Defining Yoga

by Vula Bolou

definingyogaPatañjali is the author or authors (there is a difference of opinion among historians as to the existence of just one person or many with the same name)1 of the seminal text on yoga “Pātañjala Yoga Sūtrāṇi.”  Philosophically this work is based mainly on Sāṅkhya, a dualistic system of thought, which considers Puruṣaḥ (spirit) and Prakṛtiḥ (matter) the two pillars of explaining everything.

In the second sūtra of the first chapter (Samādhi Pāda), Patañjali uses just three words to describe yoga – one of the most widely used and misused terms nowadays.

Yogaścitta vtti nirodha – PYS I.2

“yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” 2

Citta refers to consciousness or the mind in a broader sense. It comprises of Buddhi (intellect), Ahaṃkāra (I-ness) and Manas (mind). The root evolvent (or Primal Nature) is Prakṛtiḥ or Mūlaprakṛtiḥ, which then produces Buddhi (or Mahat), this produces Ahaṃkāra, which then produces Manas and the rest of the tattvas (karmendriyas, jñānendriyas, tanmātras and mahābhūtas). 3

Mūlapraktir aviktir mahadādyā prakti viktaya sapta

oaśakastu vikāro na praktir na vikti purua – SK. 3

Patañjali then identifies vṛtti. Vṛtti means modification or movement. Citta vṛtti involves all movements of consciousness, namely correct knowledge, illusion, delusion, sleep and memory.4

pramāa-viparyaya-vikalpa-nidrā-smtaya– PYS I.6

The action between consciousness and its movements is nirodhaḥ or cessation. Therefore, for yoga to be realized, Patañjali advises that all movements of consciousness be stopped. This relates to yoga as a goal or samādhi, which is defined as,

tad evārtha-mātra-nirbhāsa svarūpa-śūnyam iva samādhi – PYS III.3

“that state (dhyāna – meditation) becomes samādhi when there is only the object appearing without the consciousness of one’s own self. “5

However, yoga-the path is also the process for yoga-the goal to be achieved. Patañjali calls yoga-the path ‘aṣṭāṅga (eight limbs) yoga’ in the second chapter (Sādhanā Pāda) and lists its component limbs as,

yama-niyamāsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo ‘ṣṭāv agāni – PYS II.29

“the eight components of yoga are external discipline, internal discipline, posture, breath regulation, concentration, meditative absorption and integration.” 6

This is yoga according to Patañjali, who was mainly influenced by Sāṅkhya, as previously mentioned. A common philosophical mistake is when yoga is termed as the union of two separate entities. This is a tantric notion that, despite true as mentioned in Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, is not what Patañjali advocated. So,

Tatsamam ca dvayoraikyam jīvātmaparamātmano

pranaṣṭsarvasamkalpaḥ samādhiḥ so’bhidhīyo – HYP 4.7

“when the twofold nature of the individual soul and cosmic soul becomes one, all desires/ideations are destroyed and that is considered samādhi.” 7

From the author’s point of view, yoga was initially a physical discipline or Hatha Yoga discovered in the context of a gym over twenty years ago. The Iyengar tradition of practice was followed (revolving mainly around āsana and prāṇāyāma of aṣṭāṅga yoga), which is deeply rooted in Patañjali’s yoga sūtra and Guruji Iyengar’s Vaiṣṇava spiritual path. For the first years, any philosophical connection eluded the author, since few teachers outside of Guruji himself or, indeed, the Iyengar family were discussing sūtra in āsana classes. Philosophy was in books, physical practice was on the mat. Yet, some quietness was experienced, possibly glimpses of citta vṛtti. It seemed to occur less obstructed in prāṇāyāma.

It was not until studying in Pune under the guidance of the Iyengar family that some interweaving began to take place. This was after over ten years of āsana and prāṇāyāma practice. The author experienced some sort of integration or even oneness, far from Patañjali’s samādhi, but still the link between the book and the mat was established.

The journey is long and full of magical discoveries. On one of the trips to India another dimension of yoga was revealed to the author – the yoga of Bhagavad Gītā. The Gītā differentiates between Karma yoga (yoga of action), Jñāna yoga (yoga of knowledge) and Bhakti yoga (yoga of devotion). It defines yoga as,

Yoga karmasu kauśalam – BG 2.50

“yoga is skill in action.” 8

Apparently yoga included more than āsana and prāṇāyāma, or even the eightfold path. Satsaṅga (spiritual talk), chanting the vedās (ancient scriptures), rituals (pūjā and homa) and darśana (literally sight or blessing) of the guru were all part of yoga – yoga in an aśram setting.

Eventually, Patañjali’s samādhi or yoga-the goal seemed for the author easier to grasp in an aśram environment in the presence of a living guru in India than a yoga studio setting anywhere in the West. These various methods (Karma, Jñāna and Bhakti yoga) provided a broader backdrop for feelings of serenity and oneness to arise with greater frequency and intensity. While at the aśram, it was becoming a common occurrence for equanimity to dawn effortlessly. For the time being, the author feels that it is a start to have had a few experiential glimpses of Patañjali’s words.

To be established in those states, i.e. a state of oneness, a broader sense of equanimity, an all-round serenity as the result of those, the author trusts that is a prelude to samādhi. A natural desire to remain on the path of yoga is still prevalent. The author longs for the ānanda (bliss) of samādhi – and feels it is certainly within reach, as the journey in yoga languorously unfolds.


PYS = Pātañjala Yoga Sūtrāṇi

SK = Sāṅkhya Kārikā

HYP = Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā

BG = Bhagavad Gītā


  1. Tola, Dragonetti & Prithipaul 1987, p.xi.
  2. Iyengar 1996, p.46
  3. Swami Virupakṣānanda 1995, p.10
  4. Iyengar 1996, p.52
  5. Swami Satyananda Saraswati 2013, p.227
  6. Iyengar 1996, p.134
  7. Swami Muktibodhananda 2011, p.473
  8. Radhakrishnan 2010, p.137


  • Tola, Fernando; Dragonetti, Carmen; Prithipaul, K. Dad (1987), The Yogasūtras of Patañjali on concentration of mind, Motilal Banarsidass
  • Iyengar BKS (1996), Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons
  • Swami Virupakṣānanda (1995), ṅkhya Kārikā of Iśvara Kṛṣṇa, Sri Ramakrishna Math
  • Swami Satyananda Saraswati (2013), Four Chapters on Freedom, Yoga Publications Trust, Ganga Darshan, Munger, Bihar, India.
  • Swami Muktibodhananda (2011), Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā, Yoga Publications Trust, Ganga Darshan, Munger, Bihar, India.
  • Radhakrishnan S (2010), The Bhagavadgita, HarperCollins Publishers India.