I Wish We Could Drop the Word “Yoga” from the English Dictionary. ~ Pranada Comtois

Via elephant journal
on Dec 11, 2011
get elephant's newsletter
Photo: Tenzin Senge

Which yoga do you practice?

I’ve been a student of Bhakti yoga for nearly forty years and ventured outside my tradition to study various Vedas and India’s six philosophical systems. Though my path is yoga, I wish we could drop the word “yoga” from the English dictionary and common usage: I dislike the way we Americans use the term incorrectly. All wordsmiths and dictionary editors: Don’t you agree that words should only be used with the correct meaning?

I looked up the word “yoga” in a few English dictionaries. The Random House Dictionary got two out of three definitions almost correct. The Collins Dictionary got one out of two partially correct, but at least they referenced the word’s origins, which points to the correct meaning. Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary gets an “F-”, for two incorrect definitions and no word origin. But I’d settle for a “D” on their report card because their first definition at least acknowledges yoga has a theistic philosophy behind it. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy fails in their incomplete definition.

Partial knowledge of yoga by Westerners isn’t surprising, but gee, couldn’t we expect the dictionary to get it right? At least one of them! Nope, none of them understand the first thing about one yoga practice, much less that there are four.

The Yoga Paths

  1. Karma Yoga – selfless action dedicated to the divine
  2. Jnana Yoga – spiritual knowledge of divinity
  3. Bhakti Yoga – devotional action with spiritual knowledge
  4. Raj (Ashtanga) Yoga – meditation on the divine within.

The fourth yoga, Ashtanga, is a later addition to the yoga paths. In fact, not everyone includes it when defining yoga. Ashtanga yoga is an eight-step process (ashtanga means eight) that begins with physical exercises (the poses of America’s health regime). To achieve success, a person must practice Ashtanga Yoga alone and in a secluded place—all eight steps. The first step, postures, is as a transitional stage into the other seven steps, which quiet the senses and train the mind to focus. Eventually the practitioner enters the deepest states of meditation (samadhi) and can see God in the heart.

God in the Heart

American yogis often drop the “God in the heart” idea, though the aim of each of the four yogas is realizing the true self and achieving union with God. Oh, my gosh, yes. They’re all religious paths! Now is a good time to quote Dani Shapiro, a New York Times book reviewer who said (in good humor) of My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, “Let the eye-rolling begin.” (I explore the tongue-in-cheek statement in Yoga Prejudice.)

The yoga in America drops seven of the eight steps of Raj Yoga (though Hatha Yoga, a sister yoga to Raj, includes another step: pranayam). What are we losing by dropping a major portion of the yoga?

And what about the other three yogas that are actually the core of the Yoga system of India?

It appears that what we’re left with is the use of postures and breath to promote physical and mental health and balance. Do we confuse this progressive mental and physical health with spirituality or spiritual awareness? I know many people who do.

If mental health and peace is your goal then yoga in America, or Tai Chi, aerobics, and other forms of bodily exercise combined with mental control techniques will serve you well. If you’d like spiritual awakening, and you want to look to the East, you’ll need more than a mat, proficiency in moving muscle and bones, and a positive mental outlook. You’ll need self-realization, not self-actualization.

Does it Matter Whether I’m Practicing an Authentic Path or Not?

Well it depends on your goal, and goals generally issue from a worldview. If we care to answer the question from the lens of the Yogas we’d come up with these broad perspectives.

Karma Yoga

  • Worldview: There is a singular God and he has deputed universal-controllers, the demi-gods
  • Goal: Please all of them (or as many as you can) through pious works to gain gifts in this life and the next

Jnana Yoga

  • Worldview: Divinity is impersonal, without form
  • Goal: Merge into the One

Bhakti Yoga

  • Worldview: God is personal, impersonal, and in the heart
  • Goal: Exchange in personal loving relationship God and all others

Ashtanga (Raj) Yoga

  • Worldview: God is in the heart
  • Goal: Exchange in a personal loving relationship with God in the heart

Is your worldview or goal listed in one of the four Yogas? Good, then you’re really a yogi, with or without a mat and yoga clothes, and as a serious spiritual practitioner you probably agree with Mariana Caplan who points out that “if we aspire to deeply develop on a spiritual path, and really reach into the furthest possibilities of the development and integration of our consciousness, that without the sustained, long-term help of a very good teacher-or maybe a couple along the way-we’re probably not going to find our way. We’re going to need to immerse deeply in practice, in tradition, and most likely in very, very intelligent guidance along the way.”

