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Does Yoga really mean union?

The word "yoga" is derived from the Sanskrit root word "yuj" which, depending upon the context, can have several different meanings. See here for a list of nearly 40 different meanings of the word "yoga" from the dictionary by Monier Williams (type the word "yoga" in the search box provided).

As you are perhaps aware that the most commonly understood meaning of yoga is "union". Most people would say that "yoga is the union of body, mind and soul". But, is that really the case?

Most of us who practice yoga follow the philosophy of yoga as given by Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras. Let us try to understand the meaning of "yoga" in the context of Yoga Sutras. Patanjali defines yoga asĀ  -‘yogash-chitta-vritti-nirodhah" which means that yoga is to still the mind’s fluctuations, which is termed as the state of ‘samadhi’. And the purpose of stilling the mind is to realize the non-connectedness between the soul (atman) and the material aspect of our being – body, mind and intellect. The word for this final state used in the yoga sutras is "kaivalya" which implies understanding that the soul is separate from the mind-body complex. In fact, Patanjanli clearly says that the main cause of our suffering is that we identify the soul with our mind and body. See sutras 2.23 thru 2.25 for more details. So, to reiterate, in the context of the yoga sutras, the word yoga does NOT mean union but in fact it means that we recognize the non-union of purusha (soul) and prakriti (body/mind etc.).

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which is one of the six ‘darshanas’ or Indian systems of philosophy, is a dualistic philosophy. Patanjali has taken some of the basic tenets from Samkhya and built the philosophy, psychology and methodology of yoga based on those Samkhya principles. The key principle there is the presence of two independent entities Purusha and Prakriti. In common parlance, Purusha can be termed the soul and Prakriti the material aspect of this creation which includes our body/mind complex. Since these two are separate and independent entities, there is no question of their union. In fact, the false identification of purusha with prakriti is the root cause of all human sufferings. As mentioned earlier, the goal of yoga is "kaivalyam" which is freedom of purusha from prakriti. I would like to emphasize that I am presenting the view which is based on the concepts in yoga sutras. 

As mentioned above, the word "yoga" has different meanings depending upon the context in which it is used. For example, in Bhagavad Gita, each of the 18 chapters has a name ending in "yoga". The first chapter, for example, is titled, "Arjuna-vishada-yoga" (Yoga of Arjun’s grief). In none of those 18 chapters, the word "yoga" is used in the meaning of "union". The terms Bhakti Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Karma Yoga etc are used frequently in BG to indicate different approaches to life in pursuit of the final goal of liberation. 

In the Vedanta philosophy also, the concept is "oneness" not "union". Two of the most important statements in the Upanishads, called Mahavakyas (great sentences) are – "aham brahmasmi" ("I AM Brahman" and NOT "I am united with Brahman") and "tat tvam asi" ("you ARE that" and NOT "you are united with that"). In fact, in the Vedantic philosophy, all is ONE, termed ‘brahman’. When all is ONE, there is no question of UNION. When we talk of UNION, we are already talking of separation of two things which need to be united. In Vedanta, no such separation exists. 

To summarize, then, in the context of Yoga Sutras, the word "yoga" does NOT mean "union". The word "yoga" must be understood in the context in which it is used. We want to definitely stay away from blindly saying that "yoga is the union of body, mind and soul".

I would love to hear your thoughts. Please provide your comments below.


11 comments to Does Yoga really mean union?

  • Great post! It’s clear that yoga does not ONLY mean “union,” though that is one translation. As for the mind, body and soul part, I’d translate yoga as “harmony,” as in the harmonious interaction of mind, body and soul, which is achieved by chitta vritti nirodhah, among other methods. After all, once the mind and body are quieted, after all, they are still very useful. Hari Om.

    • Subhash

      Harmony is certainly a good way of looking at yoga. And, when the mind is quieted, only then it functions at its best – it is the most creative and productive because it can make the best possible decision in every situation.

  • Hi
    I agree that Yoga does not mean union, this tends to be an overlay from Vedanta.
    If we go to the root we find that Yoga means to yoke.
    So what are we trying to yoke?
    Certainly not individual soul to universal soul, again another overlay from Hindu philosophy.
    It is about yoking cit and citta so that are actions are infused with awareness and awareness has a vehicle foe expression.
    Hence the eloquent definition in the BG C2 v50 defining Yoga as skill in actions.
    otherwise and intelligent linking of awareness and actions.
    The meaning of Yoga as to yoke also helps us to understand the use of the word in the BG chapter titles.
    In C1 Arjuna is yoked to depression, and so it goes on with the unfolding of the chapters and the shift in Arjuna’s attitude back to a warrior capable of fratricide.
    This a why we must also consider the BG as a traditional Hindu text (like the NT of Xianity) and that it utilises Yoga as a tool to reform Arjuna’s thinking to become a wiling warrior servant of God.
    Otherwise I agree with thinking of kaivalya as a key term in Yoga and not the same as the word moksa used in vedanta. However you might wish to reflect on its meaning as independence.
    I leave the reader to reflect on the context of this independence in terms of the difference between from and within.
    Best wishes for 11, Paul

    • Subhash

      Hi Paul,
      In the BG, we find a few other definitions of yoga as well – “equanimity is Yoga (2.48)”, “disconnection of the connection with suffering (6.23)” and possibly several others depending upon which chapter we are reading. So, I guess in that sense, we need to look at the context in which yoga has been explained. I didn’t quite understand “yoking cit and citta” – could you elaborate a little? thanks for your very thoughtful comments.

  • Thank you for this. Clearly, the word “Yoga” is often used out of context. Furthermore, the translation given is usually “Union”, which is also out of context. What is “Union”? To me, Union is an algebraic expression, and it would imply that Life is a mathematical problem.

  • It is customary to look at the meaning of sanskrit words through “amara kosam” also known as “nAma lingAnusAsanam” in which there are five equivalent words for ‘yoga’=Sannahanam (being ready), Upayam(means), Dhyanam (meditation), Sangati (joining particularly words), Yukti(application). Of this acharyas always quote “Dhyanam” which culminates into “Samadhi”. They have a relationship of cause and effect and this way the definition of YS will find better closeness.

  • Thank you so much for your post, Subhash. I appreciate how generously you share your insight. I also wanted to let you know that I blogged about this post here The Definition of Yoga.

    • Subhash

      Thank you so much for your kind comments. I am really glad to see that you have blogged about my post about the definition of yoga on your blog. Nice blog! Thanks.

  • Varun Ahlawat

    Yoga means not two . But for kids they simplify it by saying union .
    When it was difficult to understand Vedas. Sages compile them into four parts . Later on they simply it through puran for kids and in upanishad for adult.
    Same way the truth is one . Sages simply it

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