For International Yoga Day: What is Yoga?

yoga on the beach in Goa, India

Photo courtesy of Dave Bouskill,

Yoga is much more than a system of exercises. It’s a recipe for peace.

Last year, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared June 21 to be International Yoga Day at the United Nations General Assembly and 177 nations supported the resolution. Modi said, “Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfillment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness within yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change. Let us work towards adopting an International Yoga Day.”

International Yoga Day video

Yoga: Harmony with Nature. “The film explores Yoga’s origins, history, benefits, science, spread and embrace around the World. The film was produced to celebrate the UN’s International Day of Yoga on June 21st 2015 and was inspired by the guiding words of India’s Prime Minister Sh. Narendra Modi from his speech at the UN on 27th September 2014 to explore how human beings can learn to live in harmony with themselves, each other and nature through the practice of Yoga.”

My yoga journey from mat to mind

WHEN I STARTED TO attend yoga classes at the YMCA in Toronto more than 20 years ago, I couldn’t bend my back. I remember trying in vain to do basic poses, like downward dog, but it was when I attempted cobra, a back bend, that I knew I was in trouble. I could not lift myself more than a few inches off the floor, while everyone around me were floating up in graceful arcs.

So, in the beginning, my yoga practise was almost purely physical. I went to a chiropractor for treatments and attended yoga class diligently, led by a tiny, exuberant Scottish man swathed in white, a member of the 3HO Kundalini organization. Eventually, my spine started to bend and I became much more flexible.

More reading on yoga on Breathedreamgo

That was my introduction to yoga, an art-and-science that I had long wanted to do, and finally did. From then to now, my yoga practise has ebbed-and-flowed, but my commitment and interest has never really wavered. Over time, my practise deepened, and went through various phases, as I became more and more interested in the entirety of yoga — and not just the physical postures, the asanas.

Following the sudden death of my mother (1998), breaking up with my fiance (2001) and the death of my father (2004), I found myself in an intractable depression. It was yoga that helped get me out of it. Breathing and moving. By this time I was practising at Yoga Space in Toronto with a dynamic, caring and magical Flow Yoga teacher named Bibi.

namaste yoga, International Yoga Day, yoga, India, spirituality, travel, ashram

Me during yoga teacher training in 2005. Photo courtesy of Christine Lynes

Breathing, dreaming and going to India

Already in my 40s, I decided it was time to finally start living my dreams. My first dream was to become a certified yoga teacher. I was the oldest and least flexible person in my yoga teacher training class, and I was one of the first to complete the program and graduate. It was during yoga teacher training that I had a powerful, cathartic experience (perhaps a kundalini experience) and suddenly felt compelled to go to India.

After 11 months of planning and saving, I flew to India on December 4, 2005 for six months of travel and yoga study / practise. By going to India, I manifested a life-long dream. (And in India, I started writing from my heart. Another life-long dream. Which is why my blog is called Breathe Dream Go.)

You are the universe looking at itself. Dr. Pankaj Seth

Studying yoga in India was eye-opening to say the least. I realized that though I was deeply involved in yoga in Canada, I was swimming in a pond. In India, I discovered the ocean. The yoga ocean is a vast repository of wisdom and experience. And it’s (mostly) not about being flexible. Yoga is so much more than what is generally presented or understood in the west; it is so much more than a system of exercises. It is way to self-realization, to peace, to increased consciousness and connection. In India, while studying yoga, my mind opened up to ideas I never imagined.

Mariellen Ward, Kerala, India,International Yoga Day, yoga, India, spirituality, travel, ashram

Me in Kerala, India on my first trip (2006)

I wrote this post, What yoga is many years ago, inspired by classes with the great Mark Whitwell. But I don’t have the education and understanding to fully present yoga, so I asked Dr. Pankaj Seth to write something, below.

Dr. Pankaj Seth, ND is a Naturopath with a focus on Ayurveda, Yoga and Pranayama. His clinical practise of 25 years is based in Toronto where he also teaches Yoga philosophy and technique. He can be reached via DoctorSeth and DeepYoga. He is also near completing a film on Yoga philosophy entitled Soma: The Yogic Quest.

What is Yoga? by Dr Pankaj Seth

In the context of the Indian civilization Yoga is a path to Moksha, or Self realization.

Moksha is itself one of the four aims of life, along with Dharma/Virtue, Artha/Prosperity and Kama/Enjoyment.

