Warming up for Yoga

One reads a lot about yoga these days. On one hand there is the ruckus about yoga being a religious pursuit. On the other there are ads that promise weight loss and hot butts through yoga. In between there are scholarly studies that indicate that practice of yoga can cause more harm than good. There are blogs that put out a yoga posture a day in something resembling the English language. There is a whole range of hybrid yoga that is promoted on television channels and print ads by spandex-clad and photoshopped yoga instructors. Yoga, through these attempts to label it as a physical fitness regime or a weight loss solution, seems to be on the verge of being turned into something altogether different from what it truly is.

For those not familiar with the Sanskrit root of the word "yoga," it means union, communion, binding, using, applying, and directing one’s attention to. Yoga is the entire philosophy of dedicating one’s being to seek union with one’s highest life state. Different people use terms like god, the divine, the creator, and the universe instead of “highest life state,” but at the end of the day they all mean the same thing.

First things first. What is commonly promoted as yoga and comes to mind first when one mentions yoga is yoga asanas or yogic postures. However, yoga is not just about postures, body contortions and breathing exercises. That is only one aspect of yoga, known as asanas and pranayama that make up what is commonly known as hatha yoga (the way to union through determined effort), or as Patanjali called it, ashtanga yoga (the eight limbed path to union). Hence an understanding of yoga based on the physical postures or yoga asanas is an extremely limited understanding of yoga.

Yoga is the pursuit of aligning one’s body, mind and spirit with the laws of nature in order to manifest one’s fullest potential, to find happiness and success through the dispelling of disease and ignorance. There are many aspects of the meaning of the word yoga, and each of them lead one to experience fulfillment of one’s true destiny in its own way. The sum of this can be found in Arjun’s treatise on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. The yoga of faith, the yoga of knowledge, the yoga of meditation and the yoga of action are explained in detail in The Gita, essential reading for believers and non believers alike.

The yoga we know as yoga today can broadly be said to correspond to the yoga of meditation or Raja Yoga. However, according to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, which is the text on which all yogic practices are based, there are eight limbs of yoga, which are further divided into three stages of practice, external, internal, and spiritual. The external pursuit are those of morality, discipline, and physical health, the internal pursuits are those of breath control, mind control and withdrawal of the senses, while the spiritual pursuits are those of concentration, meditation and super-consciousness. Hence, before one can gain true benefit from the practice of asanas, one needs to make progress in the pursuit of the first two limbs of ashtanga yoga, namely Yama and Niyama. Practitioners, teachers and students who pursue and promote only asanas and the subsequent disciplines of breath control and mind control are really endorsing trying to run before one has learned how to walk. Of course, this is my opinion, and in no way is it an invalidation of the sincerity of those who believe otherwise. Sounds pretty simple, so far, right?

Yama, Niyama and Asanas are the external pursuit that lays the foundation for preparing the individual for seeking union with one’s highest life state. Yama basically means universal ethics or morality, those values that are unaffected by culture, class, religion or time. These include non-violence, speaking the truth, refraining from taking that which does not belong to you, celibacy and self restraint, and non-coveting or contentment. Niyama means rules or discipline, and are more focused on the individual himself. Patanjali lays down the five disciplines that the student of yoga is expected to follow – purity, contentment, austerity, observation of the self, and dedication to the highest state of being.

The third limb of yoga is asanas or physical postures, which most yoga programs focus on. What is made clear throughout the text of the Yoga Sutras is that control of the body through yoga asanas is of little value in the pursuit of true yoga without harmony with universal ethics and individual discipline. Breath control practices and mind control practices come after having achieved grounding if not mastery over asanas. Yet many yoga “products and services” bundle yoga, pranayama (breath control) and a hodge-podge of meditation practices and market it as yoga.

There is definitely a lot of good that be found in pursuing physical fitness, mental concentration and stress reduction through yoga as it is promoted. However, in the process one loses out on the true benefit of yoga, which is overcoming and dispelling ignorance and gaining access to the highest potential that lies within us.

We are standing at a critical juncture of our civilization where morality and individual discipline are being corrupted by what is commonly perceived as the modern way of life. The practice of Yama and Niyama allow one to develop centeredness and integrity, with the power of which one can live a life of true meaning in a difficult age. This will allow us to make lasting contribution to building a society that respects the gifts of life, nature, and the environment, a society that pursues value creation for all its stakeholders, and a society that cherishes happiness above pleasure.

If you are a student, a practitioner, or a teacher of yoga, or just contemplating taking up yoga as a pursuit, remember to warm up with Yama and Niyama before commencing on a program of yoga asanas and pranayama. This will ensure that you get the fullest benefit from your practice and spread light to all whose paths cross yours.


  1. that was a brief information and history on yoga..
    and to mention, nowadays people learns yoga to earn abroad :)
    yoga is an art i believe

  2. Great article, really informative. Must have taken quite some time to research! You are right Yoga has been commercialized into a commodity to be sold in the marketplace. It is used most often as a weight loss exercise by middle and upper middle class women with not much of a result! I hope good sense will prevail and people start practicing it the way it was meant to be.

  3. @Deepak - In many senses, we owe the west a debt of gratitude for encouraging the rediscovery of yoga, but yes, in the process, a lot of the essence of yoga has been diluted.

