What Is Yoga?

Yoga is an ancient tradition that has a complex history and lineage of origin. While in the West, yoga is considered a system of postures, breathing exercises and meditation techniques, it is also a school of philosophy in Hinduism (1 – Chatterjee & Datta, 1948, p.49). Yoga is considered a spiritual tradition (different from a religion), though it is closely linked to a number of Eastern religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.

The word yoga literally translates from the Sanskrit word yuj “to attach, join, harness, yoke” (2 – Satyananda, 2002, p.1). ‘Yoga’ therefore infers its central ideology that through the practice and application of yogic discipline, one ultimately aims to unite the self with one’s own divine essence, entering a state known as Samadhi. Samadhi can be defined as “when the mind is so fully absorbed in the object of meditation that it loses all notions of itself as a self-conscious, reflective mind” (3 – Bryant, Chapter 4). This unity of the self (Atman) and the supreme/ultimate reality (Brahman) is said to lead to enlightenment: a liberation from suffering, termed Moksha

How a yogi articulates what enlightenment means to them depends on the philosophy or lineage they follow. With that said, there are some common themes across modern yoga practices, such as regulation of the breath, practicing specific postures, and relaxation/meditation techniques (4 – Sovik & Bhavanani, 2016, p. 19).

Where Does It Come From? 

Yoga’s roots lay in the East and more specifically originate in Pakistan where archeological evidence can be found in the Indus River Valley that could date back as far as 3000 BCE (5 – Bryant, Chapter 1). The context within which yoga developed spans many thousands of years. Much of the historical evidence of the origins of yogic practice are based on ancient Sanskrit texts which are difficult to accurately date and often compiled from oral tradition dating back much earlier.

Historical Roots

Vedic period c.1500 – 800 BCE 

During this period, the knowledge and philosophies relating to yoga were transmitted orally from guru to disciple. However, the Vedas (veda meaning knowledge or wisdom), a selection of ancient texts (exact timelines unknown but circa 1500 BCE – 800 BCE) from India outline practices that have heavily influenced the development of yoga (6 – Sovik & Bhavanani, 2016, p.18). It is suggested that practices in the Upanishads, which are part of the Vedas, which focus on spiritual, meditative and philosophical practices, date back to times prior to historic record. The first mention of yoga is from a hymn in the Rigveda, one of Hinduism’s four sacred texts. It is mentioned in conjunction with a dedication to the rising sun-god in the morning; hence the modern adaptations of sun salutation – a traditional regime of repeated postures.

Post-vedic era c. 600 – 100 BCE

After the Vedic period, Indian society began to question some of the established traditions and many Upanishads were written – texts of religious and philosophical nature. Fourteen Upanishads in particular were compiled and elevated in significance, often dubbed the essential Upanishads (it is thought between c. 800 BCE and c. 500 BCE). The name Upanishad is formed from two words upa (meaning near) and shad (to sit) – this implying the nature of these texts; each Upanishad as a stand alone text inspires the action of sitting at the feet of an illuminated teacher who can then further explore the suggestions of such texts with the spiritual aspirant (7 – Violatti, 2014). 

The Brahma Sutras (attributed to Badarayana, c. 400-450 CE) alternatively began building upon the traditions of the Vedas and another pivotal text was written in this era called the Bhagavad Gita. This was a 700 verse poem that charted the dialogue between Vishnu (manifested as Krishna) and Arjuna (warrior and leader), both deities associated with Hindu tradition.

Perhaps the most comprehensive and acclaimed text of this era came in the form of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (c. 200–100 BCE), which laid out a step-by-step guide to all aspects of the yogic path. This text has influenced a great deal of yogic thought and is often referred to as the first time anyone collated together the many scattered influences and suggestions of yoga as we know it today.

100 BCE – 17th Century 

The renowned philosopher Shankaracharya (eighth century CE) had a profound influence on the thought of this period. He revived the doctrine of Advaita Vedanta, nondualism, and wrote authoritative commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the Brahma Sutras, and ten major Upanishads. During this period of time many schools of yoga developed and key texts arose such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Svatmarama in the 15th Century and in the 17th Century the Gheranda Samhita by Gheranda, both lineages to the modern practices of Hatha Yoga (8 – Sovik & Bhavanani, 2016, p. 18).

