Modern Yoga Explained

Concepts, terms and principles explained in language we can all understand

Modern Yoga Explained

The yoga terms you’ll want to know when starting out

Yoga is a vast and sometimes complex subject, with plenty of books written about it. In this blog post, I’ll walk you through some of the basic principles and terms of ashtanga, or modern yoga.


Sanskrit is the ancient language of India. And ‘Yoga’ is a Sanskrit word – meaning ‘to unite, bind or yoke’.

It is true that you don’t have to know Sanskrit to learn yoga. But it’s useful to have some knowledge of the Sanskrit terminology. For example, knowing the meaning of ‘Yoga’ helps us to reflect on its integrated nature – uniting the different parts of the body.

Yoga or Yogini

A student of yoga is called a Pupil or Buddhi. An experienced and proficient pupil is a Yogi (male) or Yogini (female).

The Yoga Sutras

Ancient Yoga first emerged in around 4000 BCE. Its original purpose was the purification of the mortal body, mind and soul. It was considered preparation for the soul’s spiritual emancipation with a benevolent and universal God.


Patanjali, the ancient Master of yoga, eponymously conceived the Yoga Sutras. But in reality, these were written between 400BCE and 200CE by a collegiate of yoga scholars, rather than one person.

The Sutras form the basis for the modern practice of yoga

Patanjali’s Sutras segment into The Eight Limbs of Yoga – I’ll explain those in a moment. These include the practice common to all authentic yoga, Hatha Yoga. I’ll cover that later too.

Patanjali concludes by setting in motion a process of self-discovery including relaxation, detachment, concentration and meditation.

There is merit behind practising the sequence in that order. Bear in mind, too, that each one of the stages takes time and practice to perfect.


Ashtanga Yoga

We usually refer to Ashtanga Yoga as Modern Yoga, which is based on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

The purpose of Ashtanga Yoga is to sustain the pupil’s integral health and spiritual wellbeing. To define those terms:

  • Integral health is a person’s physical, emotional, mental and social ability to thrive in their environment
  • Spiritual wellbeing in this context encompasses the pupil’s state of mind, self-awareness and sense of purpose in life

Yoga leaves open the possibility of life after death and the integration with a benevolent universe, or God.

Conversely, people without faith can still practise yoga because its philosophy is more practical than theoretical. It encourages a person to go beyond just thinking. For this reason, it’s called a Skill in Action in the Bhagavad Gita.


The Components of Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga Yoga has three components which, although complementary, can be practised individually too. There’s no preordained order but the arrangement Patanjali uses, as appears here, makes a lot of sense.

The three components are:

A.    Ethical Discipline

B.    Physical Activity

C.   Self-Discovery

The components segment into eight limbs, which correlate as follows:

A.    Ethical Discipline

  1. Restraint (Nama)
  2. Observance (Niyama)

B.    Physical Activity

  1. Postures (Asana)
  2. Breathing (Pranayama)

C.   Self-Discovery

  1. Detachment (Pratyahara)
  2. Concentration (Dharana)
  3. Meditation (Dhyana)
  4. Universal Union (Samadhi)

To gain the full benefits of modern yoga, all of these components should be proactively practised. I discuss each of them and the eight limbs, in more detail, in The Five Faculties of Modern Yoga: Part One.



Meditation is called Dhyana. And far too much fuss is made of meditation.

Within yoga, meditation is often portrayed as some deep, mystical practice for elite yogis. It may be to some, but for most of us, it’s a moment we can devote to ourselves for calming stillness.


We function by continually making connections and assumptions about the world around us. The skill of meditation is learning to steady this down. 

Meditation is quite simple, although difficult to truly master. This is because the mind is like a ball of mercury skating over the floor – try to pick it up! 

The favoured portal for entering into meditation is the breath. But the right headspace can just as easily be generated by sound or gazing out over a beautiful seascape. And if there’s nothing close to you to focus on, you can create what you need in your mind.

Meditation: Here and Now

Nowadays, yogis often refer to meditation as self-awareness or, as much as I dislike the word, mindfulness. But mindfulness within the context of yoga is distinct in how it integrates both the body and mind.

Asana, like any exercise, releases serotonin – this makes us relax and feel good about ourselves. Breathing settles the nervous system. Both of these actions are ideal precursors for relaxation and, eventually, meditation.


So, to recap…

  • Yoga – to unite, bind or yoke
  • Pupil/Buddhi – a student of Yoga
  • Yogi/Yogini – an experienced Pupil
  • Patanjali’s Sutras – these form the basis of modern yoga practices
  • Ashtanga – the name for Modern Yoga; consists of ethical discipline, physical activity and self-discovery
  • Hatha Yoga – the physical element of Ashtanga
  • Asana – yoga postures
  • Pranayama – yogic breathing
  • Vinyasa – a sequence of Asana
  • Dhyana – meditation


If you found this interesting and would like to learn more…

Scroll through to our next post on what yoga consists of (The Five Faculties) and the additional benefits modern yoga bestows.

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