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Definition of yoga – workshop transcript, Sutras 1.1 thru 1.5

[This is an edited version of the transcript of the monthly workshop on the yoga sutras held on August 19, 2017. In this session, we covered sutras 1.1 through 1.5. Visit the podcast page to listen to the audio podcast.]

Whenever we study the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we begin with an invocation to Sage Patanjali. In this invocation, Patanjali is credited with three areas of knowledge – science of Ayurveda to purify the body, the commentary on Sanskrit grammar to purify the speech and the science of Yoga (Yoga Sutras) to purify the mind.

योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां । मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन ॥योऽपाकरोत्तं प्रवरं मुनीनां । पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि

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yogena cittasya padena vācāṃ । malaṃ śarīrasya ca vaidyakena ॥yo’pākarottaṃ pravaraṃ munīnāṃ । patañjaliṃ prāñjalirānato’smi

"I respectfully bow down with folded hands and offer my salutations to Sage Patanjali, the highest among the Munis (sages), who has presented the remedies for removing the impurities of the body through his treatise on Ayurveda, of language through his treatise on grammar (Patanjala Mahabhashya) and the impurities of the Chitta (mind field) through his treatise on Yoga (Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)"

We concluded the previous round of discussions on the yoga sutras during last month’s workshop. That round took us a little over a year and a half. Today we are starting this new series. Again, we’ll study one sutra at a time. We’ll recite each sutra as we go along. I will try to explain the meaning of the sutra word-by-word first and then give the meaning of the entire sutra. A sutra is the Sanskrit word for a thread. So the yoga sutras represent a thread that connects all the statements together.

The text has four chapters. We will not be studying in a linear sequence but break the text into different topics and then study one topic at a time. There is a total of 195 sutras. Some texts give an additional sutra in chapter 3. However, we will cover most of the sutras from chapters 1 and 2 and a few from chapter 3. We will not be covering chapter 4.

Four chapters

Samadhi Pada – talks about the concept, definition and the goal of yoga. As defined by Patanjali, the final goal of yoga is to reach the state of mind called Samadhi – hence Samadhi Pada. He talks of multiple stages of samadhi which are given in detail in chapter 1.

The second chapter is called Sadhana Pada. Sadhana means technique, methodology or means of achieving the end result etc. It is about techniques for achieving the goals of yoga. In the beginning, Patanjali starts out by defining what stress is. The term that Patanjali uses for stress is “klesha”. The Sanskrit word klesha means pain, suffering, afflictions etc. But the modern term that most people experience and understand is stress. What is stress and what causes stress are the topics covered in this section. Finally he goes into the discussion of the eight limbs of yoga which is what you need to practice to get rid of these kleshas and make the mind eternally peaceful and calm.

The third chapter is called Vibhuti Pada. The word vibhuti means supernormal attainments that you can get as a result of the practice of yoga. And these attainments could include flying, walking on water, seeing through walls, becoming light or heavy, too small or too large and many more – which seem like science fiction but according to Patanjali can be made real through an intense practice of yogic meditation.

The fourth chapter is called the Kaivalya Pada. Kaivalya is the term used by Patanjali to indicate total and final freedom, full self-realization by understanding your true identity.

That is the overall structure of the yoga sutras.

As I mentioned earlier, for each topic picked, we’ll study the sutras one at a time. Let’s start with sutra 1.1 in chapter 1.

Sutra 1.1

अथ योगानुशासनम्॥१॥

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atha yoga-anuśāsanam ॥1॥

“Here now is the exposition of yoga”

For my presentation, I have taken most of the translations of the sutras from the text by Swami Satchidananda.

The word “atha” represents now, at this very moment – now, I am going to give you the “anushasana”, discipline, understanding or knowledge about yoga. According to most commentators “atha” is a very important word. It signifies “now” which implies that the students that he was addressing had been trained in other disciplines of life and were now ready to receive the knowledge about yoga. That means the students now qualify to become students of yoga. Secondly, it also implies that I as the teacher have the ability, authority and the qualifications to impart this knowledge of yoga to you. It also implies that this now is the very auspicious, the right moment for you to learn about yoga.

The word “anushasanam” comes from the Sanskrit root word “shAs” which means to control, govern. Shasanam means governing. The prefix “anu” changes the meaning to discipline or a thorough study of some topic.

