In fact it can be any of these things, and more besides. For an understanding of Yoga it is necessary to look at the history and development of this ancient art.
Before we start I must point out that I am not a Hindu, neither do I teach nor practice any of the “true” forms of Yoga. I am not an expert in this field, but am offering a simplified insight into the many meanings of the statement “I do Yoga.” and what might be involved in a “Yoga session”.
In the beginning.
We can start with the Vedas. These are the four collections forming the earliest body of Indian scripture, which codified the ideas and practices of Vedic religion and laid down the basis of classical Hinduism. They were probably composed between 1500 and 700 BC, and contain hymns, philosophy, and guidance on ritual.
It is the Vedas that are the common link between Hinduism and Yoga and which form their very foundations. Yoga is in fact one of the 6 main branches of Hindu philosophy.
The word Yoga means Union – some say union with God, others union with self. This union can be perceived through a variety of methods including, but not limited to, control of the mind and senses, meditation and caring for the body through asanas, pranayam, cleansings, and detachment from worldly objects. Yoga directs us towards a righteous path of living; it is the remover of our identification with our physical body; and the aid to achieving moksha (liberation) in this lifetime.
So Yoga is religious and part of Hinduism?
Yes, but not necessarily! Even from quite early in the development of Yoga and Hinduism it seems to me that Yoga could and did stand separately from Hinduism, as well as being an intrinsic part of it. Yoga was originally a way of life but over time, it seems, a variety of elements from the whole have been extracted, each with specific benefits, and each called Yoga. Confusing isn’t it.
There are many forms of Yoga, some are named (e.g. Hatha, Vinyasa, Kundalini, Ashtanga, Bikram, Iyengar, Anusara, Restorative, Jivamukti, to name but a few) whilst others are just Yoga. Each focuses on a set of targets or beliefs drawn from the Yogic teachings.
What does this mean for me?
When you attend a Yoga class you might find you spend your time relaxing and meditating. Or, you could find yourself attempting to achieve extreme positions. The class might be constructed to be accessible for any age or ability, or the session could expect a high level of fitness, stamina, strength and flexibility.
There is no doubt that there can be huge benefits to be gained by the practice of Yoga … however it is also clear that Yoga can also be physically detrimental.
When you consider the history of yoga you can see that it was not invented as a remedy for back pain or other injury. If this is your aim you need to seek form of exercise with a more physiological remedial basis.
How can I know what I am letting myself in for?
I would strongly advise that you contact the person running the sessions and ask them specifically what the aims of the class are, what their qualifications are, and make sure that their answers match up to your own targets and expectations. In any case be extremely wary of any class that expects you to “push past the pain”. Pain is the body’s protection mechanism and you should only be working through pain in closely controlled circumstances with specific goals.