Atha…. What is Yoga?

Atha…. What is Yoga?

Now that we are all ready with clear hearts and heads to study these beautiful sutras and slokas on Yoga let us begin at the beginning…of Patanjala Yoga Sutram

In 4 chapters consisting of 195 total aphorisms, known as sutras, the great sage Patañjali composed the Yoga Sutram of Patañjali (so titled not because it comes from the sage but because he was the one to write it down). This text (as is the way with the sutra form of writing) contains no flowery language, no unneccesary jargon, just clear information for the benefit of all humankind. Patanjali is one of those rishis “with no axe to grind.” The first 4 sutras are agreed to be the most important of the whole text. As my teacher Ramaswami reminds us over and over…”If you don’t understand the first 4 sutras, the rest of the text is meaningless. If you DO understand the first 4 sutras the rest of the text is merely expounding upon that!”

The chatush sutrani are laid out as follows:

  • 1.1 the subject of the text
  • 1.2 the definition of the subject matter
  • 1.3 the results of being established in the subject matter
  • 1.4 the alternative (what if we throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water?)

Today lets get into the first three- so what is yoga?


Before we look to the sutras lets first look to the word itself. Sanskrit words (like many languages) derive from specific roots and often times different roots can arrive at the same word! For yoga we have 2 primary roots for the word itself:

First we have the root Yuj (coming from Yujir Yoge) or to unite

In this connotation there must be, as my teacher describes, 3 important components. 

  • First there must be atleast 2 things that are coming together
  • second they must be compatible with eachother and ..
  • third there must be activity…as in there is a movement of one towards the other or both towards eachother. 

We see examples of this root in hatha yoga where ha (prana) and tha (apana) through practice (specifically pranayama) move towards eachother, unite and the remove the blockages in the subtle spine (susumna) so that prana can flow through the central channel. We see another eample in bhakti yoga where the jivatma (individual soul) moves towards the paramatma (ultimate reality, source) as a “drop of water merges into the ocean” through devotional practices. We see yet another example in kundalini yoga where shakti (activity) in the form of kundalini (imaged as a coiled serpent at the root of the spine) moves towards the shiva principle (consciousness) in the crown of the head for the purpose of absolute bliss.

The other root is Yuja (coming from Yuja Samadhau) to indicate Samadhi

Here there is no indication of joining. Rather Yuja or Samadhi indicates a complete stop of that which is not the true and unconditional self- described by Ramaswami as “absolute peace of mind.” This is the root used in the Yoga Sutras as will become evident as we look at the sutras themselves.

Why is this distinction important? WELL, because this root presents an opening. Defining yoga as a mental state of total peace doesn’t necessarily negate the understanding of yoga for hatha yogis or kundalini yogis or bhakti yogis etc. Instead it is an invitation to all those who don’t fit the parameters of practice requiring yoga to be a unification process…i.e. it doesn’t require you beleive in any particular form of the divine with which you are uniting etc… it simply offers a path to absolute peace through the process of yoga or raja deepti “throwing light upon the true nature of the self!” Therefore the tradition that yoga aligns with can be whatever tradition you hold close to your heart just as is indicated in sutra 1.1.  As we will see later on when we dive a bit deeper into the term vinyasa krama…both definitions can co-exist.

Now lets look at the sutras:

  • atha: and now
  • yoga: the subject of yoga
  • anu: in alignment with
  • shasanam: the shastras/vedas

First “atha”…Atha literally translates to “and now.” Essentially the sentiment here may be akin to “well everything else you’ve been doing to either grasp peace or push away discomfort has not been working so NOW let’s look at something that actually helps”

Next “anushasanam”. This word means in accordance with the shastras or the vedas. The vedas being the beautifully written 4 part sanskrit treatise on life, ritual and spirituality popular even today in India and elsewhere and in Patanjali’s day especially the foundation of life for all his readers. This means that the yoga sutras are meant to be a support for the reader as they navigate their life. Essentially nothing here will bump up against what is said in the vedas. Krishnamacharya would take this one step further to say that the yoga described here can be applied to everyone irregardless of class, creed or religion…it is a sacred science for the benefit of all. So when Patanjali says “anusasanam” in essence he is saying “don’t worry, this is a support for what you already hold close to your heart”

Yoga is not yet defined in 1.1 but is stated as the subject of this text. For the definition we have to look to 1.2

  • yoga: the subject matter of yoga (is defined as)
  • citta: mind 
  • vrtti: activity
  • nirodhah: stoppage

“citta” is often described as mind. Another way of looking at it is breaking it down into the word cit + ta. Cit means consciousness. “Cit” is the actual aim! It is the uncondition self often called Purusha or Atman. Adding “ta” to that word however changes the meaning. ta indicates a shroud or a veil of confusion. So therefore citta (the mind) is not the subject but rather the objects and their associations. It is that which we perceive as our real self that isn’t.

“vrtti” means activity or the many ways that our mind works, associates, takes in and compartmentalizes information. Described by Patanjali as having 5 categories; one of which we discussed yesterday as “pramana.” More on the vrttis later.

“nirodhah” means to stop completely. 

therefore the definition of yoga here is “citta vrtti nirodhah” a complete stoppage of the minds activites. So yoga or “absolute peace of mind” is defined as nirodhah; stopping all conditional assocations with what changes! Patanjali expands upon this by describing the result of yoga in sutra 1.3

  • tada: and then
  • drastuh: the SEER, the one who sees
  • sva: one’s own
  • rupa: form, nature
  • avasthanam: established

“Drastuh” is the Seer, the one who experiences. As you will remember from yesterdays writing, prakriti (nature) exists according to samkhya philosophy for the experience of the Purusha (the true Self). “Purusha” (the Seer, Experiencer) has no other attributes EXCEPT FOR pure conscsiounsess. The Seer is not the Seen.

“Avasthanam” means to reside in or become established in (in this case for good) and svarupa is one’s truest form. Therefore this sutra tells us that the result of arriving in a state of yoga is that we reside in our own true form which only has “one note” that of absolute peace as consciousness. We are therefore at the root of who we are simply put: total awareness, not awareness with attachments. Samkhya and Yoga tell us that we are not these bodies, however real they are, they are simply a container for awareness to experience itself. The final liberation is to release the binds of nature even as we live amongst it.

A story for example… imagine your whole life you’ve lived amongst goats. You know no other beings except for goats as you roam your pasture, eating whatever you can just trying to get by. Then one day a lion calmly stalks through your pasture and as you turn to run she chases you. As you run in fear she eventually catches up and as you look into her eyes what you see reflected back is no goat, but a lion! You are a lion, not a goat! You’ve been living as a goat for so long you never questioned this but now it is so clear to you that you are no goat, as the mirror turns back to you all you can see now is the dusty main of a big cat! In this moment you leave the pasture and take up your seat as king of the jungle, unbound by fenceposts and boundaries.…and so it is with the real self (Cit/Purusha-Lion) and the misidentified self (citta/prakriti-goat). No hard feelings to the goat, it’s just a metaphor after all. 😉  

And so, put simply, the subject matter (yoga) is the process AND state that shines light on the true self allowing for absolute peace of mind. This is Yoga….and this is the journey we take up again and again with each breath. A slow peeling back of everything we have confused as our self (jobs, titles, bodies etc) so we can come home to our selves, not as guests but as permanent residents.

Let this steep. Don’t rush to judgement. Don’t immediately move on. Hold this close to your heart as you move through your day. 

See you tomorrow 🙂



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