What is Yoga?

Indian Mural

Many of us practice yoga, but when we are asked what yoga is, the question is difficult to answer.  One of the reasons this question is so difficult is that yoga has many definitions.  In Sanskrit, words are derived from roots, which define how to interpret the word.  Yoga has various roots: yuj, yuñj, and yuja.  Yuj means “to unite;” yuñj means “to bind;” yuja means “to put in place perfectly”(1).

Yoga has many meanings depending on the context in which one uses the term.  Moreover, different Indian texts explain the system or philosophy of yoga differently using these roots.  So, which text is right?  The answer is not black or white.  However, the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is widely considered the authoritative text on yoga.

As many of you probably already know, Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras is full of short sayings (pithy aphorisms) that describe what yoga is, how to achieve yoga, and the ultimate goal of yoga.  If in doubt, a serious student of yoga should first refer to the Yoga Sutras.  Therefore, let’s go to the Yoga Sutras to get the answer to our question: What is yoga?

In the first chapter, second sutra, Patañjali explains:

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोध: ।।

yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ (I. 2)

yogaḥ (yoga), citta (mind), vṛtti (activity), nirodhaḥ (stoppage)

Yoga is stopping all mental activities.

What does this mean?  Everything that you experience is because of your mental activities.  If you taste sugar, for instance, it is only sweet because the receptors in your tongue send a signal to your brain where the signals are interpreted as ‘sweet.’  Mental activity is the key to experience.  Without mental activity, we would have no experiences.  Therefore, all experiences–which we take in through our senses, imagination, and even our sleep–are all cittavrtti-s.

Since cittavrtti-s appear to happen outside of ourselves, we consider these experiences to be objects.  We say: I taste sugar.  “Sugar” is the object.  “I” am the subject.  We say: I practice yoga.  “Yoga” is the object.  “I” again am the subject.  But who is “I”?  Who is experiencing “sugar”?  Who is experiencing “yoga”?  When we refer to “I,” who is being discussed?  Am “I” just my tongue?  Am “I” only my brain?  Or does “I” refer to something much bigger, something more profound?  By completely focusing the mind, we can stop our mental activities or cittavrtti-s and gain a true understanding of “I.”

How do I stop these mental activities?  First, the Yoga Sutras define yoga so that we can understand what exactly is going to be discussed.  In other words, yoga in the context of the Yoga Sutras is the stopping of mental activities, not a discussion of other definitions of yoga.  However, the first chapter of the Sutras is for natural born yogis.  Natural born yogis are a rare exception and can already achieve absolute concentration at will.  They don’t get distracted by family squabbles, problems at work, or the latest YouTube videos.  So, most of us are trying to find this concentration because it is a preliminary requirement to achieving yoga.  Chapter two of the Sutras is for us aspiring yogis, and it explains how to focus the mind.

Chapter two begins by explaining kriya yoga:

तप:-स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोग: ।।

tapas-svādhyāyeśvara-praṇidhānāni kriyāyogaḥ (II. 1)

tapaḥ (control of the senses, especially the tongue), svādhyāya (study of religious/spiritual texts), īśvara-praṇidhānāni (worship of Isvara, the Lord), kriyāyogaḥ (yoga for cleansing/purification)

Kriya yoga consists of control of the senses (especially the actions of the tongue, i.e. controlling one’s speech and appetite), study of spiritual texts, and worship of the Lord.

So, why should I do kriya yoga?  These three fundamental practices (sense control,  study of spiritual texts, and worship of the Lord) cleanse a person and prepare him or her for absolute concentration.  As essential foundational steps, they are critical for anyone who wishes to aspire for cittasvrttinirodhah.

Once your base is in place, you may wish to continue on the path of yoga.  Patañjali continues on to explain atanga yoga (yoga of eight limbs), a system which leads to clear understanding of the distinction between the subject “I” and the object “experience”  (II. 29).  The eight limbs or parts of aṣtanga yoga are:

यम-नियमासन-प्राणायाम-प्रत्याहार-धारणा-ध्यान-समाधयो=ष्टावङ्गानि ।।

yama-niyamāsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo ‘ṣṭāvangāni

Here, Patañjali simply lists the eight limbs:

  • yama (rules that apply to how you relate the world)
  • niyama (rules that apply to your own self discipline)
  • āsana (comfortable, steady seat)
  • prāṇāyāma (breath control)
  • pratyāhāra (discipline of the senses)
  • dhāraṇā (bringing the mind back to one point)
  • dhyāna (meditation)
  • samādhi (absolute concentration/absorption)

In future posts, we will discuss the eight limbs more in depth.  Please note, however, that yoga refers to an entire system or way of life, not a sequence of poses or an exercise program.

Why go through all these eight steps?  What will I get out of practicing yoga?  The ultimate goal of yoga is kaivalya or “freedom.”  Yoga or understanding the true relationship between the subject and object of your contemplation will give you the clarity to see your true nature.  By understanding who you really are, you will no longer be affected by the ups and downs of life.  You will discover peace or freedom from all pain and suffering, which means no more unhappiness, anger, anxiety, fear, embarrassment, hurt, or blame.  Hmmm…who knew?  This Yoga that Patañjali describes is starting to sound pretty good…


(1) Ramaswami, Srivatsa. “What is Yoga.” In Yoga for the Three Stages of Life, 30-35. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000.

Patañjali. “Yoga Sutras.” In Mantrapushpam (3rd edition), edited by Sri Saraswati Puja, 588-597. Mumbai: Ramakrishna Math, 2007.

Vedanta Glossary from class with Swami Dayananda

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