What Is Yoga? by Allison Joy

What is yoga?

As I set out to teach the first class of Sutra Sessions, it was this question that was top of mind.

What actually is yoga? Is it a religion? Is it an exercise?

When asked about experience with yoga, many communicate about “doing yoga”, as in how many downward dogs or sun salutations are completed thus far. But why is that? After all, Patanjali devotes only a single line out of 195 to posture (or asana).

What does the word yoga even mean? The default translation shared by most is “to yoke” or to bring together, to unite. Some say the point of yoga is to become one with the divine. But how accurate (or possible) is that?

In researching the earliest ideas of yoga, concentration or discipline appears to be a more apt categorization. Samkhya, the earliest philosophy to which yoga is likened by Vyasa (Patanjali’s first commentator), is similar in that both are dualistic schools of thought that separate matter from spirit. Both have the goal of salvation – freeing spirit from suffering through separation from the material world. Yoga teaches the path of meditation to achieve this freedom while Samkhya prescribes a process of rational inquiry into the nature of matter.

An important observation as we delved into our own interpretations of yoga is that it seemed just as we had many answers to these questions so too did the teachers who have come before. It seemed many teachers allowed the methods of yoga they taught to match what was acceptable, fashionable, or skillful in helping perpetuate these wisdom teachings.

Perhaps a quality of yoga is its ever-evolving nature. The variety, depth and breadth of practices are meant to inspire and align one towards ultimate freedom – which could be as varied as humans when we account for all the flavors of suffering that could possibly afflict us!

Interestingly enough, since the time of their publishing around the 3rd century, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras have always been accompanied by an editor’s or translator’s commentary. Patanjali’s words are so concise, truly embodying the essential nature of the teachings, that it has always been customary to expand on the translation.

In the early 19th century, a number of influential teachers credited with spreading yoga in the west linked Patanjali’s teachings with the method of physical yoga that grew wildly in popularity. Whether or not this correlation is in tune with the ancient instructions, leading with exercise-adjacent routines helped to grow awareness of yoga exponentially.

I, for one, am extremely excited to teach a yoga class without delving into physical posture! It is my hope that we will have time to sit with the sutras in these sessions and let our own translations emerge from our shared experience of deep yoga through meditation.


At Mind Oasis, we believe in the power of meditation coupled with, well, anything. But especially community and intention. Be sure to check out our signature program Community Meditation™and see how your practice takes off when it gets consistent. We’re talking way more than feeling more calm and capable of dealing with life as it happens, we are talking about feeling the positive effects of your time on your cushion in every aspect of your life. Learn more here.

Interested in going deeper? Consider joining our annual Meditation Immersion.