The word “yoga” is derived from the root word “yuj”. If you look up the Sanskrit dictionary for yuj, it has upwards of some thirty meanings given. There are two meanings that are most important for our purposes. One is very commonly used in most discussions about yoga. If you ask anyone connected with yoga, “what does yoga mean to you”, the most common answer would be “union of body, mind and soul”. However, at that point they have no further explanation as to what that statement means. First of all, to understand this statement, you have to understand what the body is, what the mind is and what the soul is. Then only we can try to understand what their union might mean.

To understand the concept of the soul, we’ll need a little digression here. The philosophy of yoga is one of the six systems of Indian philosophy. They are – Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimansa and Vedanta. The two that we are most interested in are the Samkhya and Yoga philosophies. Yoga by Patanjali is based on some of the basic tenets presented in the Samkhya philosophy. One of the main concepts in Samkhya that Patanjali has used is that there are two entities which are both real and permanent – Purusha and Prakriti. Purusha is the soul and Prakriti is everything else – everything that we can perceive through our senses and otherwise. This material aspect of the universe is called Prakriti. It includes all that we can feel, touch, perceive and also everything that the human body is composed of. Prakriti by itself does not have consciousness. The only entity that has consciousness is Purusha which is also known as the soul or atman in Sanskrit. When I say “I am thinking”, that thinking requires consciousness. This is the reflected consciousness from Purusha into the intellect which allows the mind/body to function. Prakriti, even though an entity distinct from Purusha, requires the consciousness of Purusha for its function. However, they are separate and cannot be joined together.

Patanjali has used the basic tenets of Samkhya for his yoga philosophy. According to him, the goal of yoga is to understand that Purusha and Prakriti are separate and independent. Right now, I may think that the two are together and are joined with each other. This happens because my ego takes over and it becomes more powerful and effective as compared to the intellect. This happens because I don’t know my true identity which is Purusha or pure consciousness. Due to the superimposition of Purusha on the ego, I think they are together and consider my ego to be the “boss”. Thus, to say that yoga is the union of mind, body and soul is a flawed statement. In chapter 2 Patanjali clearly states that it is the apparent union between the two that is the cause of all human suffering. So, we need to disengage the two in our understanding. Only when we are able to do that we can get into a state of permanent joy. How long may it take it to get to that state? Patanjali says many lifetimes. But whatever you attain in this life does not go waste in future lives. It stays in your “bank balance” and you start off in the new life where you left off in the previous one. That is why we find that some kids are quite sharp when they are very young, they can work things out. It is all because of the karma that they carry from previous lives.

That was some background information on how Patanjali has used the basic Samkhya concepts to develop the yoga philosophy.

For the purpose of understanding the yoga philosophy, the other meaning of the root word “yuj” that’s given in the dictionary is “to be in samadhi”. That is the meaning that is really applicable for yoga, not the meaning “union”. Samadhi is the state of mind where the mind has become completely one-pointed on a single object.

Once again, the sutra “atha yoga-anushasanam” means that “here now, I am going to explain to you the whole discipline or science of yoga”.  In summary “atha” implies:

  • I have the authority to teach about yoga
  • You are fully qualified as students to learn about yoga
  • This is the most auspicious moment for learning the discipline of yoga.

Just as a side note, Swami Veda Bharati, in his commentary on the sutras, has spent over fifty pages to explain sutra 1.1.

Vyasa is considered to be the most authentic, original and authoritative commentator on the yoga sutras. Some believe that he was a compatriot of Patanjali and was most familiar with what Patanjali was trying to say in his very terse and cryptic sutras.

For a better understanding of the mind, Vyasa, in his commentary on sutra 1.1, says that we should think of the mind as being in one of these five states at any given time:

  • kṣipta (scattered)
  • mūḍha (dull)
  • vikṣipta (partially focused)
  • ekāgra (one-pointed)
  • niruddha (fully arrested)

In order to understand these five states, we need another digression and need to understand the concept of the three gunas:

  • Sattva (purity)
  • Rajas (action, movement, ambition etc.)
  • Tamas (dullness, sleepiness, lethargy etc.)

Everything in Prakriti (nature) is a composite of these three gunas, including our body, our mind, living and non-living beings etc. At any given time, one of these three gunas is more dominant and the other two are, in a sense, subservient. For example, when you made the decision to come for this class, it is likely that the sattva guna was more dominant at that time. But then you also needed a bit of rajas so you could drive here for the class. At the end of the day when you are tired, tamas takes over and you want to rest and sleep. When you sit for meditation, sattva is likely to be dominant at that time. When you are concerned about getting a promotion or a raise at work, the rajas guna may be dominant. A thought like, “oh! How I hate this person, I wish I could slap him at this very moment” is dominated by tamas and rajas.

