Yoga: Look beyond Asanas

A call to action to look beyond the marketing hype around Yoga and understand its real meaning and goal.

Kishore Subramanian
11 min readJun 22, 2021

On this day of the summer solstice, which is also celebrated all over the world as International Day of Yoga, I like to remind us of the real meaning of Yoga. In the western world and even in its homeland, India, Yoga is closely associated with Asanas or postures and to some extent, controlled breathing or Pranayama. But limiting ourselves to these 2 important limbs of Yoga is the equivalent of settling for a pail of water when the entire ocean is available to us.

There is enough evidence, both anecdotal and qualified, that the pandemic has impacted our mental health in various ways. Many of us are facing situations that can be stressful and overwhelming affecting our physical and mental health. Yoga can help. Yes, it requires effort from our side and it starts with a good understanding of Yoga.

In this post, I will introduce you to the core teachings of Yoga. I hope to convince you that Yoga is a lot more than just asanas. As most yogis and yoginis will tell you, Yoga is a way of life.

A brief history of Yoga

Yoga is rooted in the Vedas, a large body of spiritual texts from more than 3500 years ago in ancient India. The last part of the Vedas — the Upanishads — captures deep, profound insights of the rishis regarding the Ultimate Reality. Yoga finds its roots in the Upanishads.

Yoga is one of the philosophies based on the Vedas prevalent at that time in ancient India. Here are some of the others:

Astika Schools (based on Vedas)

  • Nyaya (logic, metaphysics)
  • Vaisheshika
  • Samkhya
  • Yoga
  • Mimamsa (Purva)
  • Vedanta

Nastika schools (did not believe in the Vedas)

  • Jain
  • Buddhist
  • Ajivika
  • Ajnana
  • Charvaka (materialists)

As you can see, this was a period of renaissance in ancient India regarding the spiritual pursuit and finding answers to the most profound questions such as: what is the purpose of life, who am I, what is real and what is unreal, what is death, what happens after death, and so on. Their insights from deep meditative states were transmitted orally from generation to generation until it was captured in a written form much later. Yoga is rooted in such high-order thinking.

Over a period of time, the essence of these insights and teachings was lost or modified. Multiple interpretations took hold and people lost sight of the higher goal. It was important to redefine Yoga and tie it back to its roots. Sage Patanjali is credited with redefining Yoga and clearly putting a stake on the ground. He did this by composing the Yoga Sutras about 2500+ years ago.

Sage Patanjali

Sage Patanjali is also credited with commentaries on grammar and Ayurveda. In other words,

  • Ayurveda: Science of the body (action)
  • Commentaries on Sanskrit grammar (originally written by Panini): Science of language (speech)
  • Yoga Sutras: Science of the mind (thoughts)

The Yoga Sutras

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is considered the core text of Yoga. This is a text written in the sutra format consisting of 195 aphorisms in Sanskrit. Sutras are by definition: concise, unambiguous, and precise. Multiple commentaries of the Sutras were also written later which expanded on the ideas and concepts.

So, what are the teachings of the Yoga Sutras? In this post, I like to give you a sample, a taste of what you can expect in this phenomenal book. I have also provided references to books and other links (see References section below) that I found useful in my study.

What is Yoga?

Patanjali wastes no time in defining Yoga in no uncertain terms. In the 2nd verse of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali defines Yoga as follows:

1.2 Yogas chitta vritti nirodhah

1.3 Tadā drastuh svarupe avasthånam

Yoga is the cessation of the modifications in the mind. The stillness of mind is Yoga.

Then the seer (perceiver/witness) is established in one’s essential nature.

Patanjali unequivocally states that you are in yoga when your mind is completely still and all mental fluctuations have ceased. Why is this important? Patanjali continues in verse 1.3 — when such a state is reached, you are established in your real nature. Elsewhere, it is also made clear that happiness (Ananda) is our real nature. In other words, Patanjali states that when mental fluctuations die down or cease, you are one with the source of happiness and you experience bliss.

Note that these sutras explain Yoga as a state. The word yoga is also used to define action. In other words, we do yoga to achieve yoga.

Please take a moment to understand this profound teaching stated in less than 10 words. We usually associate happiness with material things — people, places, things, experiences. But here, Patanjali states that the source of happiness is within you and that you can tap into it or become “It” when the mind becomes calm and still.

