Yoga refers to traditional physical and mental disciplines that originated in India. The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Within Hinduism, it refers to one of the six orthodox (āstika) schools of Hindu philosophy, and to the goal towards which that school directs its practices. In Jainism, yoga is the sum total of all activities — mental, verbal and physical.
Major branches of yoga in Hindu philosophy include Rāja Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. According to the authoritative Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, yoga, based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, comprises one of the six main Hindu schools of philosophy (darshanas), together with Kapila’s Samkhya, Gautama’s Nyaya, Kanada’s Vaisheshika, Jaimini’s Purva Mimamsa, and Badarayana’s Uttara Mimamsa or Vedanta. Many other Hindu texts discuss aspects of yoga, including the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Shiva Samhita and various Tantras.
The Sanskrit word yoga has many meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj,” meaning “to control,” “to yoke” or “to unite.” Translations include “joining,” “uniting,” “union,” “conjunction,” and “means.” It is also possible that the word yoga derives from “yujir samadhau,” which means “contemplation” or “absorption.” This translation fits better with the dualist Raja Yoga because it is through contemplation that discrimination between prakrti (nature) and purusha (pure consciousness) occurs.
Someone who practices yoga or follows the yoga philosophy to a high level of attainment is called a yogi or yogini.
The practice commonly referred to as “yoga” can be more accurately described by the Sanskrit word asana, which refers to the practice of physical postures or poses.
Asana is only one of the eight “limbs” of yoga, the majority of which are more concerned with mental and spiritual well being than physical activity. In the West, however, the words asana and yoga are often used interchangeably.
Many people think that yoga is just stretching. But while stretching is certainly involved, yoga is really about creating balance in the body through developing both strength and flexibility. This is done through the performance of poses or postures, each of which has specific physical benefits. The poses can be done quickly in succession, creating heat in the body through movement (vinyasa-style yoga) or more slowly to increase stamina and perfect the alignment of the pose. The poses are a constant, but the approach to them varies depending on the tradition in which the teacher has trained.