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What is Yoga?

What yoga is is a personal decision to be made by each of us

(and other hogwash that’s liable to get you nowhere)

It was recently suggested to me—by a yoga teacher no less—that what yoga is to you, is a very personal decision. Each and every one of us, he said, needs to decide what yoga is for us.

(As you ponder that question, feel free to visualize yourself sitting in a crystal pyramid with double rainbows and prancing unicorns while surrounded by a love circle of beaded, semi-disenfranchised twenty-somethings holding hands and softly humming Kumbaya).

Okay, are you back? Good. So I’ll put it to you: what is yoga for you?

Do you want some help? Here you go (in three parts): It’s a trick question. I don’t care. Because it doesn’t matter.

What yoga is is simply not up for debate—not any more than what bicycle repair, electrical engineering, or stamp collecting is is up for debate.

Telling people that they need to decide what yoga is for themselves is like telling first-year medical students that they need to decide what oncology is for themselves. Can you imagine? A circle of Harvard Medical School students sitting in a circle with a grizzled old House-arian teacher: “Sydney, can you please tell the group what oncology is for you.”

It’s preposterous. And quite frankly, about as unhelpful as it gets.

What Oncology is should not be left up for debate amongst a group of wet-behind-the-ears medical students. What Oncology is has long been established: it’s a scientific endeavor specifically designed to understand and eradicate a particular dis-ease through a scientific and replicable process.

And here’s the kicker. So is yoga.

But for some reason, as soon as people step into the spiritual arena, they get all, well, spiritual (and I mean that in the most dysfunctional sense of the word). Said another way, people lose their minds. Like feral dogs scavenging for food, they gobble up the most implausible and far-fetched ideas and scamper headlong after hollow-headed spiritual gurus as if they were wearing bacon underwear and ham-hocks for shoes.


Maybe it’s the incense, or the drafty flowing clothes, or maybe patchouli has some sort of inhibitory effect on the orderly firing of neurons. Hell, I don’t know. But here’s what I do know:

  1. Yoga is a psycho-spiritual technology designed to deliberately modulate thoughts and emotions (utilizing a wide range of techniques and psychological and somatic points of leverage) to create an abiding sense of inner peace, happiness, or, in the vernacular of classical yoga, stillness—all independent of the circumstances of the moment.

  2. The common and helpful byproduct of said inner stillness is a superbly functional and harmonious relationship with our lives and everyone in them.

  3. This inner stillness optimizes our ability to trip across who or what we really are, which (spoiler alert) has almost nothing to do with what you think you are—and is a recognition that carries with it spectacular peace, ease, and freedom.

Now, this is not to say that there isn’t a need for the personalization of the practice. I’d argue rather vehemently that there is, for:

  • Yoga offers a great many tools and techniques to accomplish its objective.

  • We all have a rather unique combination of tendencies and limitations that require a differing and ever-evolving application of said “yoga tools.”

  • The skillful and appropriate utilization of these tools varies with the type and intensity of the underlying condition(s) one is attempting to remedy.

In the same way that you’d better bring your metric socket set if you want to get anywhere working on your Lexus, you ought to use the yogic tools best suited for your unique constellation of dysfunctions if you’re hoping for a positive result. So there is indeed room—and lots of it as it turns out—for yogic technology to be customized for the individual.

BUT….this in no way leaves what yoga is up for debate. So here’s a piece of advice.

The next time someone suggests that you need to decide what yoga is for you—think: Use your God-given talent for rational, cognitive thought and consider if it is reasonable to assume that a 5,000 year old tradition that has helped transform the lives of millions upon millions of people all over the world is likely to have, not as of yet, worked out what itself is.

And, failing that, run.

About the Author

Eric Walrabenstein is a nationally-recognized speaker, teacher, and author and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yogic technology for self healing and empowerment in the nation. As the founder of one of Arizona’s largest yoga centers, and Arizona's first 500-hour Master-Level Yoga Teacher Training Program, Eric has long been dedicated to making ancient wisdom and techniques practical and relevant for people from all walks of life. In addition to his work in his wellness center in Phoenix, Arizona, he is the creator of BOOTSTRAP, a yoga-based program to help troops and veterans heal from post traumatic stress as well as BetterBox, a subscription box revolutionizing the self-improvement industry. An ordained Yogacharya (preceptor of yoga), Eric is currently finishing a book on the Science of Happiness.

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