The Four Aims of Life

The Purusharthas, or ‘The four aims of Life’ is the over arching organizational scheme in Indic thought. There are teachings and texts for each of the four aims, such as the the Arthashastra, a voluminous text on statecraft and worldly wisdom, the Kama Sutra, Dharmashastras like the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, and Mokshasashtras like the Yoga Sutra. Depending on aptitude, individuals may be strongly inclined towards one or more of the aims at different times in their lives. Individuality is key here as not all humans will take the same path, and this makes for the great diversity seen in India within the worldly and spiritual spheres.

Self Realization

The theme of Yoga and self-realization is found in the earliest Indic texts, the Vedas and Upanishads and this becomes codified as the Yoga Sutra about 2,000 years ago, giving a well defined path and practices. Other, related paths were also developed and codified over this time, like Buddhism, Jainism, and later Tantra.

In the Bhagavad Gita different types of Yoga are mentioned, such as Karma Yoga (service), Bhakti Yoga (devotion) and Janana Yoga (knowledge), once again giving individuals a choice according to their aptitude.

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali contains an eight-fold path, beginning with ethical considerations for the aspirant, and describes a stepwise praxis leading to meditation. This text does not list postures other than the seated meditation pose and the mention of postures familiar today occurs in later Yoga texts as an assistance to the practise of meditation.

The Limits of Thought

The Yoga Sutra begins with “The aim of Yoga is to still and thereby transcend thought.”

The Mundaka Upanishad, centuries before the Yoga Sutra gives a very good understanding of why this would be stated in saying “Self knowledge is of two kinds, historical and timeless. And thought cannot reach the timeless.” Therefore, Yoga/Meditation.

Thought in trying to derive ultimate self-knowledge seeks through constructing cause-effect chains the absolute beginning of the world, of which the individual is a part. Without knowing how it all began one’s self knowledge remains partial. But thought cannot reach what it frames as the first cause, its attempts being similar to chasing the horizon and which can never be reached. Therefore the transcending of thought is desired because it is too limited an approach to self-knowledge.

In this regard, the physicist David Bohm once asked, “If thought is only part of the whole, can it ever contain the whole?”

Shiva, God of Yoga, in Rishikesh, India, International Yoga Day, yoga, India, spirituality, travel, ashram

Shiva, God of Yoga, in Rishikesh, India


In the Yoga tradition consciousness is understood as the deepest aspect of reality, on which all sensory and cognitive phenomena depend, including the body. If consciousness were merely an historically arisen attribute of matter then the exploration of consciousness could not lead to an ultimate knowledge as the Yoga tradition asserts.

The Yoga tradition is opposed to the philosophy of Materialism, and Theism, both of which do take seriously the idea of ‘the first cause,’ the former mathematizing it as ‘the big bang’ and the latter anthropomorphizing as ‘God.’ The idea of God found in traditional Western theology, as the Creator apart from its creation does not exist in the Indian approach. In fact, the text ‘Yoga Vasistha’ says “If this God is truly the ordainer of everything in this world, of what meaning is any action?” Due to this, there is nowadays academic criticism of using the words ‘Religion’ and ‘God’ in talking about what in India is called ‘Dharma.’ Dharma is not the same as Religion.

Two kinds of knowledge

Dharmic epistemology sees two kinds of knowledge, Gyana and Vigyana. Vigyana is akin to Science, the method of measurement, thought and since it relies upon causality but invariably gets stuck at the ‘first cause’ it is understood as useful but limited.

While Vigyana is divided or dualistic knowledge, Gyana is non-dual knowledge, transcendent of measurement and thought and this is the goal of meditation in Yoga.


It is easy to see that thought encounters immeasurability when it reaches for the first cause. The Upanishads say that three things are beyond measure, Atma/Self, Jnana/Consciousness and Brahman/Totality. These are all beyond measure because they are not external objects, they are all self. One cannot step outside of oneself, nor awareness, nor the totality. Knowledge of what is beyond measure can only be in the form of self-knowledge.

Meditative states if deep enough, give rise to a visionary self knowledge that Yoga points to, and the Chandodya Upanishad speaks of as “Tat Tvam Asi,” meaning “This is you.” You are the universe looking at itself.

