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What Is Yoga?

By S Garden
Updated May 23, 2024
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Depending on perspective and location, yoga can be a spiritual discipline and form or religious meditation, an exercise practice, or a bit of both. It is usually recognized as a set of incrementally difficult stretches that blend muscular flexibility with deep breathing, and there are several different variations each with different goals. In much of the West, it's thought of as a form of exercise; classes are frequently offered by gyms and fitness centers, and most attendees participate as a way to improve their strength and cardiovascular health. Some also like the peacefulness and the focus on deep breaths and calming the body. The practice originated in India as a means of religious meditation, and that dynamic of the practice can be equally if not more important for many of the most serious devotees. A lot depends on perspective and approach.


No one is entirely sure when or where the practice began, although it's widely believed to have originated in India. The Yoga Sutra by Patanjali, a 2,000 year old work, is the first written mention of the practice. Previous to this, it was an oral tradition passed from person to person. The practice continues to be most popular in India. The religious elite may have made the discipline famous, but as a form of meditation it is available to all. It is most commonly associated with Hinduism and is often used as a tool or essential element in clearing the mind to communicate with and be receptive to the spiritual realms embraced by that faith tradition.

Philosophy and Religious Aspect


The practice is an important part of the Hindu faith. Hinduism is based primarily on a set of sacred texts known as the Vedas, but also includes six distinct schools of thought — one of which is yoga. In a very general sense, practitioners of this variety of stretching and meditation are attempting to control their senses, their minds, and their bodies in order to being them in line with the purity needed for moksha, which is usually thought of as a oneness with the Divine or the Supreme Being embraced by the faithful.

As an Exercise Discipline

Particularly in the West, many of the people who participate in yoga or who attend classes don’t do so as a means of religious practice. Many appreciate the spiritual aspects and find some benefit in the meditative nature of the exercises, but those who aren’t Hindus aren’t usually trying to use the stretches and poses for the same end goals, which necessarily alters the core definition of what the practice is.

Primary Variations

There are many different schools of traditional practice, all of which have their own unique poses and philosophies. Below are five of the most common, although schools and paths have been established with many different variations that aren't listed here. Some are even based on a particular instructor's habits and teachings. All can be used either as sacred practice or as exercise, and are often available as classes or in group settings. People who are familiar with the core teachings can of course also practice independently. Those who are looking for more formal classes are usually wise to familiarize themselves with some of the core variations in order to find a course that meets their needs.


Hatha is a very popular variety, and one that has been commonly taught for years. The main focus is usually on perfecting the mind by way of perfecting the body. Many asanas, or moments of sitting still, are used; breathing techniques and meditations are also central.

Ashtanga is a type of hatha yoga. Meaning "eight limbed yoga," it consists of postures using the different limbs. Like all yoga, ashtanga is based on principles and is a mental and spiritual exercise as much as it is a physical one.

Kundalini is centered on awakening and focusing what is known as kundalini energy. In most of the literature, kundalini energy is most easily compared to life energy that lies dormant in the body. It is commonly represented by a coiled snake.

Mantra practitioners primarily devote themselves to calming the mind and body through the use of words and sounds. The well-known "om" chant is commonly heard in this school.

Tantra is known by way of its focus on sexual spirituality. Practitioners also focus on kundalini energy, although their intent for awakening it is usually much different from the Kundalini practice.

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Discussion Comments
By TreeMan — On Sep 10, 2012

@sevenseas - Good points. I was actually reading a story a while back about a guy who had completely changed his life by doing yoga.

He was in a war, Vietnam I think, and was wounded. He lost a lot of his ability to walk and gave up trying to recover. He eventually gained a lot of weight and lost even more movement. At one point, he decided enough was enough and contacted a former professional wrestler who had started an extreme yoga program.

The guy worked really hard and eventually gained his whole life back. He went from not being able to move without crutches to running full speed and doing handstands. I think it is just a testament to what yoga and hard work can accomplish.

By jcraig — On Sep 09, 2012

@kentuckycat - Even though I'm personally not a fan of doing yoga, I would agree with you that everyone should give it at least one try.

I started an exercise routine several months ago where they recommended you do yoga once a week. I had never done it before but was willing to give it a try. Like you, I found I was kind of good at it. I even did feel very relaxed when it was all over.

In the end, though, I thought it took too long to do, and I felt out of place in the yoga classes. Now I just run or do some sort of cardio exercise in its place.

By kentuckycat — On Sep 08, 2012
I didn't realize there were so many different types of yoga to do. Yoga classes are something that I just started doing very recently, and I really like it.

When my friend first told me about it, I thought she was a little crazy. I've only just seen the stereotypical view of yoga in the movies where people are contorting their bodies in crazy ways and doing meditation. She assured me it was nothing like that.

By Izzy78 — On Sep 07, 2012

@truthunter - Regardless of whether yoga is a religious act in other countries that doesn't mean other religions can't do it. Why should anyone care if it's religion in India and exercise in America?

I would say the reason books don't mention the religious side is because the vast majority of Americans aren't Hindu. They are buying the books and watching the videos to learn a relaxing, healthy exercise routine - not connect with a god.

I think Americans would be just as interested in yoga if they knew the whole story, because saying the words alone is not worshiping another god. Not to mention people who don't care about religion in the first place.

By truthunter — On Aug 16, 2012

The article writer states that yoga is best known as an exercise system. While this may be true in the United States of America, most people who are involved on yoga throughout the world are well aware that yoga is a religion.

Baba prem says in an article "there is no Christian yoga."

In virtually every American style yoga book, they either skirt the religious issue or deny it, but there is meditating and chanting in a foreign language. The number one thing they chant is "om" or "aum". What does this mean? "om" is the hindu symbol of the absolute, their sacred symbol representing brahman. Hindus say that to call this concept of brahman "god" is somewhat imprecise. But they say that brahman is "the essential building material of all reality" "substance from where all things proceed," the "material cause and efficient cause of creation". They capitalize "material cause" and "efficient cause" like people do when referring to their god. Why don't they just say it's their god? When people are practicing yoga, they are chanting to a hindu god. It is their right to do this, but they should at least know what they are doing.

What do other religions say about yoga? Malaysia's top Islamic body, in 2008, passed a "fatwa" against Muslims from practicing yoga, saying that it had hindu spiritual teachings and that it was blasphemy. The muslims know it's a religion.

I think they do this because few in America would be involved if they knew the truth. As it stands, there may be as many as 20 million Americans involved in this religion unwittingly, at least in the beginning.

By anon66093 — On Feb 17, 2010

All that described though brief is very precise and useful. Though the writer does not seem to be an Indian but the depth of knowledge is admirable. Thanks.

By sevenseas — On Mar 05, 2008

There are numerous benefits when practicing yoga. Since you move in such a calm, slow and deliberate way, your whole body, and mind benefits. Some studies conducted with people doing yoga on a regular basis have found that yoga

1. Keeps your mind sharper, because it controls the level of cortisol, also known as stress hormone.

2. It slows down weight gain

3. It slows down the process of aging

4. It helps improve sleep

Not too bad for an exercise where you do not force anything just go as far as your body will let you.

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