In the Bhagavad Gita, primarily chapters 14 onward, there are large segments wherein these three gunas are discussed.

Q: Is there a connection between the three doshas (in Ayurveda) and the three gunas?

A: Since I am not too familiar with Ayurveda, I don’t know the correct answer to this question.

Q: What are doshas?

A:  Kapha, pitta and vata are listed as the three doshas in Ayurveda. They represent individual tendencies in humans. Most people are characterized by one of these as dominant in them. However, like gunas, the dominance can change from time to time. These are supposed to control our health and well-being.

As another side note, as I mentioned, there is a fair amount of discussion about the gunas in the Bhagavad Gita.  I have tried to pull out all the shlokas that have to do with the three gunas and put them all in a MS Word document. Let me know if any of you would be interested in getting a copy.

Why are we talking about the gunas? Because of the gunas, our behavior pattern changes. Gunas work through our subconscious levels and determine what behavior pattern we should have at a given time. We are, in a sense, propelled by the gunas to do the actions that we do. For example, let us say you had a fight with someone some time ago. Suddenly the thought of that fight comes up in your active mind. Your action will depend upon the guna that is active at that moment. If tamas is active at the moment, you would be too lazy to take any action – you’d just let it go. If rajas was more active, then you may decide to take revenge by planning some action like hurting the guy physically or emotionally. If sattva was dominant, you may start thinking positively, “how can I make friends with the guy? How can I help the guy to become better?” etc. So, based on any trigger, whatever comes up in the mind, the action will be determined by the guna that is dominant at the time. Gunas, of course keep changing from moment to moment.

Q: what is the ideal state of the gunas?

A: The ideal state is what is called the “balanced state”. There is no clear definition as to what that state is. However, as per the Samkhya philosophy, in the unmanifest state, before the creation, the “mula Prakriti” or the Primal Prakriti is a composite of these three gunas which are in a state of balance. So the goal is to transcend the gunas and get into a state called “gunatita” or “beyond the gunas”. That represents the ultimate state of samadhi or kaivalya.

Q: is that state attainable only after samadhi?

A: Yes, that is correct. Before samadhi, the gunas will still be in a state of imbalance. It is only in the final stage of samadhi that there will be a balance of the gunas.

Q: Does it mean that there are no feelings at that time?

A: Yes, we will go beyond the realm of feelings. Feelings, as we commonly know them, are a result of the ego. Feelings are based on judgment and judgment is the product of ego. We are trying to go beyond the negative influence of the ego. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is called the “samatva bhava” or the state of mental equanimity. Feelings include judgmental statements like, “I like or dislike something; I love or hate something; I am happy or unhappy with something” etc. These are all the statements created by the ego, not by the pure intellect. Our goal is to go beyond all that.

Let’s get back to the discussion of the five states of the mind.

Kshipta (scattered) is the state that is controlled by the gunas rajas and tamas. In this state the mind is just going everywhere, not steady. During most of our waking hours, we are in this state of the mind.

Mudha (dull) state is dominated by the guna tamas. In this state the mind is dominated by lethargy, sleepiness or some negative thoughts etc.

Vikshipta (partially focused) has some element of sattva but still maybe dominated by rajas. Because of sattva we are able to stay focused for a small amount of time. When you sit in meditation, for example, and you have been practicing meditation for some time, you can stay with the mind calm for a short period of time. This is the Vikshipta state of the mind. When you feel that even for a fleeting moment the mind was one-pointed, you were in the vikshipta state.

In the Ekagra (one-pointed) state, when the meditation gets deeper and you are able to hold the focus for longer time, then you are more under the influence of the guna sattva.

When the meditation gets very deep, and there are no thoughts that come up in the mind based on our past impressions, that state is called the Niruddha (fully arrested) state. This state is dominated by the sattva guna. At this point the mind cannot be bothered by anything that can come up from the subconscious levels. That is the deepest state of samadhi, the niruddha state.

To sum up, the mind is disturbed and distracted when the gunas are not in equilibrium.

Sutra 1.2


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yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ ॥2॥

“The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.”