18th Century onwards 

Yoga did not spread from the East to the West until 1893 when Swami Vivekananda presented at the ‘Parliament of the World Religions’ in Chicago, USA. This image of the World Parliament in 1893 with Swami Vivekananda marks the beginning of yoga’s journey from the East across into the Western world.

Swami Vivekananda on the platform of the Parliament of Religions September 1893.

Is it a Religion?

Yoga is a set of spiritual practices and lineages that are not categorically prescriptive to any one religion. With its origins in the East, it has been influential and in turn influenced by many of South Asia’s prominent religions, most notably Hinduism.


Yoga and Hinduism share a close relationship with one orthodox school of Hindu philosophy, in fact being referenced to as ‘Yoga philosophy’ – related to the Samkhya school of Hinduism. Much of the iconography of yoga such as the symbol (Om) are also shared between both, with key Hindu deities often referred to in yogic texts. 

Just as many appropriations of yoga have formed in the West in regards to fitness and physical practice, Hinduism has a similarly obscured development from its ancient practices. Religious studies scholar Julius Lipner asserts that much of Hinduism’s development is in fact created by a Western assertion of something called “Hinduism” being a religious practice in colonial India, while in fact there was no unified religion in the Judeo-Christian sense before the British Raj (9 – Lipner, 2016). As evidenced in both the obscure origins of both yoga and Hinduism, links to the past are historically and socially contingent on how “religion” and “spiritual practice” are being understood, and by whom, in their own contexts. Often lost in these contexts, are the deep links that yoga has to Buddhist, Jain and Muslim religions.


Both yoga and Buddhism share the belief that the root of suffering (duḥkha) is ignorance (avidyā). This ignorance refers to our misconception that what is temporary is in fact eternal, and perpetuates saṃsāra, the endless cycle of life, death and rebirth. Buddhism and yoga therefore are closely linked and the parallels are clear when considering that the first Buddha himself found enlightenment while sitting in a lotus position, meditating under the Bodhi tree.


In Jainism, the term yoga has carried many meanings. At first, yoga meant the interaction of karma, or how our actions affect what happens in our lives.  This then developed with the ensuing Upanishads to mean spiritual practices such as moral constraint or meditation. As Jainism evolved, so too did the term yoga, eventually aligning with much of globalised interpretation summed up in breathing exercises and physical postures (10 – Chapple, 2015). Jainism is based on three central concepts known as ratnatraya (the triple gems of Jainism) — the right faith (Samyak Darshana), right knowledge (Samyak Gyana) and right conduct (Samyak Charitra) — which along with Shukla Dhyana or meditation, result in the path to liberation.


The connection between Islam and yoga can be a little more controversial, though many scholars propose its influence is great. As suggested in Bhat et al (2014) (11 – Bhat, 2014) Qur’anic teachings and more traditionally considered Hindu teachings are closely connected – especially when viewed through the lense of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path. Specific postures are related to the Muslim ritual of prayer, comparable to asanas and Salah, which originate from the Arabic word ‘Silah,’ literally meaning connection with The God (comparable to the practice of meditation).

Is It A Philosophy?

Yoga cannot be described exclusively to any individual religion, however, a great deal of interplay occurs between Hindu philosophy and yogic philosophy.

Samkhya & Yoga Schools of Philosophy – Hinduism

Yoga is most closely related to the Samkhya school of Hinduism. Samkhya is a dualist philosophy that posits that the universe consists of two realities: purusa, pure consciousness devoid of thoughts or qualities, and prakriti,  an empirical, phenomenal, material reality. The phenomenon of a jiva (a living thing) arises when these two realities, consciousness and matter, meet. At this intersection, jiva expresses itself through various senses, feelings, and activities of mind. When one of these elements overwhelms the others, imbalance is created and this is the root of humankind’s suffering. A central concept in Samkhya-Yoga philosophy that ties it to yogic practice is moksha, which is liberation from, or, the end of bondage to the ego.


