Don´t worry, you don´t have to study Sanskrit to be able to practice Yoga, but it is worth to, at least, have a look at some ancient texts to understand, that Yoga, in its essence, is not about the stretching and being super flexible. One of the most important texts, we know about today, is the Yoga Sutra, which was compiled by Patanjali Maharishi, who is, we could say, the father of modern Yoga (at least this is how most of the books and sources in the internet call him).
The Yoga Sutras contain the whole wisdom about the practice of Yoga. To intellectually understand a bit more what Yoga is, I want to focus here on the second Sutra of the first chapter which is called Samadhi Pada.
Yoga is restraining the activities of the mind.
Here you can already see, that we are actually working on the mind and not (so much) on the body. For some maybe a big surprise but if you ever took a yoga class you maybe have had the experience of relaxation and felt somehow... lets say... more peaceful in the end. Why is that? We just did some stretching right? Well, if you look at it on a very superficial level, you could say: Yes! You moved your body, you stretched your hamstrings, you tried to find your balance in the headstand. But if you start to look a little bit closer and also pay attention to how the teacher in the class was guiding you into and out of a posture, where to focus at etc., you probably recognize that she/he, payed a lot of attention to first of all the breath and second, to your awareness. And that makes the whole difference. Yoga is not just an exercise, like you do in a sports class or the gym. Yoga practice brings your mind into a different state.
But, why do we work with our body and pay attention to our breath to calm down the mind?
Because body and mind are connected through the breath. Through controlling the body and our breath, we step by step learn to control our mind. While putting all our awareness and all our attention into each movement of the body, into the breath, each in and exhalation, the mind becomes focused and as a result of that, the mind will be more quiet and you experience it as more peaceful.
More then a personal seek of well being.
Many spiritual leaders, like Mahatma Gandhi, taught us, that real peace starts within. If we want to live in a peaceful world, each of us has to start to live life in a peaceful way.
Inner peace for outer peace
Like Gandhi, Swami Vishnudevananda was convinced that outer peace cannot exist without inner peace. He taught us, that as an individual, you first have to experience the peace within, before you can change the world around you.
Swamiji brought the teachings of his Master Swami Sivananda from India to the West (1957). He summarized the Philosophy of Yoga into 5 simple points, which are easy to understand and allow really EVERYBODY to follow and experience the practice of Yoga:
The 5 Points of Yoga
Proper Exercise - Asana
Proper Breathing - Pranayama
Proper Relaxation - Savasana
Proper Diet - Vegetarian Diet
Positive Thinking and Meditation - Vedanta and Dhyana
As already mentioned above also this 5 points show us that Yoga is more then just physical exercise. Yoga teaches us that the body is our vehicle, which needs to be in form to be able to manage the daily challenges of our busy lives. But we also need a healthy driver - our Mind. Therefore the system of the 5 points is an holistic approach, that works on all different levels. Physically, mentally and last but not least spiritually.
That means that Yoga does not start and end with stepping on and off your yoga mat. It is an attitude towards life. Some would call it a lifestyle, which will step by step affect and transform you.
Watch this documentary by Benoy K. Behl, about Sivananda Yoga, called "Health Peace & Unity" (2017), if you want to know more about the organization, Swami Sivananda and Swami Vishnudevananda.
To get an idea how the practice on the mat looks like, find this link to a traditional 90 minutes Sivananda Hatha Yoga Class below. It is an intermediate Open Yoga Class, which contains Pranayama (Breathing Exercises), Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation), the 12 Basic Asanas and Final Relaxation. (As mentioned, it is an intermediate class, for each of the postures there are of course also variations either for beginners or more advanced students )
Om Namah Shivaya
Nina I. Kohlbach