Just What is Yoga?

Holly Griffin

When your friend declines on happy hour because they “have to get to yoga”, what is the first image that pops into your head? Stretchy pants, incredibly challenging poses done by superbly bendy people in a hot room with a definitely vegan, gluten free, non dairy, non sweating, non smiling teacher at the front of the room? Yeah, I thought so. Don’t worry, I used to think the same thing. I had all of the thoughts about yoga that any other spin class taking, protein eating, calorie counting fitness pro had. I wasn’t bendy, I could not be that still for that long, are you joking, and it can’t be a “workout”? Turns out, I wasn’t wrong about not being bendy, but all my other preconceived notions about yoga were incorrect, and my bendiness did not matter!

Yoga comes from a Sanskrit word meaning yoke, or to bring together. It was first mentioned over 5000 years ago in an ancient text called the Rig Veda. The bring together part is a bringing together of the mind and the body, or your individual spirit with the universal spirit. There are many beliefs about yoga, and depending on how you practice or what path you’re on, you will find your own way, but here are a few things about yoga you might not know.


Asana or postures (physical part) of yoga are only one eighth of the practice of yoga. Notice, I am going to refer to it as practice a lot, because it’s always practice.

There are lots of other limbs of yoga that can be explored, I’ll describe them below. Every yogi will experience their practice differently but adding in some of the other limbs may feel really great, especially if you’re already crushing your Vinyasa, Hatha, or Ashtanga class! Think about adding another limb to your practice. Go slow. Choose one and practice it, then add on from there.

Yamas can be described as, let’s say the Golden Rule. They’re like standards for your personal integrity and how you conduct yourself. Do unto others as you would have done to you. These are the things you do in life, how you carry yourself.

The Niyamas discuss self discipline and a spiritual observance. This could be anything from your meditation practice to saying grace before a meal.

The Niyamas are very contemplative, such as studies, and cleanliness.

Asana is the third limb, but the one we see most in the Western world. This is where the stretchy pants come in, but seriously, Asana is so much more than poses! Asana was added to create stillness and connection in the body, to keep it healthy and pain free. So if you think like that Asana is a way to stillness, and combined with the other limbs of yoga, stillness and calm are on their way. Keep posing!

yoga asana

Pranayama is the breath work of yoga. If you have ever taken a class where the teacher cues you to inhale and exhale in different positions, that’s pranayama. Pranayama can also be much more intense. Pranayama translated means “life force extension”. Ancient yogis believed you were born with a certain number of breaths and if you could learn to control and slow them you would live longer. Next time you’re having a stressful time, try extending your exhale, count in to a count of four and out to a count of 6 and feel yourself gain some calm clarity almost immediately. Just like that, pranayama!

Pratyahara is the withdrawal of senses. Taking a deeper look at yourself without all the noise of the outside world. Basically, close Instagram for a few minutes and check in. What comes up for you if you sit still and breathe. Just observe your thoughts without judgment.

Dharana follows Pratyahara perfectly. When you have cleared away the outside noise and have the attention to focus, dharana says to focus on one thing. Anything. A sound, a photo, a deity, a thought, but just one. Spend time with your breath and your one thing, even a mantra works here. This will bring you closer to meditation.

Dhyana or meditation takes away that single minded focus and turns it into stillness. A solid flow or force of stillness and calm for a long period of time. If this is a challenge for you, I hear that. Most humans find it hard to “clear” the mind of all thoughts. Start simple, try two minutes, set a timer, sit up tall and breathe and as thoughts come up, acknowledge and let them go. Eventually you will train your mind and body that you are not open to thoughts, worries, or even visuals in these moments and stillness will come.

Samadhi, or as I like to think of it as “pure enlightenment” is the most challenging. You think chatarunga is hard, try being interconnected with all beings. Listen, I’m still trying. Working toward peace, understanding and joy as a goal isn’t a bad idea, but don’t get stressed out if you have a hard time getting blissed out. This is very common. Take it step by step, and live your life the best way you know how. It’s a process, a practice, not a race to enlightenment.

These other limbs or practices of yoga all connect, did you notice that? Everything working together like a well oiled machine to keep you calm, happy, healthy, and joyful. So the next time you get to choose between happy hour or yoga...think about how that hour of yoga may be the happiest of your life, throw on the yoga pants you only wear to the grocery store (we see you!) and you can always wine’d down after class with your pals! Namaste yogis!

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