When you hear the word yoga, you conjure up an image in your mind. Some people think of a fakir sitting on a bed of nails, meditating, and they believe that is yoga. Some people conjure up the image of a yogi sitting in a cave in the mountains, and they associate that with yoga.
Some people see a pictorial representation of kundalini moving up the spine, and they become interested in yoga. Others go to a yoga studio and do yoga aerobics in front of full-length mirrors. They watch their bodies, observe their posture and believe yoga is something physical that brings the body into a nice shape.
Each person conjures up an idea or an image about yoga and that is how the identification with yoga begins. There are many ideas, thoughts and images that you create in your mind which define what yoga is for you. However yoga is not any of these ideas. What then is yoga?
In answering this question we come to the conclusion that yoga is a lifestyle. It is not a practice. It is not even a spiritual sadhana. In reality it is a lifestyle, for once you begin to live yogic principles in your life, there are chances that your perceptions, interactions, your mind, feelings, sentiments, actions and behaviour will improve. Does this change only happen by practising asana, pranayama, relaxation and meditation, mantra and satsang? Or does this improvement happen when you take responsibility and charge of your own development and progress in life?
It has been the vision of seers that each individual has to take charge if their own life. They have to become responsible for their betterment in life. Medicine can be given, but if the patient does not take the medicine and simply keeps it in the closet, how is it going to help? You have the medicine in your hand, yet you are not taking it; you are not taking responsibility. You are not fulfilling your duty to take the medicine to feel better.
Therefore, I see yoga as a lifestyle – when you begin to incorporate little principles of yoga in your daily routine, you better the daily routine. You incorporate little principles of yoga into your behaviour and better behaviour; you incorporate a little bit of relaxation and concentration to better manage your stresses and anxieties in life. The moment you begin to bring yogic components into your daily routine, yoga takes the form of a lifestyle. If you think that yoga is to be practised only in a class by moving your body, manipulating breath, relaxing and meditating, then yoga can never become part of your lifestyle.
Thus, the answer to the question ‘What is yoga?’ is that it is a lifestyle to regulate the behaviour of body, mind and emotions. It is a lifestyle to cultivate the qualities or the faculties of the head, heart and hands. That is the definition of yoga.
(Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati is one of the living legends of yoga. He is head of Bihar School of Yoga and has written many books on yoga, tantra and the upanishads.)