    @Editor's Choice - Really glad you liked it, Dr. Ramesh. Much of the information really goes back to my years of studying Yoga and the Tantras in my youth, so all I needed to do was crosscheck that what I was saying was not wrong. :)

  4. Good post. I was seriously thinking of hitting the gym but I need mental calming too. So I guess I'll try Yoga. I am a tad overweight an so I assume it is not going to be a cakewalk.

  5. Anonymous11:55 AM

    wow. that was some information. didn't know anything.

  6. what an informative post! You are obviously one who practices yoga, teaches too?

  7. Good article. Have you read ElephantJournal.com? Great yoga section....

  8. Anonymous5:06 AM

    good post and useful information
    i didn't know most of the things about yoga


  9. it is true that yama,niyama come b4 asans,but tell that to the average enthusiast &see him running

    u have given much needed info on d topic...i was astounded to read about such variations of Yoga like "hot yoga" etc...so in order to put back some sanity into it i wrote a post precisely for such beginners...here is the link http://jeeteraho.blogspot.com/2011/03/fit-and-fine-with-yoga-in-line.html

  10. Very informative post on Yoga ,, sadly i dnt do yoga :(, need to do it tough :)

    plz do visit my poetry link :

  11. It would have been so nice if Yama and Niyama were results of Asana & Pranayama.. ha ha..

    After years of struggle with Asanas, I am learning to accept the depth of Yama and Niyama. Patanjali should have clearly stated that these are the "System Requirements" before installing Asanas.

    Well, like the Irish say, "No matter how long you go on a wrong road, turn back." So I am starting now on the 1st step :-)

    I am happy that you chose to write on this topic. Would be more happy if you start teaching :-)

  12. that was quite an informative blog ..

    i myself is practicing yoga from quite a while now...so loved this post on yoga...

  13. @Arun - For mental focus and weight control, the best practice for someone in otherwise good health would be to do slow and deliberate Surya Namaskar for as many rounds as you feel comfortable followed by internal visualization of the cycle while in shavasana. This may not be good advice for people with chronic back pain, sciatica, dizziness, and extreme hypertension. Check with a qualified yoga instructor prior to commencing any practice.

    @factsandnonsense - Thanks, DG, now you have this information, I am sure you will apply it and you will transform lives in your own special way.

    @LifeUnordinary - Thanks for dropping by and leaving your comment, Gayathri. I have been trying to be a good student of yoga, and trying to be a good student of yoga, and trying to be a good student of yoga. I am determined to succeed. Jokes apart, I was fortunate to have spent a great deal of time trying to understand the way of yoga and tantra under the guidance of Swami Satyananda Saraswati of Bihar School of Yoga in the mid-80s. Still trying. :)

  14. @Braja - I love ElephantJournal, and some of my opening remarks are actually based on what I read out there.

    @Chirag - Glad you found something new about yoga here.

    @Indu - A big thanks for sharing that hidden gem. Yoga today needs us just as much as we need yoga.

  15. @Saikat - You may not be aware of it, Saikat, but all of us do yoga in our own destined ways. Don't worry. When you are called, you will answer.

    @Satish - I am happy to get this first ever comment from one of the first ever followers of Subho's Jejune Diet. The six years of waiting was not in vain. I like the system requirement analogy. Thanks for sharing the Irish saying too, it is lovely, and so true. Learners are teachers learning lessons. Teachers are learners revising lessons.

  16. Anonymous9:21 AM

    I practiced yoga for a while in a gym here and the english lady was a certified yoga professional. This article should be linked with NY Times post (which ridiculed yoga as unhealthy and dangerous) so that people understand, it is not only about Asanas and postures...it is much more than that.

    ~ Chintan

    1. Apologies for the delay in replying to your comment, Chintan. This article was really written in response to the NYT article and some other blog posts that brought yoga down to the level of a tighter butt program.

  17. I have a slightly different take on this issue. Yes, the information you disseminated is correct. I have researched this subject deeply. This is my personal opinion that self-actualization is the highest need of human beings. Not every person will reach that level hence to be deprived of yoga's benefits because you have to begin with yama and niyama would not be desirable. I feel that yoga as a system to destress, to build strength, flexibility and to concentrate has immense benefits as I have personally experiences. Sometimes, forms evolve as times change. And, I don't see anything wrong in "bundling" as you call it of asanas, mediatation and pranayama to provide a holistic experience.

    1. i can see, thanks to your pointing out, that i have failed to emphasize the value of yoga even if it is practiced the way it is packaged and promoted in many cases.

      there is nothing wrong with either the physical exercise approach or the bundled approach. my objective was to communicate that that by itself is not yoga in its entirety. i do believe, like you mention, that forms evolve with time, and perhaps in this age, there is no better way to present the benefits that yoga brings. i also believe that the mental, physical and spiritual practice and outcomes of yoga are like the proverbial tripod of a system, that if you approach it from any one angle and start making changes, the other parts follow.

      thanks for adding this perspective to the discussion, rachna.

  18. very informative and inspiring post, good work

  19. quite informative, I have recently started doing suryanamaskar..Yoga is relaxing full body work out..counting on results, will inform u when dey show.

    do read http://annuyad.blogspot.in/

  20. Anonymous4:14 AM

    Personally i practiced yoga for a few months during 2010-2011,i felt really stress free and rejuvenated.I personally feel yoga is good for weight loss and especially for women.


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