There are four words in this statement and we will try to understand each one. An English sentence built using these Sanskrit terms would be, “yoga by definition is the nirodha of the vrittis that appear in the chitta”. Chitta is the mind, or call it the mind complex. Vrittis are the fluctuations, disturbances, changes, perturbations going on in the mind. Nirodha is control, cessation, subduing the mind. Thus, yoga by definition is the ability to control or subdue the constant fluctuations that are going on in the mind. As mentioned earlier, because of the three gunas, the mind is constantly undergoing change. Every moment a new thought arises, immediately the next thought follows, mostly related to the previous thought, but sometimes totally unrelated.

Why do we want to calm the mind? What causes all these fluctuations? Constant fluctuations of the mind do not allow us to focus on the task at hand. Thoughts, emotions, behavior patterns etc. all keep changing. To understand all this, and then to learn how to keep the mind calm, we need to understand the mind better. The yogis in various texts suggest that to understand the mind, it is a good idea to think of the mind as a composite of four functions:

  • Manas (cognitive function)
  • Buddhi (intellect)
  • Smriti or chitta (memory)
  • Ahamkara (ego)

Cognition can happen as a result of input received through the five senses. We can also cognize based on what comes up to the surface of the mind from our deep subconscious levels. It also includes functions like having a will or a desire, emotional states like anger, worrying etc.

The intellect (buddhi) is the decision-making or the discriminatory function.

Ego is the function that gives us an identity – father, son, office worker, shopper etc.

Memory is the storehouse of all the past experiences and impressions called samskaras.

To understand how these four functions work together, I have put together an anecdotal story. It is inspired by a similar situation described by Swami Satchidananda in his book.

At the end of the day you come back home from work. You are possibly a little hungry at that time. You walk into the kitchen and perceive a smell. This is the first cognition – a sense of smell – that happens. The smell leads you toward the counter top where you see a piece of cake sitting there. The mind, at this point, is receiving input from the sense of smell, as well as the sense of sight. At this point your inclination is to engage the sense of touch by dipping the finger into the cake to find its texture. Next, to engage the sense of taste, you take a small sample and put it in your mouth to get a taste of it. Here is how the decision-making process proceeds.

The mind feeds all this sensual information to the intellect, the decision-maker. The intellect has to make a decision what to do with this information. The most obvious choice it has to make is whether to eat the cake or not. In our current state of being, the intellect is unable to make an independent decision as it is conditioned to always consult with its boss, the ego, before making any decision. So it approaches the ego for advice. The ego digs into the memory and pulls out all the information related to this cake from a previous experience. It determines that in the past the experience of eating this cake was a most pleasurable one – the taste, smell, the texture etc. – all was just heavenly! So, the ego advises the intellect to go ahead and order the mind to take necessary actions to eat the cake. The intellect, being the official “decision maker”, puts the final decision on hold for a moment and decides to make some independent investigation of its own. It goes and digs into a different section of the memory and finds more information that needs looking into. It finds out that just a few days ago, during a visit to the family doctor, the recent blood work showed dangerously high levels of cholesterol in the system. At the doctor’s advice, I visited a nutritionist. The nutritionist’s strong advice was to avoid all foods rich in sugar and fat etc. The cake obviously falls in that category. Now the intellect is in a dilemma as to what the appropriate decision should be since it believes that based on doctor’s advice this cake needs to be avoided. It again goes back to the ego with this new information for more advice. The ego has already labeled this cake as the ‘best thing in the world’. It counter-argues with the intellect saying that one piece of cake cannot kill anyone; after all it is just one piece. Just go ahead and eat it. Poor intellect, being deeply conditioned to follow the advice of the ego, does as commanded. And, of course, we know the obvious result from here on.

Unfortunately, this is how the mind seems to function in all situations in life – whether related to work or family or shopping or driving etc. it is always the ego that wins the battle and we are pushed into darker alleys. All this happens because we have allowed the ego to take charge.

The purpose of the practice of yoga, according to Patanjali, is to transfer this control from ego back to the pure intellect. We want the intellect to become the boss and the ego to become subservient to the intellect.

Q: does it mean that the ego does not analyze the situation before making a decision?

A: That’s not true. The ego did the analysis in this case. It went and studied the past and based on its analysis decided that eating the cake was the best option at the time. The point is that we would like the analysis and decision-making to be done by the intellect, not by the ego.

Sutra 1.3

तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम्॥३॥

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tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam ॥3॥

“Then the Seer [Self] abides in His own nature.”

