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Yoga Defined – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

For most people, the word "yoga" brings to mind the image of someone twisted in the shape of a pretzel or some similar yoga pose. For the most part, yoga is associated with ‘asana’ (physical postures). In many of the fitness centers and gyms where ‘yoga’ is taught, it is the physical aspect that is emphasized. However, when we take a closer look at the deeper meaning of yoga we find that yoga involves much more than just physical stretching postures. In the classical text called the Yoga Sutras, the author, Patanjali, has provided the complete philosophy and methodology for the practice of yoga. In the first four sutras of chapter 1, Patanjali has given us a very clear and concise definition of yoga which serves as the foundation for the rest of his exposition on yoga. In this article, I will be discussing these four sutras in some detail. When we develop an understanding of the basic definition, we can start viewing our own yoga practice with a different perspective.

Sutra 1.1

अथ योगानुशासनम्॥१॥

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Atha yogAnushAsanaM

Here now is the exposition/discipline of Yoga (1.1)

The word "atha" (here, now) is commonly used at the beginning of all ancient texts in Sanskrit. It signifies the following:

  • It establishes the authority of the teacher as one who is uniquely qualified to impart this knowledge
  • It qualifies the student as one who is deserving to receive the knowledge. This, in most cases, is based on the fact that the student has already spent a long time (several years, perhaps) with this teacher and has gained all the knowledge necessary as preparation for this special knowledge about yoga.
  • It is also used as an auspicious commencement of the subject at hand

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit root word "yuj" which, depending upon the context, can have one of two different meanings. One meaning is ‘samadhi’  which is defined as total absorption leading to a fully controlled state of the mind. The other meaning is  ‘union’. According to Vyasa,  the most authoritative commentator on the sutras, the word yoga means ‘samadhi’ in the current context. In many other systems of philosophy, Vedanta for example, yoga means ‘union’ where it implies the union of the individual self and the supreme consciousness called Brahman.

The word "anushasanam" means exposition or discipline. In essence, then, Patanjali is telling his ‘chosen’  set of students to get ready to receive the knowledge on the subject of "yoga".

Sutra I.2

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः॥२॥

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yogashchittavRuttinirodhaH

Yoga is the control (nirodhaH) of the modifications (vrittis) of the mind-field (chitta) (1.2)

The word ‘chitta’ is usually translated as "mind field" or "mind-stuff" and is regarded as a composite of the following:

‘Manas’ (cognitive mind)

This is the part of the ‘chitta’ which is connected with the external world through the five senses. So, it receives input through the senses and creates a composite ‘image’ of what is received. ‘Manas’ is also responsible for all the emotions, desires, likes and dislikes, ambitions etc.

‘Buddhi’ (intellect)

This is the discriminative component of ‘chitta’ which has the ability to make decisions based on the input received from the ‘manas’ and has the ability to discriminate between the pairs of opposites, like good and bad, hot and cold etc.

‘Chitta’ (memory)

This part of ‘chitta’ is the storehouse of all past memories, past impressions (called ‘samskaras’), hidden desires (called ‘vasana’), past karmas and the fruits thereof.

‘Ahamkara’ (ego)

Ego is the ‘template’ for the individual personality and is responsible for the identification with the body, mind and intellect. This is the part of ‘chitta’ which makes one think, "I am the father/ mother" or "I am good/bad", "handsome/ugly" etc. In the yoga sutras, the word "asmita" is also used in some places to indicate "ahamkara".

In the normal functioning of the mind, it receives input from the five senses (or pulls it from the memory) and feeds it to the ‘intellect’. The intellect, in consultation with the ego, digs deep into the memory and pulls out all the necessary past impressions and makes the appropriate decision. This decision goes back to the mind which can either store it back in the memory or direct the appropriate motor action through the organs of action. 

‘Vrittis’ are the fluctuations or modifications in the mind that are constantly going on as new information is being received by the mind, either through the senses or pulled from the memory. Subsequently, Patanjali describes five types of vrittis (but we need not go into them here). When the mind takes on the same form as the object of perception, it is called a ‘vritti’.

As per this sutra, yoga is defined as the ability to control all these fluctuations (vrittis) that are constantly happening in the mind and bring the mind to a perfectly stable, controlled state.

Sutra I.3

तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम्॥३॥

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tadA drashtuH svarUpe&vasthAnaM

Then the seer rests in its own true nature (1.3)

The word ‘tada’ (then) refers to the fully stabilized state of the mind described in the previous sutra.

The word ‘drashtuh’  means a ‘seer’ or an ‘observer’ and needs a little more explanation. In the ‘Samkhya’ philosophy, two entities have been defined – ‘Purusha’ and ‘Prakriti’. Purusha is usually translated as ‘soul’, ‘atma’, ‘self’ etc. In its purest form, Purusha is ever-pure, ever-free, unblemished, untouched, without regard to time, space or association with matter. Prakriti is the material aspect of this creation which is inert in itself and needs the reflection of consciousness from Purusha for its functioning. It includes not only the external side of the material world, but also our body, mind, intellect complex. Even thgough Purusha is ever-pure, it appears to be ‘colored’ by its identification with the body/mind complex. In this ‘impure’ state, it loses its true identity.

The sutra states that when the mind has been made steady in ‘yoga’, then the ‘seer’ or the Purusha can get established in its own true nature (svarupa) which is complete non-identification with any of the material entities – mind/body/intellect.  This state has been defined as ‘kaivalya’ by Patanjalil which means complete non-identification.

Sutra 1.4

वृत्तिसारूप्यमितरत्र॥४॥

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vRuttisArUpyamitaratra

Otherwise, one remains identified with the modifications of the mind-field (1.4)

"itaratra" means ‘otherwise’, ‘or else’. ‘vritti-sarupyam’ implies identification with the vrittis or modifications of the mind-field. The sutra states that when the mind has not been brought into a state of steadiness (in yoga), then the purusha gets identified (through the faculty of the mind) with the fluctuations happening in the mind.

We can look upon this sutra as a form of warning from Patanjali, "hey guys, either learn how to control your mind and remain ever peaceful and joyful, or allow the mind to control you and remain forever in a state of suffering." So, Patanjali is giving us a choice between us controlling the mind or letting it control us. He is also making us fully aware of the consequences in each of the two cases. Even though the choice may seem obvious to us, it is still a hard choice to make because our ego continues to force us to maintain that identification with the mind/body complex.

In summary, in these four sutras in Chapter 1 of the yoga sutras, Patanjali has given us not just the basic definition of yoga, but has shown us a path to choose if we want to become peaceful and full of inner joy all the time.

2 comments to Yoga Defined – Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

  • archana p chowdhary

    sutras r define very well,thanks for postive message through yoga

  • Dr Rajesh Gopal,MBBS(AIIMS)MD(Path)

    Yoga is a way of disciplined and principled life strenthened with efforts for uniion of physical aspects of oneselw with divine and philosophical pursuits through Asanas,Yam,Niyam,Pranayam,Pratyahar,Dharna,Dhyan and Samadhi.
    We can initiate the endeavours at any age and in any circumstances to achieve satisfaction,bliss and Aanand.