What is Yoga? A Quick Look at an Ancient Practice
"What is yoga" is a question that is no so easily answered in depth in such a short space. The practice has so many different schools of thought and differing opinions. In Hinduism, the term "yoga" is a general one, kind of like the word "physics" or "biology".
For most Hindus, the word "yoga" means a kind of "technology of the spirit" (though it does not translate directly into that, mind you), which involves meditation, asceticism. The ultimate goal of "yoga" in this context is to have a better understanding of oneself, of nature, and of the concepts behind existence itself.
Yoga has also influenced ideas and beliefs outside of the Indian Subcontinent. Buddhism in all its forms has been heavily influenced by the concepts behind yoga, as has many other Asian religions and philosophies. For adherents of different religions, the question of "what is yoga" will significantly differ. Many will even carry out practices influenced by yoga without knowing what it is.
What is Yoga in the Western Context?
Yoga is a relatively new introduction to western culture. It was introduced in the latter half of the 19th century by Swami Vivekananda, an Indian spiritual leader and philosopher whose lectures on Indian philosophy and yoga electrified audiences in both the United Kingdom and the United States.
He died relatively young, in his late 30s, but the seeds he planted would later grow into the modern day practice of yoga in Western society. The western counter-culture that sprang up in the latter half of the 20th century and its interests in things Eastern gave the practice of yoga the impetus it needed to be the prevalent practice in western culture it s today.
Yoga in the western context associated with Hatha Yoga postures or "asanas" or as an exercise. Though traditionally there are only 6 orthodox styles of yoga, (Hatha Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga) westerner have incorporated ideas from these traditional schools of though with each other or with totally foreign concepts to come up with other styles which could arguable be called "yoga". Among these are "laughing yoga" and "chair yoga".
Yoga is quite popular in the west, especially in the United States. Americans pay in excess of 3 billion dollars a year on yoga classes and accessories. Whether or not this Commodification of an ancient ritual is beneficial to the practice or not is arguable; it does however, beg deeper questions on "what is yoga" and what its practices signify.
What is Yoga Good For?
The practice of yoga has been demonstrated to have many beneficial effects for its practitioners. First off, the practice of traditional forms of yoga has been proven to enhance flexibility, strength, endurance, and general well-being as well as reduce psychological stress and trauma.
Beneficial effects on asthma sufferers and people with heart conditions who practice yoga breathing exercises have also been demonstrated. There are also many other benefits to practicing yoga that have been touted, but unfortunately, not all of them have been proven.