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What is yoga?
Exploring the definition of yoga in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali
When I teach my college course on Yoga and Transformation, one of the first things I ask my students is “what is yoga?”
Most of them haven’t had much exposure to yoga. They look at me a little awkwardly, maybe they suspect it’s a trick question or because it’s a bit difficult to put into words. Unsurprisingly, their responses focus on the physical practice of yoga. They say that yoga is performed on a yoga mat. They sometimes list off common poses (child’s pose, down dog, warrior pose) and they say that yoga can be relaxing. Yes, this is what yoga can look like, but what IS yoga?
While you can find a number of definitions to what yoga is, I prefer the definition provided in the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, which was written around 400 CE (some scholars argue it could have been written much earlier). The Yoga Sutras consists of four chapters with a series of 195 sutras, or aphorisms, that synthesize the teachings on yoga. These aphorisms made it easy for students and teachers to memorize since not everyone had access to the written word.
We only need to read as far as the second sutra (1.02) for a concise definition: “yogash’ chitta-vrtti-nirodha” which translates to “yoga is the conscious control of the mind.” (There are many translations of this definition and I encourage you to explore them if you like to geek out on this stuff!)
What I love about this definition is that almost anything you do that quiets the mind can be yoga — it doesn’t have to be a particular practice or activity. It doesn’t have to look a certain way and it doesn’t have to be complicated, expensive, or time consuming.
And why do we want to achieve conscious control of our mind? The next sutra (1.03) tells us: “Then, the seer abides in its own nature.” When we control the mind, we enter into a state of ease, calmness, and contentment. We can abide in our own nature and free ourselves from the physical, mental, and emotional chatter, distractions, and pain.
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Controlling the mind does not mean that we bypass our suffering or the suffering of others. In my opinion, it invites us to investigate the root causes suffering so that we can take actionable steps towards alleviating it for ourselves and each other.
The sutras that follow provide further insights on how to practice yoga and how to liberate ourselves. We learn about the eight limbs of yoga — only one of which corresponds to a physical practice. (I’ll discuss these further in future articles.) Towards chapters three and four of the Yoga Sutras, things get a little bit esoteric, but nonetheless this ancient text is a great way to expand your understanding of what yoga is.
There are a LOT of translations of the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Here are a few. And if you have a favorite one, drop it in the comments.
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary by Edwin Bryant: This edition is extensively researched and provides a lot of history and context behind the words and meanings of the sutras.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda: Probably one of the most famous translations available, this edition is a bit easier to read. FWIW, some of Satchidananda’s followers have accused him of sexual abuse - yikes!
A Seeker’s Guide to the Yoga Sutras: Modern Reflections on the Ancient Journey by Ram Bhakt: This fairly new translation provides an accessible and practical way to explore the sutras.