What or who is the seer? It is the soul or the Purusha. In our current state of the mind the Purusha is confusing itself with the ego. Because of the constantly changing gunas, there are fluctuations in the mind. In this confusion, the ego takes over and the Purusha loses its identity. However, when we are able to calm the mind, when we remove the fluctuations of the mind, then the ego has nothing to work on. Ego relies on the past impressions called samskaras. However, when we are able to calm the mind, the samskaras become ineffective as they are unable to come to the surface but remain deep in the subconscious. At this point the intellect can take over and recognize that its boss is not the ego but the light coming from the Purusha, the pure intuitive wisdom.

So, this sutra states that when I am able to calm the mind through “nirodha”, then the seer or the Purusha can find its true identity.

Q: Where is the Purusha situated with respect to the mind?

A: Let me try to explain it with the help of a picture.

Functions of Mind

As shown in the picture, the mind gets the input from the five senses. The mind interacts with the intellect. The intellect interacts with both the ego and the memory. The ego also interacts with the intellect and the memory. You can now try to understand the previous scenario in light of this illustration.

As you will notice, the Purusha is not directly connected with any aspect of the Prakriti. However, in the current state of the mind, the Purusha is superimposed on the ego due to ignorance. That is what makes the ego take charge and now we are controlled by the ego, not by the pure intellect.

The purpose of calming the mind is so that the control can be transferred from the ego to the pure intellect. As per this sutra, when that happens, then the Purusha (the Seer) can rest in its own true nature. This is also termed as “self-realization”, that means, we have realized what our true identity is.

Sutra 1.4


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vr̥tti sārūpyam-itaratra ॥4॥

“At other times [the Self appears to] assume the forms of mental modifications.”

In the previous sutra, we learned that the Self can realize its true nature when the fluctuations of the mind are subdued.

Vrittis, as we saw earlier, are the fluctuations in the mind

Sarupyam means similarity or oneness;

Itaratra = otherwise, on the other hand

Otherwise, when we are not able to curb the fluctuations of the mind, then the Seer takes on the shape of the vrittis and they are in charge. Essentially then, what Patanjali is telling us that either we control the fluctuations of the mind and become self-realized, peaceful and calm; or else, if we are unable to calm the mind, then the ego takes over and the “lower mind” controls us.

Q: So, when we control the mind, we are able to break the bonds in our subconscious that bind us.

A: Yes, that is indeed the case.

Essentially, these first four sutras tell us the definition and the purpose of yoga.

The next few sutras are devoted to a discussion of the vrittis or the fluctuations of the mind.

Sutra 1.5

वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्यः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः॥५॥

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vr̥ttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ ॥5॥

“Vrittis are divided into five categories and these can be either painful (klishta) or not painful (aklishta). “

Painful vrittis are caused by kleshas. These vrittis result in karmas which are stored in the “karma bag” and these karmas bring about “karma phala” or the result of karmas. We’ll take up the topic of kleshas and karma etc. when we discuss concepts from chapter 2.

Q: Are samskaras the same as memory?

A: Samskaras are memories which have been assigned a label. Whenever we have an experience, it gets lodged in our memory (chitta). There are three categories of memories:

Pure memory (smriti): factual information. A pure memory of today’s meeting may include the date, time of the meeting, number of people attending etc.

Samskara (impression): This is where the ego has put a label on the memory – good/bad, love/hate, like/dislike etc. In English it is simply called an impression.

Vasana (hidden desire): a subliminal desire/longing for some experience to happen again or to never happen again. This is another label, something like, “I would like to have this experience again” or “I never want a repeat of this experience” depending upon whether I liked or disliked the event.

Q: Does the soul come back with vasanas in the next life?

A: Yes, the soul comes back with this whole baggage including samskaras, vasanas etc. What it comes back with is called the “subtle body”.

Q: Does the soul come back?

A: Yes, the soul, attached to the subtle body, gets back into a new physical body. It doesn’t come back only when it is fully liberated. We have rebirth only because the soul is attached to the subtle body. When the soul is finally liberated, then there is no rebirth.

To sum up, samskaras are intangible and inactive state of the vrittis and vrittis are the tangible and active outcome of the samskaras. Vrittis are a result of deep subliminal impressions becoming active based on some trigger. In normal parlance, the terms samskara and vasana are not used separately. They are used synonymously in many of the articles that you read on this topic.

During our relaxation routine, we set a “samkalpa” or a positive affirmation. This samkalpa also creates a positive samskara in the mind. However, we do it at a time when the mind is quiet and receptive for positive impressions. These help suppress some of the negative impressions in the mind.

Observation: when we see a snake, the vritti of fear arises in the mind. It is this vritti that will initiate the action of running away from the snake.

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