What is yoga?

Traditionally Yoga is considered to be one of the six branches of Indian classical philosophy, referred to throughout the Vedas (ancient Indian scriptures). This is expanded upon in the later Yoga Sutras, attributed to the sage Patanjali, and can be referred to as ‘classical yoga’.

The yoga we practice today stems mostly from Hatha yoga; Hatha is yoga of the body, or more accurately controlling the body to exert control over the nervous system and the mind.
The first step in Hatha Yoga is to purify and strengthen the body through physical postures (asana), pranayama (breathing exercises) and other yoga techniques.
In modern times, the practice of asana or yoga postures is what most people think of when talking about yoga.

The word Yoga comes from the Sanskrit word “Yuj” meaning to yoke, join or unite. This is thought to refer to integration of all aspects of the individual; the body, the mind and the higher or true self. It can be said that realisation of the true nature of the self is the purpose of yoga.

A brief History of Yoga

Artifacts depicting the practice of seated meditations in yoga like poses have been excavated in the Indus valley that date back thousands of years.
The first systematic text on Yoga was the Yoga Sutra attributed to the sage Patanjali in the 3rd century CE. It is clear in the text that the author is codifying a pre existing practice rather then creating a new system.
Whilst there is little reference to the practice of physical postures or asana, the text lays out a philosophical framework for yoga.
The second most famous work on yoga is the Hatha Yoga Pradipica written by Svātmārāma in the 15th century CE. Significantly, here the focus is more clearly on controlling the body and performing asana & pranayama to gain control over the mind.
This gives us the concepts of Hatha Yoga which have heavily influenced the development of Modern postural yoga practiced today.

Key figures in the development of modern yoga were Kristnamacharya and his students BKS Iyengar and Pathabi Jois. These teachers popularised Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga yoga respectively in the 20th century and were largely responsible for rise in the popularity of yoga in Europe and America.