The Guṇas theory underpins the philosophy of mind in the Yoga School of Hinduism. The key premise is that present in all beings are three different Gunas, which are tendencies or attributes. There is goodness Sattva, passion Rajas, and darkness Tamas. Yoga asserts that a person’s psychological disposition is a result of the proportions of these three Gunas, always in flux. 

When sattva dominates an individual, the qualities of lucidity, wisdom, constructiveness, harmony, and peacefulness manifest themselves. When rajas are dominant, attachment, craving, passion-driven activity and restlessness manifest. And when tamas dominates an individual, ignorance, delusion, destructive behaviour, lethargy, and suffering manifest. The gunas can be compared to the threads that make up a rope; it is postulated that all manifest reality (as rope) consists of a combination of these threads in varying proportions (12 – Bryant).

Modern Yoga

All this history, religious context, and philosophical debate, has culminated in a wide breadth of meaning when using the term yoga. In the modern world, yoga and its many influences have created a global phenomenon.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – Ashtanga Raja Yoga – The eight-fold path

The first person to lay out the specifics of yoga as a practice was Patanjali, who codified the 8 limbs of yoga (Ashtanga yoga) in his Yoga Sutras. Often referred to as the ‘eight-fold path,’ his system broke down the ethics, behavioural disciplines, breath work, physical postures and meditative principles of the path of yoga. The path to Samadhi set out by Patanjali is known as the royal path or Raja (royal) yoga.

The Eight Limbs are as follows:

  1. Yama – Restraints (axis’s of self-regulation & introspection)
    Ahimsa – Non-harming; Satya – Truthfulness, Asteya – Non-stealing; Brahmacharya – Control of lifestyle; Aparigraha – Non-possessiveness.
  2. Niyama – Observances (positive habit patterns)
    Shaucha – Purity; Santosha – Contentment, Tapas – Self-discipline, Svadhyaya – Self-study, Ishvara pranidhana – Trustful surrender.
  3. Asana – Steady posture (different ‘seats’ for meditation)
  4. Pranayama – Expansion of vital energy (control of the breath)
  5. Pratyahara – Sensory withdrawal (becoming internalised)
  6. Dharana – Concentration (focusing on one thing)
  7. Dhyana – Meditation (a flow of mental stillness)
  8. Samadhi – Self-realization (the bliss state)

Patanjali’s yoga sutras became a foundational text for most other forms of yoga, although Asana is only mentioned a handful of times, literally meaning ‘seat’ in Sanskrit. As explored by Patanjali, these positions were to be ‘steady and comfortable’ and, contrary to some modern approaches, were specifically for meditative practice. 

स्थिरसुखमासनम्॥४६॥ sthira-sukham-ãsanam – Yoga Sutra 2.46
“Asana (posture) should be steady and comfortable…”

प्रयत्नशैथिल्यानन्तसमापत्तिभ्याम् prayatnaśaithilyānantasamāpattibhyām — Yoga Sutra 2.47
“[Such posture should be attained] by the relaxation of effort and by absorption in the infinite.” (13 – Subhash, 2015)

Hatha Yoga – Postural Yoga

While today we think of yoga as a form of exercise it has only relatively recently begun to center around asanas. Modern yoga, often referred to as ‘postural yoga,’ is based mostly on the Hatha branch of yoga. ‘Hatha’ meaning force in Sanskrit refers to the balancing of energies: Ha referring to the masculine, right sided, sun energy and Tha referring to the feminine, left sided, moon energy. Both these masculine and feminine energies are said to be embodied in our physical form. Hatha yoga focuses less on uncovering the true nature of reality and more on how we use and maintain our physical body.

While there are many similarities and interweaving practices between Raja and Hatha yoga, the latter is considered to be more modern, physically-based and breath focused, while the former emphasizes meditation, behavioral and spiritual practices.

