“What is the real purpose of yoga?”
If this question was asked to twenty different people, you would likely receive twenty different responses. Yoga is as individualized as the yogis who are practicing.
Yoga is an ancient practice that started in India over 5000 years ago. It was mentioned in the ancient texts The Vedas (1500-1000BCE) and described later in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (250-400BCE), though the history was passed down orally for some time before either of these works.
In the west, we tend to see the practice of yoga as self-care, a way to relax or de-stress, or a trendy fitness regimine. While yoga is great for the physical body, it is so much more than that. According to author, social justice warrior, and yogi Susanna Barkataki in her work Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice, “Yoga is a complex and comprehensive system of specific practices of body, mind and spirit that guide the individual and society toward liberation and freedom from suffering.”
Patanjali taught his students the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” which were later written down in the Yoga Sutras. The Eight Limbs consist of a code of ethics and practices for yogis from the basics of how we treat others and the self, to the physical asana practice, to meditation and breath work, and eventually Samadhi or liberation. Interestingly, in the 196 aphorisms found in the Yoga Sutras, only three mention the physical yoga asana or postures.
The lack of dialogue on the physical postures in the Sutras should be a clue as to the precendence of yoga asana. Further, in the eight limbs of yoga, asana/postures is number three. In other words, yoga postures like we see in perfect depiction on Instagram and Facebook are only one-eighth of what is “yoga.” Susanna Barkataki quotes James Mallinson and Mark Singleton in their 2017 text Roots of Yoga stating, “Yoga asana was originally intended to prepare the body as a foundation for unity with the spirit” (Embrace Yoga’s Roots).
So often we get side-tracked and forget about the entire eight-limbed practice of yoga. We say “Let’s do yoga” meaning practice asana, but we neglect the other seven limbs, as if asana was the entire practice. Asana is a uniting practice when practiced with love and compassion. It is not a competition for the uber-flexible, but rather a way to get into our own bodies so that we can work toward freedom or liberation from the suffering of life. Asana strengthens the body, increases our flexibility, and helps the body to sit still for meditation. These benefits are fantastic and often bring people to the practice, but they are not the end goal of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. Of course, there is no right or wrong reason to practice. The important thing is to begin a practice. Where yoga takes each of us is limitless.
This piece is a very abridged work as to the purpose of yoga. Other resources on the subject include The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translation by Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yamas & Niyamas by Deborah Adele, and Barkataki’s work quoted above.