The Literal Meaning of Yoga

what does the word yoga mean

Yoga Means “To Yoke”

What is yoga? What is the meaning of yoga? All styles, systems, and practices of yoga have the same objective: union, enlightenment, or "to yoke". The differences would be in the methodology in attaining yoga’s goal.  So, to define yoga we have to be clear whether we are talking about the Sanskrit translation of yoga, are we talking about defining yoga practices, or a more personal yoga definition and meaning? For me, I may describe the definition of yoga or Power Yoga differently than others. So, we are talking about three different things here:

  1. The literal translation of the Sanskrit word Yoga into English. In that case, the definition of yoga would be “to Yoke “. This not only translates the Sanskrit word “Yoga,” but it also defines Yoga’s goal.
  2. Defining yoga practices.
  3. A personal definition.

So, in tackling this subject, I will address all three things one by one.

What does the word yoga mean?

First, let’s look at the literal meaning of yoga, which is “to yoke.” This is the definition of yoga. You could say yoga is an action instead of a thing. Yet that is only half the story as the yoga definition begs the question of why? Why yoke? Yoke is not a word used much anymore as it refers to the joining or harnessing of two things (e.g., animals). I believe this was done for the sole purpose of steering those two things. Now to answer the “why,” we enter the subjective world of interpretation. Are we yoking ourselves with the laws of the universe, or are we yoking our will with the will of something greater than us? I personally like, “yoking my truth with my action.” Or, steering myself in a direction of my choosing as opposed to being steered by cultural norms, habit patterns, and fears. I like this idea of steering because it requires awareness or enlightenment, which is commonly referred to as the goal of yoga.

Secondly, the literal translation of yoga would be “to yoke” and the practices, style or methods would be how to yoke or the actual yoking. Honestly, I am not familiar with all the styles and systems of yoga practice let alone trying to keep up with all the contemporary practices that have been developed and are being created as I write this. Yet what should be true and a given is the styles, systems, methodologies, and practices that exist in order to accomplish the definition above. The beauty of all the different styles and practices is there is probably a method out there that you resonate with and appreciate. There is probably a book written on each one or even many written on each one as is the case of “power yoga” and others. There are many books as power yoga is just a cool or stupid name depending on one’s opinion and people have created a multitude of practices under the guise of that name. I used to think power yoga was a cool name and in some ways I still do. Yet, now I don’t like the name but that’s for another blog.

What does yoga mean to me?

Third, in my personal definition, I see “to yoke” as a means “to steer.” After all, without the need to steer you don’t really have the need to yoke. So, steering is the purpose because we are headed somewhere, and steering is the most efficient way of getting there. If you desire more benevolence, you should steer yourself towards benevolence. For example, if you want to be physically healthy and you’re aware that stress is health’s largest impediment, you would want to be aware of your thoughts and responses to situations. Stress never happens to you, this type of stress comes from how you respond to what is happening to you. So, you would steer yourself towards thoughts and responses that are stress-busting (benevolent).

You could say that you are steering yourself away from malevolence and toward benevolence. From harmful thoughts and responses to benign (non-toxic) or even uplifting thoughts and responses. Here’s another example: I’m looking at myself naked in the mirror. Due to my cultures’ ideas of masculinity and beauty that have been imprinted in my mind, I get judgmental and critical about my body’s appearance. Through the awareness cultivated through my yoga practice, I notice these stress-inducing qualities of judgment and criticism and I “steer” myself away from these thoughts. In this process, those negative qualities become weaker as my steering myself away from them denies them the food they need to be strong. I call this killing the enemy. The enemy is not outside of you, it's inside of you.

To recap, yoga means “to yoke”. Yoking is for the purpose of steering and steering is simply the most efficient way to get somewhere. "Somewhere" equates to awareness. I hope this article has been helpful.

Aloha, Bryan Kest