Yoga, Path Of The Warrior

How does being a warrior have anything to do with yoga? Well, historically, more than you may realise. We think of yoga as fuzzy, feel-good territory. We think of ladies who lunch or guys who need downtime from grunting at the squat rack because the PT says it’s good for them. But let’s not be confused;  yoga was largely an aggressive, radical, and male dominated practice for the majority of its traceable history.

It developed within a privileged warrior class of men and in the much cited Bhagavad Gītā, we meet the principle figure, Arjuna, on a battlefield. Arjuna is reluctant to engage in war and bloodshed but ultimately his guru, Krishna, tells him he must fight, that he must choose war because, ‘there is nothing better for a warrior than a fight based on dharma.” (Bg. 2.31). Even predating the Gītā though, in the early ascetic and Śramaṇa traditions, the approach was fierce, it involved renouncing daily comforts, rejecting family, and practicing meditation in deep isolation. 

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Language Of the Warrior

A warrior mentality also runs through the lexis of many of yoga’s Sanskrit terms. We often hear ‘haṭha’ yoga interpreted as ‘sun/moon’, conveying balance or harmony. But the term haṭha itself simply translates as ‘forceful’ or ‘violent’[1]. Furthermore, the word yoga itself is frequently referred to as ‘union’ because of the Sanskrit root word ‘yuj’ meaning to yoke. But think about it; yoking itself is an aggressive practice. It’s less about uniting to bring harmony and more about binding as an act of force. I somewhat doubt Oxen that are yoked together feel blissfully united rather than feeling forcibly controlled. This reading makes much more sense against the historical backdrop of the practice, especially since controlling the mind is a fundamental pivot of the Classical Yoga text, the Yoga Sūtra. 

But here’s where we need to make a clear distinction: the history of yoga practice was, until very recently, not primarily concerned with physical posture. It was concerned with radical spiritual approaches which led to the acquisition of power (siddhis) or liberation through meditation. Even when haṭha developed as the most physical expression of the system in the twelfth century C.E, posture was largely only a tool used to prepare the body for these mental and spiritual aims. Furthermore when yoga was eventually brought to the west by Vivekananda in 1893, he completely rejected haṭha yoga and quite specifically rejected āsana (physical posture) based practices.

Warrior yoga today

What I find interesting is that yoga classes in studios and gyms today are taking an increasingly hardcore physical approach, and whilst they may not outwardly acknowledge the presence of these radical spiritual approaches, they bear the hallmark of yoga’s warrior past. The focus in many classes on strength and endurance is actually aligned to yogic values that train and steady the body and mind such as tāpas (fiery discipline). Admittedly though, the origins of these practices weren’t too much concerned with burning calories and getting a tight ass, but then again our yogi forebears didn’t have the temptation of Instagram.

Ultimately, people come to yoga for a whole raft of different reasons, and there’s such a broad spectrum of classes and styles on offer now there’s something for everyone.  But I do challenge those who want to posit the practice as all love and compassion and light; maybe some branches have developed into that now, but the foundation on which the practice rests, the feet on which it firmly stands are undoubtedly those of a warrior.


[1] Mark Singleton, Yoga Body (Oxford University Press 2010), 27

Vla Stanojevic