Yogas will work self-actualization, but if that’s all you’re going for then you’re not using their full potential. If one or two steps of Ashtanga or Hatha—later introductions to yoga family—have brought so much benefit to millions of Americans, I propose that the other steps (and other Yogas) have much more to offer most people who dabble in yoga.

Are you still waiting for the kind of spiritual awakening that permanently shifts the trajectory of your life—your thinking, actions, satisfaction, character? Then consider using more than a mat—throw your heart into it.

If you take that figuratively: seriously practice one of the Yogas.

Or if you take it literally: practice Bhakti, which encompasses the worldview of all the yogas as well as the goals of all but Jnana, and is a wholesome, happy way to live.

Pranada Comtois is a writer, speaker, teacher, and founder of Little Ways of Being™. She shares the “Path of the Heart” in her blog, seminars, and workshops; volunteers as the Managing Editor for Bacopa Literary Review; is raising her precious three-year-old granddaughter; grabs any free time (like when?) to write poetry; is trying to find an agent for her nonfiction book, and enjoys kirtans with friends. Pranada believes women are natural spiritual leaders, the world needs more of us owning that power, and is passionate about assisting women exercising our full spiritual potential. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter as well as her website Little Ways of Being™.



About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


23 Responses to “I Wish We Could Drop the Word “Yoga” from the English Dictionary. ~ Pranada Comtois”

  1. Thaddeus1 says:

    Thank you Pranada for this nice contribution.

    For me, the main takeaway of your article is so nicely summed up when you write, "If one or two steps of Ashtanga or Hatha—later introductions to yoga family—have brought so much benefit to millions of Americans, I propose that the other steps (and other Yogas) have much more to offer most people who dabble in yoga." Hopefully, the millions of people worldwide who only see yoga as a process of making funny shapes with their bodies will be led to dabble in these other aspects.

    I would like to make one correction though. You state regarding Ashtanga yoga, "The first step, postures, is as a transitional stage into the other seven steps, which quiet the senses and train the mind to focus." While this may be true for Ashtanga as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, in traditional Patanjali Ashtanga yoga, asana is the third limb preceded by yama and niyama.

    Posting to Elephant Bhakti. Like Elephant Bhakti on Facebook.

  2. Jenny says:

    An interesting perspective.

  3. Radha says:

    Very thoughtful. Thanks!

  4. Dhira Dasa says:

    Prabhupada compares the different types of yoga to rungs on a ladder that leads to ultimate self-realization (yo from yah meaning to link, like the English word yoke and ga derived from gatih, the ultimate goal or param gatim). The topmost rung is the path of bhakti-yoga, which you have so eloquently encouraged here. Other types of yoga have also been described as the way a goldsmith works, very slowly and carefully – one mistake ruins the whole work; whereas bhakti yoga is like the blacksmith's hammer. Perfection is achieved in on very powerful stroke. You are an incredible writer, Pranada. I look forward to more of your elucidations. manusya janama paiya, radha-krsna na bhajiya, janiya suniya bisa-khainu! golokera prema-dhana, hari-nama-sankirtana, rati na janmilo kene tay!

  5. Jagan Mata dasi says:

    Being that the Yoga system is huge, and complicated by nature, Pranada dasi has broken it down simply and concisely. There is also the consideration of the age – in the age of Kali – Hari Nama-Bhakti Yoga is the way – !

