiritual, transcends all religions.

a woman meditating with a universe background meditating on what does yoga mean

Multiple meanings

T.K.V. Desikachar gives us three succinct definitions of yoga to help us navigate the vast array of interpretations and contexts:

  1. yoga as the movement from one point to another, higher one. 
  2. yoga as the bringing together, the unifying of two things.
  3. yoga as action with undivided, uninterrupted attention.

It’s clear that yoga is many things.  Maybe most appealingly, it is something that reminds us there is more to life than the daily grind.  

It’s clear that yoga can be practiced in many ways.  With approaches from meditation to vinyasa, we have various tools available to seek yoga, both as a practice, and as a goal.

What does yoga mean? Key Takeaways

When diving into the meaning of the word yoga, you might find yourself with more questions than answers, especially when faced with statements like yoga is “to attain what was previously unattainable.” 

You might also be wondering where to start with yoga and how the physical practice of āsana fits in.  There is much debate regarding what is “pure” yoga, but undeniably, modern society is flocking to yoga in its abundance of forms and styles for good reason – it contributes to our well-being and alleviates suffering. 

And as Jason Crandell states, “Yoga is the perfect opportunity to be curious about who you are.”

a woman doing yoga with a bolster

What does yoga mean? Find out more

A great way to understand how yoga’s meaning, its practice, and that illusive goal fit into modern life is through the Yogasūtra of Patañjali and his Eight-Limbed Path of yoga.

Patañjali’s approach to yoga is both practice and goal-oriented. It provides an ethical approach to living through the yamas and niyamas as well as concentration and meditation as a systematic pathway to samādhi.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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