What Is Yoga?

While standing in line at Sightglass, a co-worker asks me, “what is yoga?” It’s a reasonable question for a yoga teacher to ask someone who has taught yoga, owned and operated a yoga studio for over 20 years. Implicit in her question is a belief that with experience, comes insight.

Really, my reaction is panic. I feel flushed, my heart rate takes off, and my innate appreciation for the spotlight withers. I am aware of being in a room full of people who–in the moment–all seem to stop talking to hear my answer…. they are all about to witness me as an imposter.

I take a deep breath, and recognize all of these sensations in my body. As a yoga teacher, I have learned to go to the body and breath as the first step to “being present” (or “getting grounded” or “centered.”)

In my mind, I start to assemble an answer. We have all heard the “mind-body-spirit-as-one” mantra. Many of us have explored a history of yoga that recognizes yoga as a mash-up of esoteric practices, philosophy, belief systems, and exercise programs from India (and what preceded it), Europe, America, and elsewhere. With that context, “yoga” is less a specific practice or philosophy than it is the intention behind those elements.

Seconds are passing. I’m not satisfied with this answer. As a yoga teacher trainer, I advocate a value proposition–you have to offer more than what can be had from Wikipedia, YouTube or Instagram. It has to be personal. So the question becomes, what is yoga to me?

For me, Yoga is how I participate in my change process.

It asks me to practice and cultivate a capacity for self awareness or mindfulness so that I am not always purely reactive to the world around me. It gives me fleeting experiences of connection and purpose that I consider transcendent. It is not limited by proscribed practices or belief systems, or other people’s definitions.

Yoga is a set of tools that I occasionally pick up to deal with life–to get through the moment and to give purpose or meaning to my life. It allows me a new perspective on the my life, on my relationships, and on the world around me.

Yoga is not just what I do, but how I do it, why I do it, and how I see myself doing it. When I’m rowing on the bay, making dinner, picking up my kids after school, or standing in line at Sightglass talking about yoga, I have an opportunity to practice


David Nelson is the founder and owner of Yoga Garden SF, since 1998. He lives in Marin county with his two daughters. In addition to yoga, David is a competitive masters rower. He has a BA and MBA from USF.