Can ‘Yoga’ Mean Whatever We Want It To Mean?

 Question:

I’m enrolled in a Yoga Teacher Training program. On the first day of the training the instructor asked us to share our idea of what ‘yoga’ meant to us. Everyone had their own idea about what ‘yoga’ is and what it means to them. At the end of the discussion the trainer said, ‘whatever yoga means to you is perfect’.

We all have our own experience of yoga and every book about yoga seems to describe yoga differently so, can we all just decide for ourselves what ‘yoga’ means?

Answer:

If whatever yoga means ‘to me’ is just as valid as whatever yoga means to anyone else then it seems like there really isn’t any definition for the word ‘yoga’ at all: a word that can mean whatever we want it to mean has no objective meaning. And that would make it impossible to speak about yoga in any meaningful way: without a shared meaning on which to base a conversation, each conception of yoga would exist in isolation from all others. It’s not possible to share the experience of yoga if the meaning of ‘yoga’ isn’t shared.

The reason we find a variety of definitions for yoga within the yoga tradition is that the tradition itself is composed of a variety of schools of yoga, each with its own philosophical conception of why we should practice yoga, how the practice should be performed, and what the ultimate goal of yoga practice is.

To make matters more confusing, books on yoga are often written with philosophical overlays: a philosophical point-of-view from one school is superimposed onto another school’s literature in a way that sounds like an authoritative interpretation yet differs from other equally authoritative-sounding interpretations.

So, even from a traditional perspective, if someone were to ask, ‘what is the definition of yoga?’ a reasonable reply would be, ‘according to who?’

The influence of contemporary progressive social culture on modern western yoga has made identifying an objective definition of yoga even more difficult. That’s because one feature of progressive social culture is an aversion to objective truth. Fluidity of ‘truth’, especially among younger practitioners, is seen as essential in order to ensure that everyone has a ‘safe space’ within which to practice ‘their yoga’.

All ‘personal truths’ are equally valid… until they’re not:

A popular post-modern strategy for undermining positions that threaten anyone’s ‘safe space’ is to liberate language from meaning by allowing words to mean whatever we want them to mean. This strategy effectively allows anyone to use language to create their own inviolable ‘safe space’ based on their ‘personal truth’.

The unfortunate side effect of this strategy is the elimination of language as a medium for shared meaning. The result is isolation rather than community, a retreat by everyone into their ‘personal truth’ rather than a coming together around a common cause, alienation and impersonalism rather than intimacy and connection.

The penalty for breaking the rule against invalidating my ‘personal truth’ is the invalidation of your ‘personal truth.’ Thus, if person A’s ‘personal truth’ violates person B’s ‘safe space’ then it becomes essential for person B and all of his or her supporters to shut person A down.

Which brings us back to your question: can we all decide for ourselves what ‘yoga’ means? Sure, as long as your definition of ‘yoga’ doesn’t invalidate my definition of ‘yoga’.

Two contradictory definitions can’t both be right.

But what if it does? Then what? If mutual exclusivity can’t be reconciled then two contradictory definitions can’t both be right.

Here’s a definition for ‘complicit’: wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact.

Here’s an alternative definition for ‘complicit’: helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way.

Which one is correct? On what basis do we decide which one is correct? Odds are, we would accept the authority of a legitimate dictionary.

But if we’re all entitled to come up with our own definition of ‘yoga’ without referencing any authority beyond our selves then what we end up with is a collection of speculative definitions based on nothing but our own preferences and biases. Odds are our definition will do little more than provide a justification for doing whatever we like – and avoiding whatever we don’t like – and calling it ‘yoga’.

This is particularly ironic given that the yoga tradition universally acknowledges attachment to likes and aversions to dislikes as obstacles to the experience of yoga. In any event, one can hardly call such a definition ‘authoritative’, especially if the defining source is a relative novice at the study and practice of yoga.

Personally, I would no more accept someone as self-authorized to decide what yoga is than I would accept someone as self-authorized to decide what brain surgery is or what cosmic radiation is or what international law is or what art is or what any other specialized form of knowledge is.

How many ways are there to climb a mountain?

If we accept the idea that words have meanings then the very least we have to do is look at the root of the Sanskrit word ‘yoga’, which is yuj; to yoke or connect two things via one linking force. From this we can understand that, on a fundamental level, the word yoga must imply the union of one thing to another thing.

When looking at the overall tradition of yoga we also find that the word ‘yoga’ is universally regarded as having two related applications: as a description of a state of being and as a process to achieve that state of being.

We can look for further commonalities in the traditional understanding of yoga, such as the ideas of living in a way that does not cause harm to others, that doesn’t involve a preoccupation with materialistic pursuits, and that allows us to develop an awareness of a changeless ‘true nature’ that lies beneath the surface of our ever-changing minds and bodies.

Thus, the word ‘yoga’ has an objective meaning in the general sense and the details of that meaning may differ according to different schools of yoga, This still leaves us with the undeniable fact that everyone has their own subjective experience of yoga. How do we take this into account when we try to define ‘yoga’?

Think of it like this: there are as many ways to climb a mountain as there are mountain climbers. Each person climbs the same mountain but each in their own way. Each person is at a different location on the mountain and there are different paths up the mountain. Some paths are long and winding and some paths are short and straight. Some paths lead around to the other side of the mountain and some lead to the top. Different paths, same mountain.

Assigning an objective meaning to the word ‘yoga’ does not invalidate everyone’s unique experience of yoga. So a better way for the Teacher Training instructor to have phrased the question would have been, “what is your experience of yoga?”

By studying traditional yoga wisdom texts and hearing, with reasonable faith, from people whose lifestyle provides evidence that they have understood and assimilated the wisdom of those texts, we can develop a personal realization of what yoga means to us without inventing a meaning based on our own ‘personal truth’.

And that’s how I recommend that you discover the meaning of yoga for yourself.

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Hari-kirtana

I’m a yoga teacher based in Washington, D.C. and the author of In Search of the Highest Truth: Adventures in Yoga Philosophy. I lead Yoga Teacher Training courses, workshops, and yoga classes. I also serve yoga practitioners as a private instructor and assist yoga teachers in their professional development.

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