Yoga has become so well packaged as an exercise that people even believe this was the original intent of yoga, often calling yoga "stretching exercises." People in the U.S. and other Western countries often do not realize that the yoga they call an exercise, actually hatha yoga ("ha" means "sun" and "tha" means "moon"), is just one of many forms of yoga designed for specific spiritual purposes.
Hatha yoga, as explained in CANA article, "Yoga: Yokes Snakes, and Gods," uses the body as a ground for spiritual techniques to prepare the practitioner to unite with the Absolute. The body is merely a tool in this process. Although one may become more fit and flexible from doing yoga, that is not the goal of yoga, which is part of a complex spiritual system. Pranayama (breathing techniques) and the asanas (specific positions) are designed to enhance and induce meditative states in which one can transcend mental fluctuations and bypass rational thinking. Hatha yoga teaches how to control the body and the senses so that the yogin (yoga student) can control the mind (Raja Yoga). Gradually, the body and mind are filled by the Atman (Pure or Supreme Universal Self) and "through the death of the body, as it were, is the resurrection of the Higher Self accomplished," (J. F. C. Fuller, Yoga for All [Bombay, India: D. B. Taraporevala Sons & Co. Private Ltd., 1993], 51).
Famed yoga teacher B. K. S. Iyengar, who was instrumental in bringing yoga to the West, says that yoga "is a science which liberates one's mind from the bondage to the body and leads it towards the soul. When the mind reaches and merges with the soul, the soul is freed and remains thereafter in peace and beatitude," (B. K. S. Iyengar, The Tree of Yoga, [Boston: Shambhala, 1988], 5).
Patanjali, the Indian sage considered to be the founder of yoga, though no one knows much about his life, authored the famous Yoga Sutras, the teachings of yogic philosophy. One site speaks of Patanjali's yoga: "It deals with the training of the mind to achieve oneness with the Universe. Incidental to this objective are the acquisition of siddhis or powers. The aim of Patanjali Yoga is to set man free from the cage of matter. Mind is the highest form of matter and man freed from this dragnet of Chitta or Ahankara (mind or ego) becomes a pure being," ( http://hrih.hypermart.net/patanjali/ ).
On another site about Patanjali, it states that "Yoga means Union and the purpose is to teach the practitioner of Yoga, called the Yogi, how to achieve Union or Spiritual Absorption into the Supreme Absolute or God. Yoga teaches us that our true self is the soul and that our self identity is an illusion to be overcome," ( http://reluctant-messenger.com/yoga-sutras.htm ). Hatha yoga and other forms of yoga are considered to be the stepping-stones for spiritual union with the Absolute.
In the 1970's and even 1980's, yoga was associated with Eastern spirituality. However, in the last several years those who market yoga have successfully airbrushed out the spiritual roots of yoga and marketed yoga as an exercise. With celebrities doing yoga, yoga on TV, glossy magazine ads of beautiful people doing yoga, yoga videos, yoga CD's, yoga mats, and yoga wear, yoga has become glamorized and trendy, an appeal that rarely fails to draw in the masses. Shorn of its association with hippies, with those who made pilgrimages to India seeking out gurus, and with what was once seen as the far-out New Age movement, yoga is now vigorously embraced, linked to health and hipness.
How have the edges of the spiritual component of yoga been so well rounded off? One method has been to change the language so that blatant Eastern terms are replaced with words that seem to refer to health or the physical body. YogaFit Training Systems, a company that trains teachers to bring "demystified" yoga "to the masses," states that it is "fitness oriented," although it does draw on the Hindu based Ashtanga, Iyengar, and Kundalini yoga practices.
YogaFit admits that yoga was originally designed to prepare for meditation, but that "Meditation is simply the ability to focus on one thing for an extended period of time," ( http://www.yogafit.com/faq.html ) Actually, Eastern meditation involves much more than that, and is a spiritual practice with a specific purpose (see CANA article on meditation). Yoga was designed to prepare the body for Eastern meditation, which involves techniques to go beyond the mind so that one can be prepared to unite with the Absolute (God, Brahman, the One). To describe this meditation as simply focusing "on one thing" is misleading and does a great disservice to the teachings of Hinduism and yoga.