Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In



Teaching the Essence of Yoga

Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.

Hari Om Tat Sat.

This is the first in a series of articles on philosophy and spirituality in yoga that will present knowledge and practices yoga practitioners and teachers can use to embody the essence of yoga. The articles are intended to help you to further your own inner development and thereby better support other beings. As this series of articles progresses, you will learn concepts and techniques that will help you become aligned with the luminous intelligence at your core.

Yoga allows us to switch on the luminous, intuitive and creative part of ourselves. This part makes our lives a joyful, fulfilling, and successful journey. Without it, we live in a dull world of ignorance and monotony, searching for answers outside of ourselves. By connecting to the luminous parts of ourselves, we discover and experience the truth that everything we need to know is within. This is the blissful experience that yoga can give. It radically transforms our lives.

If we wish to connect to the deep, intuitive, luminous, and creative part of us, we need to consider what yoga really is. Before we can teach true yoga, we must reflect on our own understanding of it. Take a moment to write down your own definitions and understanding of yoga: your thoughts on what yoga means to you. Then ask yourself what you intend to convey to your students. Is it simply flexibility, or is there more? As you gain greater clarity about your definitions of yoga, you will be able to convey the essence of yoga more skilfully to your students.

What is Yoga?

There are many definitions of yoga.

1.Yoga means “union” or “connection.” In Sanskrit, the word “yoga” is used to signify any form of connection, for example between two planets in a horoscope. In a philosophical sense, however, yoga means the conscious connection of the little egoic self with the greater Self. Conscious connection to something allows us to feel and experience that thing, person, or experience. Humans seek connection because it is ultimately fulfilling. To not be connected is to be disconnected, and disconnection is the source of our greatest pain. It leads to loneliness and alienation.

2.Yoga is a science, that is, it is a body of techniques that lead us to consciously connect with ourselves and with life. It is also the actual experience of connection that results from practicing the techniques. There are many traditional yogic paths that facilitate connection to the highest truth and awaken our own consciousness. These systems, such as tantra, mantra, laya, kundalini, bhakti, jnana, karma yoga, and so on, give us the tools to achieve higher knowledge and the experience of connection. They are suited to different personality types. They allow each one of us to access our own truth and to arrive at that truth by our own means, through our own chosen path. It is very important as yoga teachers to be totally respectful of every path.

3.The great sage Patanjali, in the system of Raja Yoga, gave one of the best definitions of yoga. He said, “Yoga is the blocking (nirodha) of mental modifications (chitta vritti) so that the seer (drashta) re-identifies with the (higher) Self.” Patanjali‘s system has come to be the epitome of Classical Yoga Philosophy and is one of the six or seven major philosophies of India. It is a very formal definition that expresses an ultimate aim in yoga. Though few people ever attain total re-identification with the Self, the journey towards this state is in itself very fulfilling. In fact, Patanjali‘s system of yoga is the basis of yoga psychology: the process of transformation of the limited, dull, and ignorant mind into a self-effulgent, powerfully creative force for higher living.

4.The definition of yoga in the Hatha Yoga texts is the union of prana (the upward force) and apana (the downward force) in manipura chakra (at the navel center). Hatha yoga teaches us to master the life force of prana. By learning how to feel and manipulate the life force, we access the source of our being. If prana and apana can be united in manipura chakra, we can awaken a very powerful energy which leads to the attainment of Raja Yoga, self-realisation. Chapter 1, verse 41 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika states, “When perfection is attainable through Siddhasana (a powerful meditative posture), what is the use of practising other asanas? When the flow of prana is stabilized, the breath stops spontaneously (kevala kumbhaka) and a mindless state (unmani) arises spontaneously.”

5.The definition of yoga in Kundalini Yoga is the union of ida (the mental current) and pingala (the pranic current) in ajna chakra (the third eye). Yoga aims to unify duality in us by connecting body and mind. This leads to the experience of the absolute, transcendent, higher Self.

6.My favourite definition of yoga is that it is any method that allows us to wake up to who we really are and to what life is all about. Anything that allows us to be more aware of ourselves and to feel connected to ourselves and life is a form of yoga. It could arise from having a cup of tea, as is done in Japan in formal tea ceremonies. Or it could be the sense of connection that comes from doing something you enjoy like sports or gardening. Everything we do can become yoga if it is done with awareness. Awareness is the key. Awareness allows us to feel and experience connection. Without awareness we could be connected and not even know it. So when we teach yoga, if we are emphasising awareness rather than just technique, we are supporting the student’s growth both inside and outside of the classroom.

Beyond Asana

We need to be aware that yoga is not just a series of exercises for health. Asanas alone are not yoga. They are just forms by which we can teach the principles of yoga: higher living in union with ourselves and life. Asanas give us health by working the organs of the physical body and thereby opening channels for prana to flow to stabilise the nervous system and mind. Asanas sets the ground for higher yoga. However, there are many great yogis who never practice asana. They take completely different paths to their own self-discovery. They may simply follow the path of mantra or of Vedanta (enquiry into who we are).

I remember as a young doctor meeting a young man who was paralysed from the neck down. He was dying from a disease called muscular dystrophy. Even though he was suffering, he radiated an amazing calm and wisdom. His courage in the face of great difficulty was inspirational. In fact, many doctors and patients would visit him in order to feel better. He never taught me asana but was one of my greatest yoga teachers.

Living Yoga

These definitions of yoga present its ultimate aim. It takes most of us many lifetimes to completely attain the last stages of true yoga. However, we need to hold these aims in our hearts, as the more we get to know ourselves, the more we discover the miracle that we are. Of course, we first have to remove the old patterns of thinking and behaving that get in the way of this discovery.

Yoga is a science of self-transformation, of speeding up our natural evolution. And it is a journey that takes time. As teachers, we need to remember and communicate that yoga is an amazingly broad and rich science of self-development and self-exploration; that human existence is an amazingly wonderful, awesome, and occasionally terrifying process; and that there are tools which can allow us to face life with more courage, awareness, skill and higher consciousness.

The key to yoga is awareness–discovering the luminous intelligence that lies within us all. When we find and cultivate this aspect of ourselves, we create our own health, happiness and peace which we can then, in turn, convey to others.

Dr Swami Shankardev Saraswati is an eminent yoga teacher, author, medical doctor and yoga therapist. After meeting his Guru, Swami Satyananda Saraswati in 1974 in India, he lived with him for 10 years and has now taught yoga, meditation and tantra for more than 30 years. Swami Shankardev is an Acharya (authority) in the Satyananda lineage and he teaches throughout the world, including Australia, India, the USA, and Europe. Yoga and meditation techniques have been the foundation of his yoga therapy, medical, ayurvedic, and psychotherapy practice for over 30 years. He is a compassionate, illuminating guide, dedicated to relieving the suffering of his fellow beings.