International Yoga Day, yoga, India, spirituality, travel, ashram

International Yoga Day in numbers

  • 35,000 officials, soldiers and students to participate in the main event on Rajpath in Delhi, PM Narendra Modi to attend
  • Cost of Delhi event 300m rupees ($4.67m; £2.97m)
  • 650 of India’s 676 districts participating
  • Of the 193 UN member countries, celebrations will be held in 192 countries – except in Yemen because of the conflict there
  • Events being held in 251 cities in six continents
  • 30,000 people to perform yoga at Times Square in New York

Note: These number from the BBC.

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15 Responses to For International Yoga Day: What is Yoga?

  1. Renuka June 19, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    Refreshing! I have been trying to do just the sun salutation correctly, but not getting it. It’s amazing to see your growth from a novice to a yoga expert. But I met a yoga expert recently and he told me that my problem was lack of breathing during my postures. I hardly breathe! After I followed his instructions and delayed my time of breathing in and breathing out, I was much better at my postures, too.
    Renuka recently posted..The Unsung Valleys Of KashmirMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward June 21, 2015 at 1:38 pm #

      Breathing is everything Renuka! And like I say …. that’s one of the reasons my blog is called Breathe Dream Go! Glad you are sticking with it, that’s the secret.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How to travel safely in India webinarMy Profile

  2. Moon June 20, 2015 at 5:09 am #

    Thank you for such an insightful post on yoga, Mariellen. I am thinking to start it especially for two reasons – consciousness and self-control. But before that I need to find a good yoga instructor in my locality.
    Moon recently posted..Quote Challenge – Day 1My Profile

    • Mariellen Ward June 21, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

      A good yoga instructor is very important, Moon. You can also read books by great yoga instructors and philosophers. Start with the classics, like the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for example. Other great teachers are BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar, Shri Sivananda, Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, there are many …
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Hotels in Delhi: My top choicesMy Profile

  3. Surabhi June 21, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

    Hi Mariellen,

    This post was so good and inspiring. Yoga is truly the way to self-realization. I could never do yoga earlier because of lack of patience but slowly I am turning into a yoga-lover.

    Thank you for this post and keep writing. I love BDG.. it is highly inspiring.
    Surabhi recently posted..And We Complete Half a Dozen of Years of TogethernessMy Profile

  4. Kennedy June 21, 2015 at 1:50 pm #

    I’ve just realised that most aged people have know no idea of what yoga is all about. I am just young but i only heard about yoga on the news but i have found the exact details here. I have taken time to read your post as it carries with it educating details of what yoga is all about. I love it Mariellen.

    • Mariellen Ward June 22, 2015 at 11:09 am #

      Thanks for your comment Kennedy. Yoga can be as simple as breathing with awareness … and as complicated as fully studying all the texts and teachers. It’s up to you. Glad that you are interested — the benefits to yoga are untold! Cheers.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How one day of silence can change your lifeMy Profile

  5. Flora Baker June 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    It’s so lovely to hear about your long-term passion for yoga, Mariellen! I’ve taken a few classes over the last few years in different countries, but it’s only since I settled back in London that I’ve really taken the time to practice – and now I’m slowly beginning to understand the value of making yoga a part of my everyday life. I can only hope I remain passionate about it in the years to come, just like you have!
    Flora Baker recently posted..A Taste of Scotland’s Culinary HistoryMy Profile

  6. Tushar June 21, 2015 at 11:29 pm #

    Yoga I believe is about inner and outer flexibility with focus.

  7. Martin June 23, 2015 at 7:17 am #

    I never knew this side of Yoga. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Chella June 25, 2015 at 6:50 pm #

    Thank you for sharing about Yoga in detail. I practiced it a lot as a warm up routine those days i used to do acting, but with pure instructions from my drama teacher. It seems it is a whole study topic one could venture into. Am glad it healed you from depression.
    Chella recently posted..Things To Know About InflationMy Profile

  9. Hari Raghavan June 28, 2015 at 10:02 am #

    Honest article.

    Please read Being Different by Rajiv Malhotra. It will show the complete picture of yoga and Hinduism and the unique Eastern approach to life.

  10. Christian P July 15, 2015 at 5:56 am #

    Thank you for sharing your yoga teaching experience. I haven’t tried yoga but I think it’s a good relaxation practice since I’m mostly stressed at work.
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  11. Rahul June 6, 2016 at 10:12 am #

    This post was so inspiring. I am thinking to start it. Yoga is one of the best and easiest ways for a healthier life at no cost.

    Thanks for sharing.

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