Brief Overview of Other Forms of Yoga

There are many different forms of yoga that emphasise different facets of yogic philosophy and practice, as this table highlights. (14 – Sovik & Bhavanani, 2016, p.20) 

Ashtanga yoga The eight-limbed system outlined by Patanjali and forming the basis for all classic approaches to yoga practice (ashtanga; ashta – eight, tanga – limb).
Hatha yoga  The initial stages of Ashtanga yoga practice emphasizing right attitudes, asana, breath work, and relaxation. 
Raja yoga The meditative stages of Ashtanga yoga leading from resting the senses to deep states of relaxation, concentration and meditation.
Karma yoga A yogic path focusing on selflessness action and non-attachment. A path that accompanies all other disciplines of practice.
Bhakti yoga A devotional path, often demonstrated through chant, poetry, ritual, pilgrimage and expressions of love for the Infinite.
Jnana yoga A path dedicated to philosophical clarity, self-study and self-observation. This approach integrates self-analysis and meditation.
Tantra yoga A highly integrated, holistic path; the umbrella for much of the practice now taught in yoga classes and depicted in yoga texts. 
Mantra yoga An approach emphasizing the use of internal mantric sounds for mental support and the refinement of awareness.
Kundalini yoga  A path dedicated to arousing dormant spiritual energy (kundalini) and directing it upward along the spinal axis. 
Laya yoga A method contributing to kundalini awakening through the systematic integration of lower energies into higher ones.
Svara yoga  An advanced yoga practice dedicated to the study of pranic rhythms and internal paths of energy.

Across the globe there are now numerous yoga schools that each prescribe their own individualized method of attaining ‘enlightenment.’  Sequences of asanas have been branded and commercialized, while the spiritual philosophy of early yoga has been frequently decoupled from the physical practice. Yoga continues to evolve and entice practitioners from all walks of life, and it is clear that its practices have diversified.

Chakras and The Subtle Nervous System

Another key aspect of yoga is its exploration of the “Subtle Nervous System” (SNS). The SNS, now being mapped to the Western world’s Central Nervous System (15 – Loizzo, 2016), is often labelled as the chakra system, and is present in traditional Indian and Tibetan medicine, neuropsychiatry, and neuropsychology.  Many of the practices outlined in yogic methodologies focus on nadis, or energy channels, in our body. Within these channels lie “wheels” of dormant or awakened energy, termed chakras. As Bhavanani (2016), the Director of the Centre for Yoga Therapy Education and Research, cites “Neither the streams of energy (nadis) within the body nor the energies themselves can be seen. They act as subtle components of human functioning, experienced through yoga practice.”

The chakras underpin many of the practices explored in yoga and there are many interpretations of how they impact our experience of consciousness. Various techniques aim to unleash dormant potentiality within these vortices of energy and rebalance our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual bodies (koshas – ‘sheaths’ that surround our physical body). See the table below outlining each chakra, their associated qualities and physical locations. 

Chakra  Physical Plexus Endocrine gland Qualities 
Muladhara Base of spine Sacral Gonads Integration, solidarity, cohesiveness
Swadhisthana Pelvis Hypogastric Adrenals Flexibility, diplomacy, equanimity
Manipura Navel Solar Pancreas Power, passion, motivation
Anahata Heart Cardiac Thymus Compassion, tolerance, understanding
Vishuddha Throat Pharyngeal Thyroid Freedom, communication, purity
Ajna Brow Cavernous Pituitary Wisdom, intuition
Sahasrara Top of the head Coronal Pineal Transcendence

A common thread throughout differing yogic practices is the awakening of energies from the base of our spine and the sublimation of this lower energy into higher planes of energy – working up the Sushumna Nadi (that follows our spinal cord). 

Law of Correspondence – Karma

Finally, the law of correspondence is a key theoretical framework that underpins much of yogic philosophy. It stipulates that our outer world is merely a reflection of our inner world – as within, so without. This law leads to a defining aspect of yogic philosophy – Karma – which has been misconstrued by the modern world to mean ‘fate’ or the idea that ‘you get what you deserve’. 

