Yoga is a time-tested process for experiencing our universal spiritual essence and harmonizing with it–a harmonization that can bring physical health benefits as well. Within the spiritual process of yoga, as outlined in Patanjali’s classic treatise, the Yoga-Sutra, physical postures, called asanas, are the third among the eight limbs of yoga. For a cricketer, standing in a posture is not an end in itself; it is a means for hitting the ball well. Similarly, the asanas in yoga are not ends in themselves; they are launching pads for catapulting human consciousness on a spiritual journey.
This deeper purpose of yoga is conveyed by ancient yoga texts through the various definitions they give of yoga: for example, “sense control” (Katha Upanishad), “control of the mind” (Yoga-sutra), “skill in action” (Bhagavad Gita), “union between the individual self and the Supreme Self ” (Yoga Yajñavalkya). Significantly, none of them equate yoga with postures alone–to the contrary, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (4.79) categorically declares that practicing asanas without striving for mind control is not yoga practice at all. To illustrate how the current meaning of yoga as postures has strayed far from its original meaning, consider the English word ‘lady.’ It stems from the Middle English lavedi, which comes from the Old English hlaefdige “kneader of dough.” In contemporary Western usage, kneading dough is the work of servants, not ladies.
Perhaps the meaning of “yoga” that best reflects its universality is its standard dictionary meaning: connection. Yoga enables us to connect with our spiritual side, to experience our spiritual connectedness as parts of the same spiritual tree, to rejoice in our shared spiritual purpose: to love and to be loved. The Bhagavad-gita (06.46) declares intrepid yogis as the best among all human beings, and further deems (06.47) as consummate those yogis who link in love the finite human consciousness with the infinite divine consciousness.
If we strive to savor and share this yogic spirit of connectedness, we can go beyond political and physical posturing to progress towards lasting fulfillment.