  6. Mary says:

    I'll be more thoughtful about describing my morning stretching exercises as just that and not "yoga." I do have a question, though. I keep a single-pointed focus and chant a mantra while I "stretch." Is there a place for mantra in any of the Yogas you describe?

  7. gillian says:

    I ll be looking for more of Pranada's writings, great stuff.

  8. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Thank you for writing and sharing this, Pranada! Grateful to have you here on Elephant!

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
    Join us! Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
    Follow on Twitter

  9. Hi Alexgloc, The dictionary section of my piece was largely a tongue-in-cheek method of entering into my topic: most Americans do not understand the word "yoga" properly.

    You have hit on the key point of dialogue on any topic: who is an authority? And when dealing with the subject of human evolution the question is more pressing.

    Actually to support my article I would quote Isophanishad, Bhagavata Purana, Sat-sandarbhas, Brahma Samhita, and Bhagavad Gita to name a few. And since Ashtavakra, the speaker of Ashtavakra Gita taught King Janaka and Yajnavalkya we could refer to that book also.

    As I wrote to Thaddeus appreciating that s/he pointed out my misstatement, I thank you as well. Of course, Raj Yoga begins with yama and niyama. I should have written something like "asana is an early step," to avoid the literalness of "begins with physical postures." I would love to dialogue with you. Perhaps more later. All the best, Pranada

  10. Pranada Comtois says:

    Hi Jade, Very interesting insight you describe as you question whether some use yoga to assuage the ego. I have seen this. I do it myself sometimes!

  11. Pranada Comtois says:

    Thanks Tanya. Hopefully we'll work together more. Good luck with your site.

  12. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    🙂 Thanks Pranada and hey, I can see your comments – great stuff!! 🙂

  13. Pranada Comtois says:

    Dear Thaddeus, Thank you for reading and sharing what you found was valuable for you. Thank you also for pointing out that yama and niyama come before asana. Definitely a misstep on my part. It would have been more correct if I wrote, "An early step, postures . . . " Bringing up the fact that yama and niyama are preliminary to asana is another proof that the yoga of Americans is far from actual yoga. For before sitting down to do asana one is to study, become pure inside and out, be disciplined, nonviolent, truthful, etc. There is a spiritual foundation.

  14. Pranada Comtois says:

    Mary, mantras are used in all the yogas, as mantras are an intrinsic part of Indian culture, which regards sacred sound as the most important element of creation.

    What is your goal in chanting a mantra? The words of your mantra mean something. Mantras can anchor the mind. Some are aphorisms. Mantras are part of a rituals, offerings, and worship. Certain mantras have a specific function in consciousness development. Others allow us to access the divine. There are thousands of mantras with as many uses.

    Om, the "seed" mantra from which all mantras are derived, is an address to the Supreme. Many mantras begin with om.

    Of the four yogas, Bhakti is the yoga whose central practice is the use of mantra, specifically the maha-mantra. "Maha" means "great."

    India's maha-mantra, according to Ananta Samhita, Kali Santarana Upanishad (part of the Yajur Veda), Ramani Tapani Upanishad, Brama Yamala Tantra, and Brihan Naradiya Purana, is hare krsna, hare krsna, krsna krsna, hare hare/hare rama, hare rama, rama rama, hare hare.

    The maha-mantra is chanted in kirtan (group chanting) and japa (personal chanting) to purify the mind and connect with one's Self and God.

  15. Thaddeus1 says:

    Yes, I agree that there is often a tendency to avoid the spiritual foundation in western approaches to yoga. With that said, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois' Ashtanga does start the practitioner off with asana with the idea being that through asana the practitioner is inevitably led to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the yama and niyama. This approach is succinctly captured in his teaching, "Do your practice and all else is coming," meaning that through asana one will come to eventually adopt the yama and niyama. As a bhakta and avid Ashtanga practitioner I honestly believe that this approach has some merit, although it is not foolproof. Hence, the issues you raise.

    With this said, I am deeply grateful for your contribution and sincerely hope that you will continue to write for elephant on a regular basis. There is definitely a real need, in my humble opinion, for more bhakti related content here and everywhere.

