I remember ages ago reading in "The Lord of the Rings" about the language of the Ents, and how long it would take to say things, as the words for a thing encompassed its entire history. Of course, that is a big problem with language. We use language to communicate. Science fiction and fantasy aside, in the real world we cannot 'speak' to eachother with ESP, mind to mind. (Yes, non verbal communication, body language, and so on, are powerful in their own right, but particularly with communication in writing where one is not face to face they are not at center.) But language is a shorthand that makes choices about what aspects of a thing we are going to notice. For example, I remember reading that in the languages of certain indigenious peoples of the far north there are numerous words to describe what in English I call snow. Snow to them is important enough to have the different types of snow given specific words, whereas for me I would have to use descriptors to communicate that: wet, deep, old, etc....
And of course, if someone writes words, that are read a thousand years later, the natural thing to which they refer may be changed as well. I am thinking of something I learned years ago in college: how the word unicorn showed up in the King James bible. It was translated from unicornus in the Vulgate, which was translated from the Septuagint monokeros, which was translated from re'em.... which was some sort of horned beast. My teacher suggested it ment the urus, which is now extinct. The word unicorn, of course came to represent something very specific, and I imagine when I use the word you have something in your mind that would look quite different from the urus.
If it is overwhelming to communicate the full nature of a tree with those four letters.... add to it that my experience of trees, and those of the person to whom I am speaking may have different experiences, and different information, and different emotional resonances to that word. The word floats between the object itself, myself, and the self to whom I am speaking.
When trying to communicate about a concept, or human practice it becomes even more difficult than with a physical thing.
The word 'yoga' has been around for a very long time. Certain practices denoted by this word have been around for a very long time. However how we practice and understand 'yoga' is a product of centuries of change. The history of yoga is a river that twists and turns through religion, colonialism, health, physical culture movements, philosophy, self interest, and enlightenment. Depending on what book you read, or what person you are speaking with you can get very different, and sometimes non complimentary answers about what it is. I think if we remember that the word carries the weight of centures of use and change, it can be helpful.
I practice yoga. If you read have been reading the Gheranda Samhita you may ask, well does that mean you practice "Elephant-mudra, destroyer of decay and death"? (standing in water up to your neck, you pull water into the nose, and push it out the mouth, then do opposite. btw, I do not recommend this practice, nor have I ever performed it). If I do not, am I not a practitioner of yoga?
The practice of yoga comes out of a particular religious tradition. Does that make it a religion? The practice has long been associated with healing. Does that make it a healing art? A person called a 'yogi' can be someone sitting for hours a day, or someone leaping in and out of handstands. Is it gymnastics? Or meditation?
Yoga has aspects of all these things. And in fact most of those disciplines we refer to with the word 'exercise' are more than what wikipedia refers to as 'Activity requiring physical effort'. If I go to a zumba class I strengthen my heart, strengthen my muscles, but I also affect my brain chemistry, which affects my moods, which can affect my social interactions, and so on. Any runner understands that the 'heart' that is affected in running is more than the muscle pumping blood. Any runner who has run for a cause understands about the connection to community.
What we come to at the core is that WE are more than physical bodies. A few years ago I helped teach a class on 'personal fitness' to a group of young people. I LOVED that title, because it underscored how 'fitness' was not just about skeletal muscles, or number of push-ups, or resting heart rate, but about the whole person. Our physical form is one dimension of our self.... our intellectual self, our social self, our emotional self, our spiritual self.... are equally important. And they interact. Weakness, or pain in any area cal affect the others.
At its base what sets yoga apart is not the hand stands, or the chaturangas, but that yoga starts from a place of acknowledging and supporting the intimate connection of the different dimensions of the self. It welcomes the emotional self. While it is not in service to any one faith, or any, it asks us to acnowledge that our lives can be about more than eating and sleeping, and making money. It asks us to look and listen, and not just to consume. It recognizes at the outset that the individual by itself needs others, needs community. It asks us to connect, rather than to judge.
Yes. Yoga is a form of exercise.
Yes. Yoga is a healing art.
Yes. Yoga is a practice for spiritual growth.
It can be any or all of these things, and whichever aspect of these things you find in whatever class you take, or whatever part of yoga you choose to notice and to practice, you will unlock a part of the complex and fascinating meaning of those four letters.