Photo by Yoal Desurmont on Unsplash

Let’s take a couple of examples to understand this better. If the water in a lake is muddy and the wind causes waves on the source of the lake, it is impossible to see the bottom of the lake. However, when the wind dies down and the sediments settle down, the lake is calm and serene and we can see the bottom of the lake. In the same way, when the mind is calm and still, our real nature (happiness) shines through.

Another way to understand this is as follows. Happiness or sorrow must be experienced in the mind. To experience peace and happiness, the mind must be available. If the mind is preoccupied with memories of the past or planning for the future or filled with anger, anxiety, frustration, jealousy, and the like, it is not possible to experience happiness flowing from within.

There is a lot more to these 2 sutras and I encourage you to read/listen (see references). Here are a couple of key takeaways or “Aha moments” that I experienced when I heard it first.

Aha #1: People, places, things, experiences, etc do not give us real, lasting happiness. The source of real happiness is within us. This source is available to one and all regardless of our background or situation.

Aha #2: We experience true happiness when the mind is still

Aha #3: Yoga is at the core, about mental health and well-being. Physical fitness (through asanas) is just one part.

Furthermore, The Bhagavad Gita, yet another classic text from ancient India that captures the essence of the Upanishads (insights of the rishis), explains Yoga as follows:

2.48 Yogasthah kuru karmaani sangam tyaktwaa dhananjaya;

Siddhyasiddhyoh samo bhutwaa samatvam yoga uchyate.

2.48. Perform action, O Dhananjaya (Arjuna), being steadfast in Yoga,

abandoning attachment and balanced in success and failure.

Evenness of mind or Equanimity is called Yoga.

The keyword is Samatvam — equanimity, equipoise. Gita defines Yoga as the state where one’s mind is perfectly equanimous. In other words, a mind that is at peace and completely at ease. There is no hankering or craving to get something or aversion towards something else. In fact, both definitions (YS and The Gita) are pointing to the same thing. When the mind is peaceful and still, it is in equipoise. And vice-versa.

A still mind in a distracted world?

I like to point out a huge discrepancy here. Patanjali is pointing us towards stillness and calmness of mind to experience true happiness. However, in this always-on world we live in today, we are more distracted than ever before. Our current mental state is far from stillness. The mental chatter in our heads is more like a cacophony of deafening alarm bells. We are drinking from a firehose of information on our phones — Facebook status updates, Instagram images, binge-watching YouTube & Netflix videos, gaming apps, news, etc most of our waking hours. The stillness of mind seems like a distant dream.

It is also striking that the rishis in ancient India 4000 years ago realized that stillness of mind was a prerequisite to experiencing lasting happiness. And this is from a time when very few distractions were present. How do we even reconcile this in our current state?

Aha #4: We indulge in social media for short-lived dopamine rush. But it pushes us away from real happiness as it leads to more mental agitation. The key is Moderation — moderate or eliminate (where possible) the biggest sources of mental fluctuations — social media and other device-based distractions.

What causes mental fluctuations?

Try this: sit silently for 5 minutes and observe your mind. Even in these 5 minutes, the mind is busy giving us thoughts about everything from things to do, memories, ideas, concepts, anxiety about the future, guilt or regret, anger, etc. Where do these thoughts come from? It seems to be involuntary and we seemingly have no control over it. Moreover, these thoughts are not Nobel prize-winning ideas. Our mind remains scattered most of the waking hours and the result is that we feel directionless and tired.

The Yoga Sutras go into great detail about the different types of fluctuations (or vrittis in Sanskrit) and their causes. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the details. However, I have written about this in one of my previous articles — Understanding Stillness and I encourage you to read/listen to some of the modern commentaries of the Yoga Sutras (see below for references). It is a fascinating journey into the workings of our minds.

How do we attain stillness? How do we reduce this constant chatter in the mind? Patanjali gives us the roadmap in the form of eight limbs of Yoga — Ashtanga Yoga.

Ashtanga Yoga — the eight limbs of Yoga

Ashta = eight and Anga = limbs

The eight limbs of Yoga are arguably the most famous of the sutras. In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali prescribes Ashtanga Yoga as the path to achieve stillness of the mind and experience real, lasting happiness.

