Some people hear the word yoga and they think of Cirque du Soleil performers transforming their bodies into the shape of a pretzel. Or they picture a studio full of people in tight pants and tank tops holding Warrior 2 while lined up on brightly colored yoga mats. Some people even think of yoga as a religion or a cult. These are usually people that know very little about yoga. Even those that practice physical aspects of yoga at a studio or gym may think that they know what yoga is, but may only understand a small portion of the true depth of what yoga really is.
First of all, yoga is old.. and I mean really old. Like 5000 years old. Hinduism and Buddhism have roots in yoga (yoga is older than those religions). Which may be part of the reason people think that it IS a religion; because ancient India took on this concept of yoga and incorporated it into their religious beliefs.
In the western world, as yoga teachers, we teach a very small part of yoga. This part is called asana, which means "posture" or the "poses" that we hold and transition through in different yoga sequences. And then we teach breathwork (pranayama) to go with the poses that people are learning to do, and practicing, on their yoga mats. In ancient India a teacher of yoga, known as a Guru (someone with great knowledge of all aspects of yoga), would not teach a student the physical practice of yoga until they had mastered the ethical practice of yoga. What?? What is this ethical practice, you might ask?
There was a sage named Patanjali (note: there may have been several people who make up this Patanjali fella, but one guy is often given credit) who studied some ancient Vedic texts (known as the Vedas, which make up the Bhagavad Gita) and wrote a collection of guidelines called the Yoga Sutras. These guidelines put us on an eight-fold path to enlightenment. The first two limbs of this path are called the Yamas and Niyamas. These are the ethical practice of yoga that one would need to practice before learning the physical poses, the breathwork, and the meditation aspects of yoga. The yamas are the "do nots" of yoga, or social "restraints" and the first limb of yoga. There are 5 yamas (ahimsa: non-violence, satya: truthfulness, asteya: non-stealing, brahmacharya: non-excess, and aparigraha: non-possessiveness). The niyamas are the "inner observances" or "self disciplines" and the second limb of yoga. There are 5 niyamas (saucha: self-purification, santosha: contentment, tapas: self-discipline, svadyaya: self-study, and ishvara pranidhana: self-surrender). The third limb is asana, the physical practice of yoga and the fourth is pranayama (our breathwork/breathing techniques). The fifth limb is pratyahara which means "withdrawal of the senses" and is where we begin to look inward. We have to master this one before moving into the last three limbs of yoga which bring us into different levels of meditation (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi). Samadhi means "bliss". I don't know about you, but I'm not there yet.
Who knew there was more to yoga than perfect alignment and balancing on ones head?