People flock to studios and gyms to practice spiritual gymnastics, yet yoga ultimately has little to do with exercise. That’s a western adaptation. And of course it’s popular because westerners like to be in shape, which is not news to most Indians.
Not about exercise?
Yoga is about concentration, separation, isolation and not union. It's not about joining the mind-body, but about transcending the mind-body problem.
The yoga text that’s most widely read in the west is the Yoga Surtras of Patañjali. The most quoted sutra in this text is the second sutra, which says that “yoga is the cessation of the modifications of the mind-stuff”.
Prepare Yourself! For meditation...
Yoga is meant to be read as “concentration”, not “union”. The exercises are just like the other instructions in the sutras about ethics. They’re designed to prepare the student for meditation. Patañjali believed the higher self is divine versus the mind-stuff and the body, which is constantly changing and subject to laws of nature. During yoga meditation the student is supposed to concentrate on an object, a mantra, or an idea to isolate the higher self from the mind-stuff and the body. By isolating the divine, higher self the yogi transcends the burdening, distracting worldly body and mind-stuff.
The word “yoga” is often translated as “union” or “yoke” from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning both of those things. I can Google “yoga” and hear all day long about new-age translations, and technically they will be correct. But, yoga is actually one of six Indian philosophical schools. Each school has a different – sometimes just slightly different – view of reality and how the student engages reality. Patañjali's sutras explain how to do this and exercise is but a small part of the equation.
So, how do I cease this mind-stuff?
The deeper I go down the yoga rabbit hole the more I discover. When I first read the “concentration” translation months ago it didn’t take because it was too much to swallow. After all, I’d known yoga to be about union of mind and body for over a decade. I recall an old yoga friend telling me this in 2005 and I blew him off. I liked the fluffy translation better.
Ultimately, what allowed me to be receptive to the truth was my yoga practice. It’s evolved. Now I meditate regularly, which is the freaking point of all those spiritual gymnastics. It might be fair to say that yoga is a melding of both “yoke” and “concentration” because I had to yoke the mind-stuff to be humble to concentration. And now I’m able to pay attention to the academic translators.