What Is Yoga? A Guide To Types, Philosophy, History & How It’s Practiced Today

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According to wellnesscreatives.com, the yoga industry is worth around $88 billion worldwide. There is no doubt that yoga is a booming business despite the hit of the 2020 pandemic, but surely yoga isn’t just a consumer product.

Yoga has a vast and rich history colored by its context and it has grown in popularity throughout the world exponentially in the last one hundred years.

In this article we’ll take a look at:

  • A brief history of yoga and its philosophy
  • Key texts
  • The different types of traditional and contemporary yoga
  • How yoga is practiced today
woman rolling out her yoga mat

What is yoga?

This is a big question with a subjective and ever-evolving answer.

In short, yoga is the practice of self-inquiry and contemplation as a means to develop one’s self and raise consciousness or reach liberation.

But this isn’t what we necessarily see in your common yoga studio. Yoga has evolved and changed over time.

Yoga sets itself apart from most other movement modalities in its study of the self and our relationship to a higher power greater than ourselves. Some yogic teachings frame this so that we are but a mere wave in a vast ocean. One and the same but entirely unique.

You won’t find these teaching in other movement systems such as Pilates. Yoga is considered to be a spiritual practice, although some view it as an entirely physical practice.

Contemporary yoga, however, has latched onto the body.  One small strand of yoga is that of the body and its use as a tool for self-development.

Asana (physical postures) is now the predominant form of practice, and it has become somewhat synonymous with yoga in the modern sphere.

woman standing in tree pose on a yoga mat

What is yoga – literally?

The word yoga from the Sanskrit language comes from the root yuj which has many meanings. The most common in relation to yoga includes “to join” or “to unite”.

What is yoga – the history in brief

Yoga originated in India.

There is no definitive beginning to yoga. In fact, we have little information as to how long people have been practicing yoga, but we do have information about when it started to be referred to and recorded.

While some believe that the first evidence of yoga was with the Indus Valley Seal, there is nothing to suggest that this is related to yoga.

Ideas of Buddhism and Hinduism were beginning to take shape around 500 BCE and 200 BCE. The references to yoga found around this time were very different from what we now consider yoga.

The earliest mentions of yoga are in the Vedas, which are sacred texts. The Vedas are a collection of hymns written by Brahmins. The teachings of yoga in this period were categorized by rituals. At this time, yogis would have been renunciates and not householders.

After the Vedic period is the pre-classical period, which was defined by the texts The Upanishads. Along with the Vedas, The Upanishads outlined the concepts between Brahman (ultimate reality) and Atman (the self). 

the holy vedas book with mala beads that helps us to answer what is yoga

The idea of Atman and Brahman underpins many of the concepts found in Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

The period that followed, the Classical period, featured the famous work attributed to PatanjaliThe Yoga Sutras.

Often referred to as the foundational text of this period, The Yoga Sutra continues to be an important text on a yogi’s bookshelf, and it features in most yoga teacher trainings.

This period gave us the Eight Limbs of Yoga. A systematic and holistic approach to living yoga which is made up of:

  1. Yama – moral codes (Ahimsa – non-arming, Satya – truthfulness, Asteya – non-stealing, Brahmacharya – celibacy, and Aparigraha – non-greed)
  2. Niyama – self-discipline (Saucha – cleanliness, Santosha, contentment, discipline, Svadhyaya – self-study, Isvara Pranidhana – Surrender to Self)
  3. Asana – posture
  4. Pranayama – breath control
  5. Pratyahara – sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana – concentration
  7. Dhyana – meditation
  8. Samadhi – oneness with the self or enlightenment

Post Classical yoga saw a proliferation of asana and focus on the body.

two yogis sat doing breathwork

It was also a time when many teachers began traveling as a way to disseminate teachings within the West. Key figures within modern yoga include Swami Sivananda and Tirumalai Krishnamacharya.

Since the beginning of the modern period, yoga has gained popularity amongst householders, and now there are many styles of yoga that can be practiced.

