Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras —A Definition of Yoga

One of the most enjoyable aspects of learning Sanskrit is the ability to approach traditional texts from the original language – savoring not only the beauty and resonance of the sounds and letters themselves, but also experiencing the meaning of the words and concepts without being entirely beholden to other people’s translations. Translation, while an essential piece towards understanding and reflection of these ancient texts, can also present several potential obstacles and problems. First, even if the translator happens to be a brilliant scholar, the translation itself might be confusing. One word may have multiple meanings and a translator’s choice to use one particular meaning can often eliminate the aspirant from seeking other definitions that shed new meaning on the text. The particular definition that a translator uses can be incorrectly seen as “definitive ” rather than one choice among many. For instance, in the Apte Sanskrit dictionary, the word “yoga” has over 50 different definitions.

Strict reliance on translation without adequate reflection may offer the reader no real understanding of how to apply the verse or the text to daily life. Like a coin from a foreign country, it might be pretty, but we won’t be able to use it to buy anything of value. When this happens, the wisdom of the text tends to remain on the page and the opportunity for personal transformation remains dormant.

When the profundity of a timeless yogic text is united with practical application, wisdom can leap off of the page and move us forward on the path of freedom and liberation. A basic understanding of Sanskrit opens the door to the wisdom of understanding and allows meaning to come alive in an experiential way. For truly, there is no “doing yoga”, there is only the experience of yoga.

One example of how translation can obscure as much as illuminate can be found in the oft-quoted and often misunderstood definition of yoga found in Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. (YS 1:2)

The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is the quintessential yogic text. Comprised of 196 potent aphorisms, the Yoga Sūtras provide a roadmap of freedom and liberation from suffering. Each sūtra “thread” can be seen as a delicious morsel of dehydrated truth that needs to be “chewed on” with heart and mind in order to be understood. Only then can the true flavor and the wisdom within be released.

The second sūtra of the first book (YS 1:2) is “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ” — Patañjali’s definition of yoga. A common and in my opinion, somewhat dubious translation of this is, “yoga is stopping the mind.” In fact, when I began practicing yoga, this was my understanding of the meaning of this sūtra. I just needed to figure out how I was going to stop my mind. As I began to delve into Sanskrit, I began to realize that the definition, and thus the meaning of yoga itself, was much more subtle and complex. Sanskrit opened the possibility to deeper understanding.

In the wonderful, yet out-of-print book, The Unadorned Thread of Yoga, the author provides no less than a dozen translations of each sūtra from various teachers. This shows just how open the Yoga Sūtras are to interpretation and thus, to potential confusion. Luckily, Sanskrit, the language of Yoga, helps provide a roadmap to greater clarity.

From a grammatical perspective, an important thing to realize is that the Yoga Sūtras is composed almost entirely of nouns, which means that, in essence, the entire text is a series of equations — “this equals this equals this…etc.”

The classic definition of yoga from Patañjali, “yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodahaḥ,” is comprised of four distinct words – “yogaḥ,  citta, vṛtti” and “nirodhaḥ.”

Grammatically, Sanskrit sounds are blended together so that they may be spoken or chanted with fluidity. When the word “yogaḥ” and “citta” are placed next to each other, for ease of pronunciation they blend together to become “yogaś-citta”, but separately they are “yogaḥ” and “citta.” Knowing that the original word is “yogaḥ” has importance in understanding the meaning of the sūtra.

The first thing to notice is that the words “yogaḥ” and “nirodhaḥ” have the same ending of “aḥ” As they have the same noun ending and are placed together as an equation, this can be taken to mean that they are, indeed the same thing. Patañjali is saying that “Yoga IS Nirodha!”

If someone were to ask you to define “yoga”  but said that you must define it with only one word, you could say “nirodha” and be 100% accurate.

Yoga is “nirodha” but it is a specific type of nirodha. There are many potential types of nirodha, but yoga is what is known as “citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ”

Nirodha is made up of the roots “ni” and “rud.” Ni means “under” and “rud” means to restrict or suppress. Taken together however, they can mean “a process of ending, elimination, cessation, dissolution, etc”

In my own studies, I have found that the most practical and important point is in the understanding that nirodha is a process – it is a selective means of cessation, restraint, elimination, etc. There is intelligence to it, a systematic progression of ending certain specific things – like peeling the layers of an onion. It can also be considered a type of vinyāsa (intelligent, sequential movement).

This is much different than just stopping the mind.

So, yoga is a “ process of selective elimination”, but of what? Here is where the two other words come into play.

Vṛtti comes from the Sanskrit root “vṛt” which means “to turn.” Think of a merry-go round, turning and turning, following the same pattern over and over again. In the case of yoga philosophy, what “turns” repeatedly are thoughts, patterns and identifications of self. Vṛtti speaks to the habituated thoughts and patterns that repeat perpetually and that we, through ignorance, identify as self. It is these vṛttis, starting with the ones that actively cause pain, that are selectively eliminated (nirodha). That process is called Yoga.

Citta comes from the root “cit” which means “to perceive.” Citta means “perceived” and refers to “all that can be perceived.” The space or the “field” which holds all that can be perceived is also known as “consciousness.”

Taken from the Sanskrit roots, one definition of Yoga can be seen as —

 “Yoga is the process of selectively eliminating habituated thoughts, patterns, identifications (occurring) within the field of all that can be perceived.”

To me, this seems radically different in flavor, practicality and potential application from common translations such as “yoga is stopping the mind” or “yoga is restraining the mind-stuff from taking various forms.”

As I allowed myself to chew on this particular definition of yoga, I noticed that my relationship with yoga itself began to change. Instead of trying to stop my mind, I began to relax into the understanding that yoga is a process that unfolds sequentially. I became more compassionate with myself and more honoring of my own process. I began to see that yoga does not demand stripping the mind of all thoughts but is instead a path where limiting, habituated patterns are replaced with lighter, more expansive patterns — like ripples in a pond expanding towards the Self.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. David
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 12:54:28

    Thanks. My own current working understanding is that yoga is a process of shifting consciousness away from self-centeredness. Thanks for breaking down the Sanskrit. Very helpful.


  2. Isaac
    Feb 03, 2012 @ 20:35:30

    Not to a pedantic nitwit, but “comprised of four distinct words – ‘yogaḥ,  citta, vṛtti’ and ‘nirodhaḥ’ ” is not strictly speaking true. The sūtra comprises two words: yogaḥ and citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ. It has four distinct stems, certainly, but Panini makes it clear that a ‘word’ is an inflected unit (1.4.14: sup-tiṅ-antaṃ padam).

    Otherwise, thanks!


  3. Gopal
    Mar 23, 2015 @ 22:14:37

    Vritti has two meanings. One is the perpetual vortex and other is the “function”. Chitta also means mind. The function of chitta is to think. Mostly what we are habituated to think is about the outside world. The process of Yoga is to internalize and make the chitta to reflect upon the God (Saguna or Nirguna; with or without form). That way, its function will be slowly reduced. As you rightly said, Nirodha is a process and it is impractical to stop your mind. And Yoga is not about stopping your mind. It is about changing the direction of mind make it think divine thoughts.


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