Revisiting the Definition of Yoga, Part I

C’est le Devoir

I’m doing an 800-hr correspondence course with Georg and Brenda Feuerstein’s Traditional Yoga Studies. Among the reading materials (like a study binder the size of a small child) is the book The Yoga Tradition: Its History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice.

I’m reading a part where Georg is talking about the etymology and connotations of yoga. Among the ever-popular definitions of “to yoke” and “union”, yoga also means “conjunction of stars,” “grammatical rule,” “endeavor”, “occupation,” “team,” “means,” “aggregate,”, etc.

I was immediately drawn to the meaning “endeavor”. I like that definition a lot, which defines as “to exert oneself to do or effect something; make an effort; strive.” It’s from the Middle English endeveren, from the phrase putten in devoir to make an effort, assume responsibility; and Ancient French se mettre en deveir.

If you’ve ever studied French, you may have dreaded the word devoir, but there’s no other way to learn something like 52 ways to conjugate all those verbs.

I like the concept of doing your homework and striving for something. I mean, I don’t always *like* putting in the effort and doing the homework, or doing the work. But, since I’m on this path, where there’s bound to be traffic jam, uncourteous drivers, detours, potholes, and bad road signage, it’s a good reminder for myself that I am not here to only pick flowers on a red cushy carpet.

I also like that the dictionary defines endeavor as an attempt, an effort to strive for something. It does not say the End, the Destination. In his workshop this past weekend, Tias Little stressed many times over that there is no “there”. You do not simply “achieve” a pose. You might be *in* it, and by in, I mean, the observing, the noticing, the development of sensory skills.

The prefix en means “to cause to be in”. My interpretation is that there is a deliberate intention here. There’s awareness. That’s the se mettre part, the putting of oneself in it. There’s willingness.

C’est l’ Exploration

Last week, I started another Yoga for Newbies series, and in the very first class, a student asked straight up, “What is Yoga?” I was taken aback for 2 seconds, because that is a big question, but I’m glad she brought it up, because it’s that sense of inquiry that makes a yoga class … well, yoga. (Inquiry is really what yoga is about, but that’s another topic).

I gave the classical definition from everyone’s “starter yoga definition”: Patanjali’s, that yoga = citta vrtti nirodha. We were moments from savasana, and I said that one thing yoga helps us is how to deal with the chatter in our mind, the kind that, even if you don’t invite it, shows up anyway.

When I learned this definition for the first time, I thought this was it, that I had cracked the code, that I had discovered what yoga is. But no, time would eventually teach me about other mentions and interpretations of yoga in the Upanishad, and the Mahabharata, and people like Vyasa and Shankara. And I know it doesn’t end there. The exploration has just begun.

And of course, it is not really about who said what. It’s useful, for sure, to know intellectually, to be informed and educated, but the real deal doesn’t happen until I actually check it out for myself, in the “real” world, where traffic jams happen every day. As Tias Little said today: “It’s one thing to fill up notebooks with notes, it’s another to actualize the teaching.” The emphasis here is the verb *act*.

So, guys and girls, there’s another contribution to the question “What is Yoga.” Tune in next week for part II. In the mean time, what the heck is “grammatical rules?” I mean, really?