Key texts

There are number of influential and important texts within the history of yoga that continue to be of value to modern practitioners – especially those looking to deepen their understanding of the subject. A good place to start is:

Styles of yoga – traditional and contemporary

There is a huge variety of yoga approaches and styles, and they didn’t start in the 20th century. Let’s look at some of the more traditional methods before we dive into modern styles.

Within Vedanta, there are four primary paths to be followed if one wishes to connect with oneness and reach liberation. They are:

  • Karma Yoga – the yoga of action. This is sometimes referred to as selfless service and Mother Teresa is often used as an example.
  • Bhakti Yoga the yoga of devotion. This path is of love and surrender to the divine in all things.
  •  Raja Yoga  the yoga of meditation. This is seen as the royal path to yoga and the only one necessary. It is influenced by the work of Patanjali and his ashtanga yoga system.
  • Jnana Yoga – the yoga of intellect. This is the path of reason and logic to inquire into one’s own true nature.
yoga teacher helping student in a pose

Within modern yoga there have been many schools. Most of which have been influenced by the work of Krishnamacharya and his three primary students: Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar and B.K.S. Iyengar

The predominant styles to be found today are:

  • Iyengar Yoga – An alignment-based style founded by B.K.S. Iyengar.
  • Ashtanga Yoga – A vigorous flow-based style founded by Pattabhi Jois.
  • Viniyoga – A therapeutic style accessible for all.
  • Sivananda Yoga – A combination of flow and hatha approaches devised within a holistic system by Sivananda.
  • Hatha Yoga – this is somewhat a blanket term for the types of yoga that are not Iyengar or Ashtanga Yoga. It generally consists of longer-held postures and is more accessible than Ashtanga and other, more dynamic forms of yoga.
  • Hot Yoga – Often referred to as Bikram yoga after its founder. Hot Yoga takes place in a heated room and is usually a set sequence of postures.
  • Vinyasa Flow – Inspired by Ashtanga, this style of yoga uses flowing postures linked with breath and it is often accompanied by music.
  • Kundalini Yoga – A spiritual approach that focuses heavily on the use of repetitive movements.
  • Scaravelli-inspired Yoga – Scaravelli was inspired by Iyengar but brought focus to effortless movement and finding support through the structure of the bones.
  • Restorative Yoga – This style of restful yoga is accessible for most people and uses props to support the body rather than stretch it.
  • Yin Yoga – This style of yoga focuses on stretching and stressing the soft tissues of the body.
  • Yoga Nidra – This meditative and restful practice is usually performed in savasana, and the teacher guides the student through relaxation and contemplation.
two students in downward facing dog

Yoga now

There are many other styles and schools of yoga that are popular today, which are beyond the scope of this article to investigate, but the styles mentioned do bring us to one question – what is yoga now?

Yoga is malleable and therefore has adapted over time.

Yoga is now much more focused on the body, which is great because we all have a body. The plethora of styles means that yoga, in some form or another, is accessible to everyone.

Yoga was traditionally practiced one to one with a teacher and the student would visit the teacher. Over time this has changed, and group classes have become the norm.

Yoga is now generally practiced in studios that offer a variety of different styles of practices each day. In recent years more and more yoga has been practiced online through live stream classes, YouTube and on demand platforms. This gives yoga another layer of accessibility.

woman sat at her computer on a yoga class

Another key difference between modern and traditional approaches to yoga practice is that yoga would have been practiced mostly by men. In the current climate, the practice is dominated by female practitioners.

What is yoga? The Roundup

Yoga doesn’t have a definitive beginning and it is highly malleable.

Over time yoga has changed from being a practice of liberation and self-inquiry by male brahmins to a body-centered practice for all, including householders and women.

Yoga has become less a practice of liberation, but for some, it remains a highly spiritual practice focused on more than the movement and anatomy of the body.

Yoga continues to change, and we have seen this recently with the advent of streaming technology used to take yoga into people’s homes via their computers and devices.

What’s next for yoga will be an exciting thing to watch…

What next?

If you’d like to find out more about the history of modern yoga, then why not take a look at the important historical text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.

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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