The eight limbs are:

Yamas: roughly translated as restraints or Don’ts

  • Ahimsa: non-violence; path of minimum harm
  • Satyam: truthfulness; refrain from speaking lies
  • Astheyam: non-stealing
  • Brahmacharyam: moderation in all sensual pleasures — food, drinks, sex, social media, work, pleasure, etc
  • Aparigraham: minimalism; non-hoarding

Niyamas: Observances or Do’s

  • Soucham: cleanliness — environment, surroundings, body, mind
  • Santosham: satisfaction; contentment
  • Tapas: self-discipline
  • Svadhyaya: self-study
  • Isvara Pranidhanani: surrender

Asana: posture

Pranayama: controlled breathing

Pratyahara: restraining the sense organs

Dharana: concentration

Dhyana: meditation

Samadhi: intense absorption; one with your true nature; perfect stillness

A curious reader may have observed that the limbs deal with subtler aspects as we go down the list. Yoga is the path of meditation to achieve lasting happiness. But as anyone who has tried meditation will tell you, it is very very hard to do. The Yoga Sutras lay out the path.

Note: Each limb mentioned above, especially the Yamas and Niyamas, deserves its own post to expand on the meaning.

It is important to realize that what happens during 30 minutes of meditation depends a lot on what we did the other 23.5 hours prior. For instance, if we binge-watch videos for a few hours, eat and drink carelessly, have a verbal spat with a friend or relative, our mind is agitated. Meditation is simply not possible.

It is not possible to explain this eight-fold path in a blog post. However, I can provide a general idea.

  1. Yamas and Niyamas: Build a solid foundation to reduce mental agitation. Just as a solid, stable foundation is important for a tall building, the Yamas and Niyamas are important to keep our minds in a relatively calm state during day-to-day functioning.
  2. Asanas: Maintain a healthy body, a prerequisite to sit still in meditation
  3. Breath as a lever: Prana, our life force, is the fuel behind our actions and thoughts in our minds. Breath is the external expression of Prana and hence, it is intricately connected to the body and mind. Breathing (and body) is affected by thoughts in the mind. The other way is also true — by controlling the breath (and hence prana), you can control the thoughts in your mind. Pranayama is an effective way to reduce the flow of thoughts in the mind.
  4. Going inward by pulling the sense organs in. An example given in The Bhagavad Gita is of a tortoise pulling its limbs under the shell.
  5. Many thoughts to one thought; concentration
  6. Unchanging mental picture for an extended period of time — Meditation
  7. Deep absorption and stillness of mind

It is important to mention that we don’t have to meditate at all times to be happy. In meditation, we get glimpses of a still mind and we may be able to stay absorbed for an extended period of time. Once we experience such happiness and bliss from within, we slowly but surely wean away from the lower grade of happiness we derive from external things. Just like we wean away from our most favorite toys as we grow older.

Finally, Patanjali explains that change is only possible with practice. We hear this from all top artists and sportspersons — “practice practice practice”. It is the same with Yoga too. If anything, it is even more important to establish consistent practice over a long period of time.

What does Patanjali say about Asanas?

I am sorry to burst the bubble but Patanjali sets aside merely 3 sutras out of 195 to discuss asanas. Patanjali describes asana as follows:

Sthira-sukham asanam

Steadiness and comfort characterize a yoga posture (asana)

Asanas are primarily a way to keep the body healthy. This is a prerequisite to sit still for a long period of time.

And on Pranayama (breathing), Patanjali reserves 6 sutras. Some commentators take this as an indicator that breathing is twice as important as asanas.

Asanas are an important part of Yoga but it is only part of a bigger picture.


I hope I have given you a glimpse of the real meaning of Yoga. We all seek peace, security, and happiness in life. But we seek it in people, places, things, experiences, etc. Yoga urges us to look inside ourselves for the source of happiness. Isn’t it liberating to know that all of us, regardless of who we are or what our current situation is, have access to this source?

I also hope that I have convinced you to look beyond asanas when you practice Yoga. I am sure that it will improve the quality of your Yoga practice at a minimum, improve mental health, and perhaps even change your perspective on life.


Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin Bryant

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda

Meditation by Swami Tatatmananda

Poornalayam (in Tamil) by Swami Guruparananda

Links to my other relevant articles

The Happiness Equation

Understanding Stillness


I am a student and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. I learn The Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and the scriptures by listening to the audio classes conducted by Swami Paramarthananda, Swami Guruparananda, Swami Sarvapriyananda and others. I owe what little I understand to these great teachers. Any mistake in the analysis is the result of my limited understanding.



Kishore Subramanian

Spiritual seeker, student, and practitioner of Yoga and Vedanta. Vice-President, Engineering at Propel. Ex-Googler.