    Be sure to Like Elephant Bhakti on Facebook.

  16. Pranada Comtois says:

    I can see the value in starting the asana, as long as one is serious and holds on long enough to get to the yama and niyama, for without these how will the student progress toward samadhi. After all, we're not speaking of light matters like psychology, self-help, etc., but transforming consciousness.

    Your last paragraph is potent encouragement. Thank you VERY much, genuinely. My heart melts hearing you feel a need for more bhakti content. I have been mustering the courage to add my voice to the dialogue about consciousness. I'm convinced Bhakti has something valuable to add to the spiritual marketplace.

  17. Mary says:

    Simplified, my goal in chanting my mantra is to keep my heart open to divine love: Om Namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya.

  18. Richard Whitehurst says:

    Thanks Pranada for this stimulating essay. It has helped me to broaden my perspectives on yoga and Indian spirituality. I look forward to hearing more from you in the Elephant Journal!

  19. Patrick says:

    Great article, we need more like this one on Elephant Journal. Bhakti yoga question our own representation of God. It is easy doing asana or meditation to put God aside, but with bhakti yoga, you get to the point where you have to answer to those questions. To me, bhakti is necessary in a yoga practice, and more that the practice is deep, more it become a bhakti practice. I am a big fan of mixing yoga path, even though I truly believe that the bhakti marga is, at the end, the surest way to reach God.

  20. Patrick says:

    To me, raja yoga is more a meditation practice. The asana in the ashtanga system is essentially a adopt a seat that suitable for the other limbs. We need to turn the hata yoga pradipika and other tantric text to get a desciption of asana perform in yoga studio right now.

  21. Pranada Comtois says:

    Oops! Typing error in the 6th paragraph from the bottom: "Ananda, or bliss, is ABSENT in Oneness, Pure Cosmic Consciousness." Is what that sentence should read. Sorry.

  22. Pranada Comtois says:

    Raj Yoga is ultimately a meditation practice for those who take the system seriously. All the best on your inner journey.

  23. Richard Whitehurst says:

    Pranada .. I have enjoyed reading the exchange between yourself and Alex Gloc.

    I like the analogy wherein the impersonal realization of ‘sat’ (which is utterly astounding and profound) is like waking up in a dark room. And we’ve all been there .. pitch black dark room, eyes open, no longer dreaming, awake! Yes .. awake no doubt, but that does not represent the full expression of wakefulness. When the daylight comes we can then see all the detailed manifestations of the world – and in that variegated daytime environment we are certainly in a more comprehensive state of wakefulness .. and it would be highly unlikely for us to fall back into sleep from that position.

    When awake in a dark room .. lying in bed, doing nothing, seeing nothing .. ‘merely’ awake .. the potential for falling asleep again is quite high. The spiritual particle of pure consciousness (atma) is sometimes described as ‘tatastha’ – a sort of borderland phenomena .. that due to its infinitesimal nature is positioned halfway between inert matter and the unbounded variegated realms of total consciousness (vaikuntha) .. rather like the area along the seashore that is neither land nor sea.

    There are various accounts of impersonally realized beings who find themselves back on the ‘dry land’ .. where the atma’s innate relationship-seeking-nature reasserts itself and, having no established relationship with the personal aspect of divinity, seeks personal (dualistic) relationships in this realm of physicality. I believe John Lennon sang about this in his song ‘Sexy Sadie’…

    Descriptions found in some of the bhakti literature mention that the awesome intensity and power of spiritual love (prema) that the self (atma) attains in spiritual relationship (rasa) utterly eclipses the various levels of samadhi that are (in extremely rare occasions) actually attained by the asthanga yogis. This makes sense to any of us who have fallen in love here on good old planet Earth. Its kind of like a situation where an astronomer who is fascinated by the vastness of outer space forgets all about that empty vastness when his or her heart is at last captured and consumed by the beloved.

    Thanks to both of you for the stimulating discussion.