What is yoga

by Vula Bolou BSc MSc CIYT III

“So, what is yoga? Who can tell us?” asked the speaker, a vaidya (āyurvedic doctor), and scanned the audience. “You tell us, Vula! You are a yoga teacher.” I was put on the spotlight – and it was not the first time. People might often ask me what yoga is, or they might just nonchalantly offer an entirely random definition, so then one feels they must establish the truth. At the time, this straightforward question produced an intuitive answer but, inevitably, raised another two: 1) according to which philosophy or commentator does one define the term ‘yoga’? and 2) Shall I just say it in English or recite it in Sanskrit, as per the tradition?

For us Iyengar yogis, the answer lies in Patañjali Yoga Sūtra (PYS) and Guruji Iyengar’s commentary on it1. Patañjali, the laconic fellow that he was, utilised only four words to define the subject in I.2 (samādhi pāda, sūtra 2). Sūtra are terse aphorisms to aid memorising since, at the time of composition, the only method for learning was via recitation. Guruji then proceeded to explain these four words in, no less than, three pages of comments.   

yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ or yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ (PYS I.2)

In Sanskrit texts, the words are joined and hence are subject to some rules of fusion of sounds. For example, the last letter of the word yogaḥ is , which, when joined with the first letter of the following word citta, which is c, morphes into ś, producing yogaścitta.

The definition of yoga according to Patañjali in English then is,

yoga (is the) cessation [nirodhaḥ] (of) movements [vṛtti] (in the) consciousness [citta]2.

Another feature of the Sanskrit language is that often the verb is not explicitly included in the sentence, it is implied. This gives great freedom to the translator and commentator – but confusion as well. In this particular case, there is no verb in the definition, but we assume it to be ‘is’.

To provide a translation and some comments on the matter, one should examine this definition under the prism of one’s philosophical tradition and understanding. In our case, this environment is the philosophy of Sāṁkhya, a dualistic view of matter or Nature (prakṛti) and spirit, individual and Universal (puruṣa). Let us investigate each word of the definition in turn.

Yoga, at a first point of contact,is very much a practical subject and relates to the physical practice of āsana and prāṇāyāma. This is usually how we, in the West, come in contact with this art and science, which is actually a vast field of ancient knowledge, incorporating the entire eight limbs of yoga (yama niyama āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayaḥ aṣṭāu aṅgāni, PYS II. 29), expanding way beyond our very limited first-point contact. In fact, yoga is our journey of studying the Self through Guruji’s prescribed methodology of action. However, when the practitioner reaches that state where the movements of consciousness have ceased, this is also called yoga or, samādhi (absorption), the last limb of the eightWe accept this twofold meaning, as the great sage Vyāsa who was the first and foremost commentator of the Yoga Sūtra mentions in his treatise3.

Citta, is usually translated as ‘consciousness’ or, otherwise it is an all-inclusive term for the Mind. The Mind, in Sāṁkhya (yoga philosophy shares some views with Sāṁkhya), comprises of three factors: mind (manas), intellect (buddhi) and ego (ahaṁkāra). Citta is a manifestation of prakṛti, the gross part of man. The other part, the subtle one, is puruṣa, the individual soul. Creation takes place via the works of prakṛti and man experiences life as citta comes in contact with the objects of the world via manas, buddhi and ahaṁkāra. This experience has two goals, according to Sāṁkhya: one is for enjoyment and the second for Self-realisation. While man enjoys life and comes into contact with the objects of the world, there occurs a cloudiness of the picture of one’s identification with puruṣa and a misidentification takes place. Patañjali talks about that state in,

vṛtti sārūpyam itaratra (PYS I.4)

at other times, the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness4

If the person yearns to proceed on the path of Self-realisation, this cloudiness needs to be purified by cultivating the illuminating principle of Nature, sattva. Prakṛti, is governed by three qualities (guṇa) always in constant flux: sattva (illumination), rajas (activity) and tamas (stability or stagnation). All three are needed on this path, but Self-realisation may only be reached by striving to increase sattvic qualities. The methodology that Guruji Iyengar developed as his life’s monumental work does exactly that. On this matter, Patañjali says,

tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe avasthānaṃ (PYS I.3)

then, the seer dwells in his own true splendour5

– When one thinks of vṛtti, one inevitably remembers the Parivṛttas (Trikoṇāsana and her friends) and might naturally do a little revolving, there and then. Similarly, cittavṛttis are also movements or fluctuations of the consciousness, as the experience of the world unfolds. Patañjali will go on in the Yoga Sūtra and explore the cittavṛttis in depth, as well as methods for controlling them.

– In the final leg of the journey, all cittavṛttis are stopped, nirodhaḥ or cessation occurs and all guṇas are dissolved and returned to their source. This stillness brings about a profound silence in the Mind and the highest state of samādhi (asaṁprajñāta samādhi3 as Vyāsa explains)is experienced.

This is how yoga is defined in Patañjali Yoga Sūtra, a text which was initially aimed at advising yogis inclined to ascetisism and possibly living in the forests. In the Bhagavad Gītā on the other hand, which is a text aimed at householders living life in the world, it states,

samatvaṃ yoga ucyate B.G. 2.48

yoga is called equanimity

Guruji explains “Lord Kṛṣṇa says that yoga is a way to maintain an even temper in one’s word, work and wisdom. This attitude of cultivating oneness in word, work and wisdom helps one to reach the goal of uniting the self with the Self6.”

So, ‘what is yoga?’ begs a plethora of other clarifying questions and, at least, a few paragraphs of explanations. Being laconic to avoid too much information, I simply answered to the vaidya “Yoga is serenity” and most people in the audience around me silently agreed.


  1. Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on the yoga sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996 edition.
  2. Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on the yoga sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996 edition.(p. 46)
  4. Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on the yoga sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996 edition.(p. 49)
  5. Iyengar, B.K.S. Light on the yoga sūtras of Patañjali, Thorsons, 1996 edition.(p. 48)
  6. Iyengar, B.K.S. Core of the yoga sūtras, HarperThorsons, 2012 edition.(p. 14)

*Vula Bolou (BSc, MSc, CIYT (Level 3)) lives in Athens, Greece with her family and Margie, the Persian cat. She teaches in her overflowing-with-props studio, escapes to nature as often as possible and looks forward to her yoga retreats in the summer. Chanting vedic hymns and studying Indian philosophy is part of her daily sādhana.

This article first appeared in Iyengar Yoga News, issue 45, Spring 2024