However, Karma within traditional yogic or Buddhist approaches means the energy of our intentions and actions – so there is an energetic value expressed in all that we do. This idea is summed up concisely by writer Lachlan Brown (founder of HackSpirit an online publishing company focused on evidence-based, mindfulness and practical psychology): “Karma is simply an energy. It’s our intentional thoughts and actions. The energy we generate now and in the future will affect us. It has nothing to do with reward or punishment. Karma is unbiased and it’s ours to control.” (16 – Brown, 2017)

The Yoga Journal – a varied publication on Yoga that includes articles on philosophy.
Yoga Basics – a very simple presentation of Yoga. Varied but short articles on lots of branching concepts. Definitely very western and modern.
Yoga International – a very comprehensive and well-made site covering a range of modern Yoga concepts. They offer philosophy and articles, but also classes and poses.
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Yoga – As it sounds, this is a comprehensive look at yoga philosophy from a valuable online philosophy database.
Yoga-Philosophy.com – a fairly rigid and theistic guide to yoga philosophy. “Move over modern posers. It’s a religious practice. Here’s what it means.”
Yogapedia – another modern yoga blog. Full of articles and various approaches, mostly western adaptation, to yoga.


The quintessential manual for the practice and study of yoga.

A part of the Hindu scriptures, it is the story of a boy of convinces Death to tell him what happens to us after we die.

An essential of Indian philosophy, it speaks at length about the true nature of knowledge.

The main text for the Nyaya school of Hinduism. Full of theories of logic, methodology, and epistemology (philosophy of knowledge).

From the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, it expands from and systematizes the Upanishads.

The real author and time of origin unknown, it is structured as a discourse between Rama and a student, on the nature of life.

A book ideal for someone who practices yoga meditation and is interested in knowing more about its roots and philosophy

A comprehensive, textbook-style look at Yoga.

By the man largely responsible for western fascination with yoga: B.K.S. Iyengar

A New York Time’s bestseller, this is a modern look at yoga as a life-hack.


The History of Yoga with Debashish Banerji – a well-conducted interview with a leading scholar on Yoga history. 25 min

Yoga Philosophy Beyond the Mat – a lecture in 2 parts by Swami Govindananda as a response to the modern wide practice of Yoga without having much knowledge of the philosophy. 34 min

Lecture on Yoga Philosophy by H.D. Goswami – a comprehensive and detailed lecture from 2015 in Israel by a Yoga scholar. 1hr 28min

The Science Behind Yoga Documentary – a Discovery Channel style presentation on the power of modern yoga. 26min

Quick and Dirty Yoga Philosophy – a knowledgeable woman with a white board will open your mind to the different models in Yoga. ~ 40min

Why We Breathe, a Yoga Documentary – a documentary of westerners telling about their experience with yoga. It may be fun to relate with these practitioners. 50min

BKS Iyengar’s last interview – an interesting interview, as it contains some of the last recorded thoughts of BKS Iyengar, a man who played a huge role in the modern adaptation and usage of yoga in the west. 40min

The Yoga Philosophy lecture from the Indian Institute of Technology – here is a well-detailed lecture from a respected university in India. 54min


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    11. BHAT, Raof Ahmad,  MURTAZA, Syed Tariq,  SHARIQUE, Mohd. & JABIN, Farkhunda (2014) Unity of Health through Yoga and Islamic Prayer ‘Salah’, Academic Sports Scholar 3:10
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    13. SUBHASH, Mittal (2015) Yoga Sutra Study, Online: http://yogasutrastudy.info/2015/01/19/sutra-2-47/
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    15. LOIZZO, JJ (2016) The subtle body: an interoceptive map of central nervous system function and meditative mind-brain-body integration, Annals of New York Academy of Sciences. 1373(1): 78-95. Online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27164469
    16. BROWN, Lachlan (2017) Karma definition: Most people are wrong about the meaning, Online: https://ideapod.com/heres-great-explanation-karma-really-means-can-improve-life/