The word “yoga” has become nearly ubiquitous today, and while that in itself is heartening, it seems to be most often used to refer to a physical practice, e.g. “I’m going to yoga class”. But the beautiful thing you discover is that this common interpretation of yoga is only a small part of what yoga really is. For those who decide to follow this path further, you will find that these poses you may have once called yoga (more accurately referred to as ‘asana’) are in many ways merely a tool to lead us to spiritual enlightenment.

As defined in the documentary “What is Yoga?1,“Yoga is not something you can do. Yoga is who you are. Yoga is the natural state.” And yet it is a state that so few of us find ourselves in naturally. By looking inward and discovering the gods (and goddesses) within ourselves, we move closer to a state of union with the divine. In fact, the term ‘yoga’ is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to join, to unite, or to attach.2

“Yoga is the union of Jiva (individual consciousness) with Brahma (Universal consciousness).”
~ Brihadyogiyajnavalkyasmriti

Thankfully, throughout the ages there have been teachers to provide guidance to achieving this natural state, and practices handed down from teacher to student over many, many years providing the necessary structure and discipline to help us along. In “What is Yoga?”, Jivamukti founders David Life and Sharon Gannon (along with a few others) share what they have learned from their teachers and personal experience, defining the path of yoga by focusing on eight practices: asana, conscious breathing, perfection of relationship, vegetarianism, satsang, facing the fear of death, meditation, and chanting Om [Aum].

These eight practices correspond in many ways similarly to the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, considered by many to be the ancient founder and father of Yoga, and credited as the author of the Yoga Sutra, an encompassing and authoritive study of the subject.3

Often a key starting point on the path of yoga, and the practice most synonymous with that term in the Western world, asana is the physical practice of postures and poses. Through asana we learn how the breath relates to the body, and via an assortment of increasingly challenge postures, we have the opportunity to experiment in a controlled manner with how to keep a calm and stable mind when stress is introduced to the physical body.

Conscious breathing (also known as pranayama) is another practice noted in the film to help us find the natural state of yoga, is yet another tool to establish evenness of the mind. By focusing directly on awareness of the breath, we slow down and relax the body. In this way, the breath becomes a bridge to calm the mind.

Together, asana and conscious breathing help teach us how to discipline our breath so it remains smooth under duress, thereby influencing the mind to maintain evenness under similar conditions. To achieve this level of discipline and control, repeated and consistent practice is required. As David Life states, “Ultimately you do it everyday, that’s the important thing. The asana practice itself is not the difficulty; the difficulty is doing it with regularity and not giving into the fluctuations of the mind.”

And it is preventing the fluctuations of the mind that is the essence of yoga. In book 1, sutra 2 of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga itself is defined as “the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff”.4

The practices leading to yoga defined in the documentary “What is Yoga”, all relate to helping us learn to control the breath, so we can master the body, in order to calm the mind:

  • Asana and conscious breathing help us to understand our breath-body-mind relationship;
  • Practices such as perfection of relationship, vegetarianism, satsang (being in the company of the wise), and facing the fear of death help us to maintain purity and strength of the body and mind as we move along this path;
  • and meditation and chanting Om propel us to an understanding of our oneness with the universe

All in an effort to realize, as so eloquently stated by Sharon Gannon, that it’s not “we’re all in this together, but together we are all this.” That realization, that “all this”, is the goal of all practice – yoga: samadhi, bliss.

1 Originally released in 1998; now available on DVD via

2 Sri Devasthanam, Sanskrit Terms, (January 2009)

3 Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute, Sage Patanjali (January 2009). For more on Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga (or ashtanga), there is a nice summary at Yoga Journal’s site here

4 Sri Swami Satchidananda. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Integral Yoga. 1990. pg. 3