Yoga is many things to many people. To some it leads to enlightenment, to others it leads twice a week to the village hall. So what exactly is it?

What is commonly referred to as Yoga is part of a system first mentioned around 500BC. In the Indian Upanishads we find: ‘the first results of Yoga they call lightness, healthiness, steadiness, a good complexion, an easy pronunciation, a sweet odour and slight excretions.’

Notice that ‘first’. The Upanishads go on to mention many more results, mostly of the mystical variety. Indeed, this was a time of great spiritual seekers (the Buddha lived at the same time) and many religions and philosophic systems have their origins here – Hinduism, Buddhism, Tantra as well as Yoga.

Yoga continued to develop and the next landmark text was written by a sage called Patanjali around a thousand years later. His ‘sutras’ (or ‘threads’) are widely considered the basis of contemporary Yoga because he codified the teachings of the Upanishads into 8 clear steps. Here we get a sense of today’s Yoga: Patanjali lists the physical – or ‘asana’ – practice at number 3.

However, Patanjali is not widely mentioned at the proverbial village hall. The second line of his sutras, for example, reads ‘Yoga is to still the patterning of conciousness.’ Which is fine, but not particularly enlightening when you’re trying out sun salutations for the first time.

To really get a recognition of what we know today as Yoga you have to fast forward to 1300AD and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika which was the first text to set out detailed explanations of poses and associated movements.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika clearly delineates physical practice from the goals of ‘union’. Most people’s experience of yoga is therefore hatha Yoga: a system that concentrates on the physical elements of the path towards union.

It is an indication of the breadth of Yoga to see how many different physical styles there are today: all only one step along the path of 8.