According to recent statistics, roughly 300 million people around the world practice yoga with an estimated 36 million practitioners in the U.S. alone. While yoga may seem like a modern fitness phenomenon, it is an ancient art dating back thousands of years. Yoga was quite different then than it is now, and one needs to look no further than its original meaning to understand this stark contrast.
The word yoga dates back to 2,700 B.C. and has been traced to the Indus Saraswati Valley region of ancient India. The word yoga means “to yoke” or “to unite” in Sanskrit and signifies the control that practitioners strive to achieve over their minds and bodies in pursuit of true enlightenment.
While today’s disciplines may not be recognizable to yoga’s founding gurus, the underlying beliefs remain the same. To fully understand the basic concepts upon which modern yoga practice is built, it is necessary to study their origins, starting with centuries-old scriptures and yogic philosophy. Keep reading to learn how ancient Sanskrit teachings shaped the way that yoga is practiced today.
Where Does the Word “Yoga” Come From?
Despite its immense popularity worldwide with throngs of people from all walks of life practicing yoga in studios and at home, this ancient art is no modern fad. The fact of the matter is that yoga has been around for thousands of years and is arguably the oldest well-being practice ever created.
The word yoga comes from ancient India and its origin can be traced as far back as 2700 B.C. to the region known as the Indus Saraswati Valley. Several artifacts from this period contain markings that depict figures in yogic poses and symbols associated with early forms of yoga (Tantra, for example) have also been discovered.
Perhaps most importantly, yoga has been referenced in various folk traditions that extend beyond the Indus Saraswati Valley area of India. Yoga has been tied to the traditional beliefs of the earliest Buddhist, Vedic, and Upanishadic civilizations as well as other societies of that region.
What Does the Word Yoga Mean in the Ancient Sanskrit?
Sanskrit is the language that was spoken and written thousands of years ago in the part of the world that now encompasses modern-day India. Many scholars consider ancient Sanskrit to be one of the purest languages in antiquity because its 52 letters have remained unchanged since their creation and it is grammatically and phonetically unadulterated resulting in the unfiltered expression of ideas.
It is this ancient language that gives us the word yoga. In Sanskrit, yoga means “to yoke” or “to unite”. There are several layers to understanding the full meaning of the word yoga and they can be summarized thusly:
- A yoke is a wooden object comprising a large beam and a series of straps that bind farm animals (usually a pair) to farming equipment like a plow or a cart
- Aside from binding the animals to the equipment so that it can be operated, a yoke also enables control over the animals themselves
- Thus, yoga can be understood as the means through which practitioners can unify the different aspects of their being and take control of their mind and body
Interestingly, however, although yoga conveys a strong theme of unity and control, the ultimate goal of practicing this ancient art is to achieve liberation. In other words, only by reining in your thoughts, cleansing your mind of stress, and taking command of your emotional state, can you liberate yourself from material worries and achieve true enlightenment.
What Is Yoga According to Patanjali in Sanskrit?
One of the most pivotal figures in the entire history of yoga is a scholar named Patanjali who is believed to have lived in ancient India sometime between the 2nd and 4th centuries B.C. Patanjali is credited with, among other things, authoring the Yoga Sutras, a body of work originally written in Sanskrit that is widely viewed as the scriptures of yoga.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a treasury of 196 verses that serve as guidelines for understanding the philosophy of yoga and how it can lead you to achieve enlightenment. Its teachings provide helpful advice for harnessing the awesome power of yoga while also offering encouragement and stern warnings about potential (and likely) pitfalls.
But the Yoga Sutras are best known for Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga, the spiritual framework for curating your yoga practice to serve as a path to enlightenment. The key principles contained in the Eight Limbs of Yoga are:
- Yama – this is the set of moral standards by which you should conduct yourself with respect to others around you and include fundamental principles such as not stealing, being truthful, and refraining from violence
- Niyama – a code of personal conduct where the lens is turned inward and includes virtues like responsibility, self-consciousness, self-respect, diligence, and productivity
- Asana – this limb relates to the physical postures of yoga and sets forth how they prepare the body for spiritual enlightenment through meditation
- Pranayama – this is a familiar principle to yogis and details the proper breathing techniques that all practitioners must master to further their spiritual journey
- Pratyahara – focusing your senses inward to gain a deeper understanding of what lies within you will lead you on a path to self-realization
- Dharana – one of the fundamental objectives of practicing yoga is to gain control over your mind and mastery of your thoughts and emotions
- Dhyana – only through unconstrained meditation can you cross over from the realm of worldly consciousness to a higher plane of spirituality
- Samadhi – the final limb of yoga is the plane of higher consciousness where spiritual enlightenment presides
By providing a roadmap for yogis to follow on their journey from yoga mat to true enlightenment, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (and the many translations from Sanskrit that have followed) is a must-read for any yogi who is serious about pursuing self-realization through yoga.
What’s the Best Way To Learn About Yoga Online?
Never in their wildest dreams could the founders of yoga, Patanjali included, have ever imagined that yoga techniques could be learned through a handheld electronic device or video screen but many people today are embarking on their yoga journey through online learning.
One of the best ways to learn yoga online is My Vinyasa Practice, a comprehensive platform offering a treasure trove of digital resources for yogis learning the basics or practitioners who are ready to turn their passion for yoga into a career teaching others.
From 200-hour and 300-hour online teacher training programs to certifications in meditation, breathwork, and other specializations, My Vinyasa Practice offers a full catalog of online courses covering a variety of topics. All of these offerings are grounded in ancient Sanskrit teachings including Patanjali’s Eight Limbs of Yoga to teach students the fundamental philosophies behind the techniques.
Another resource offered by My Vinyasa Practice is its YouTube channel (nearly 10,000 subscribers and counting) where you can find over a hundred videos containing tutorials, lectures, and counseling sessions.
For many practitioners, yoga is a form of recreation or a means of decompressing from the stresses of everyday life. But to truly reap its profound benefits requires a deeper understanding of the centuries-old philosophies that were first taught thousands of years ago by ancient figures like the great Indian scholar Patanjali.