The word “yoga” is derived from the Sanskrit root “yuj” meaning to bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply. It also means union or communion. In the sense in which it was meant, yoga means the identification or bonding of the human spirit (jivatma) with the Universal spirit (paramatma).
Yoga is one of the six orthodox systems of Hindu philosophy. It was collated, coordinated and systematized by Patanjali in his Yoga-sutras, which consist of 185 aphorisms. References to Yoga can be found right from the earliest texts. Conceptions of ecstasy and hypnosis are in the Rig-Veda. In the Atharva Veda supernatural powers are apparently possible through meditation. The Upanishads talk of Yoga in the sense of a conscious inward search. The Buddhist Suttas have similarities, and are familiar with the system of Yoga. In the Mahabharata, the Samkhya and the Yoga are complementary parts of one whole, being respectively theory and practice, philosophy and religion.
The contribution of Patanjali was thus to collate earlier references into a single system which could be used as a practical manual. Numerous later commentaries expound on the principles of the yoga-sutras, notably those of Vyasa, Bhoja, Vacaspati and Vigyanbhikshu.
The yoga-sutra is thus the oldest systematic textbook on the art and science of yoga. It is divided into four parts:
- Samadhipada which deals with the nature and aim of yoga as a vehicle tosamadhi,
- Sadhanapada, the second part, expounds the means to be used to attain this end,
- Vibhutipada lists out the supernatural powers that may be gained from the practice of yoga and
- Kaivalyapada the fourth and last part defines the nature of final liberation.
The question of liberation is interesting. The jivatma or spirit is, because of its involvement in the material world or prakriti, ignorant of its true divine nature and the essential unity of all creation. Liberation thus refers to liberation from ignorance. Ignorance of the true nature of the world causes desires, which in turn are the cause of pain and suffering.
Yoga claims to offer a way out of ignorance and a renewed appreciation of thejivatma with the paramatma. It has thus a common goal with the Samkhya system, the difference being that while the Samkhya emphasizes knowledge as the route to salvation, the Yoga system stresses on practice and concentration.
Practice is really the key word. Yoga does ascribe importance to knowledge, but underlines the fact that mere knowledge will not lead to liberation. Thus Patanjali’sYoga-sutra has often been called a practical handbook, a help guide of sorts rather than a scholarly work. It stresses repeated practice of the yoga system to become an adept, an endeavor that asks for both sustained time and effort. It is thus that potential students are classed into four categories based on their inherent skills, devotion, aptitude and concentration.
Concentration is particularly important. One of the first aphorisms in the yoga-sutra is “chitta vritti nirodhah”. This can be translated as “restriction of the fluctuations of the consciousness”.
The word chitta denotes the mind as composed of its three elements:
- manas or the mind linked to the senses and having the power of attention, selection and rejection,
- buddhi or intelligence and
- ahamkara or ego.
The chitta or consciousness is constantly in flux since it is bombarded by input from all its three parts. It is difficult, in a normal life, to be free from these inputs and they become the sources of distraction due to which the mind is never still. Unfortunately a troubled or turbulent mind can never be one with the Universal spirit and cannot see itself and others as part of, or as manifestations of, this spirit or paramatma.
The goal of Yoga is thus clear right from the beginning – a subduing of the fluctuations of the mind, which distract it from an appreciation of reality as it really is, and not as it is perceived.
The yoga-sutra is first and foremost a practical handbook. All authorities on Yoga lay emphasis on continued sadhana or abhyasa (constant practice). Accompanying constant practice is also renunciation. Renunciation here does not mean renunciation of the material world, by escaping away from cities, crowds. This would be too easy and would be a negation of Creation. Renunciation means the giving up of all desire, of thought and action which act contrary to the Universal spirit. Renunciation does not mean renunciation of action, but rather of any desire for the end result, to accept with equinanimity the end result.
Ashtanga Yoga or the Eight Limbs of Yoga
Yoga is not, as is widely perceived, only a set of physical exercises designed to achieve a fit body. It may be used as such, and indeed the adept practitioner will be superbly fit and supple. Many people will be content to use Yoga today as just this, and it is true that the full ramifications of Yoga are not for everyone – it needs a certain combination of events in life to make one ready to accept Yoga in its entirety. In its full form, the practice of Yoga is described as Ashtanga or composed of eight limbs, all of which are coordinated and go hand in hand.
- Yama denotes ethical discipline – ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truth), asteya(honesty or non-stealing), brahmacharya (abstinence from sex) and aparigraha(non-coveting).
- Niyama are the rules which apply to a person – saucha (purity), santosha(contentment), tapas (ardor/austerity), svadhyaya (study of the self), and finallyisvara pranidhana (dedication to God).
- Asana or posture. This is yoga in its most publicized form, as a set of convoluted exercises. Asanas are a set of postures evolved over the years, designed to make the body supple, elastic and strong. A strong and fit body thus becomes an ideal place for concentrating the mind. Physical weakness of disease divert the mind’s resources, and there is no time or space left for contemplation and concentration.
- Pranayama – The word prana means breath or life. Ayama means to stretch or to restrain. Pranayama thus means the control of breath and all its functions. It is said that prana in the body of an individual is an integral part of the rhythm of the universal spirit. Thus the attempt of pranayama is to bring the self in harmony with the rhythm of the universe.
- Pratyahara – This denotes self-study. Each individual is said to be made up three gunas or qualities – sattva, rajas and tamas. A person’s character as we perceive it can be said to be the result of these qualities in different combinations. The sadhaka or yogi tries, by constant self-study, to weed out rajas and tamasfrom himself.
- Dharana – When the body, mind and senses are in harmony by long practice ofasanas, pranayama and pratyahara, the yogi is ready for the sixth stage.Dharana means to concentrate wholly and solely on a task or thought.
- Dhyana – Dhyana means uninterrupted concentration. It is the next logical stage from dharana, which is concentration on one single object. Dhyana takes this concentration to an extended time and the yogi is said to feel one with the universal spirit.
- Samadhi – This is said to be the end of the yogi’s search, where he finally achieves complete unity with the universal spirit. His body and senses are said to be asleep and yet his mind is said to be awake and alert. He is not conscious or unconscious, but has passed beyond consciousness.
The problem of translation and commentary
This is a very short introduction to the art and science of yoga, and in reality many volumes could be written about its essence and purpose. However the aim here is not to publish a research paper but to lay the groundwork for a personal interpretation of the yoga-sutra of Patanjali. This is a considerable task because each of the 185 aphorisms of Patanjali is exactly that – an aphorism which has a depth of meaning far beyond its shortness of length. An interpretation then has two stages. The first is a translation from Sanksrit to a contemporary language. That this is not simple is proved by the fact that translators through the ages differ substantially on the nuances of each aphorism. For example, one of the first aphorisms is “chitta vritti nirodhah”. The following examples of translation by different authors show well how difficult it has been to arrive at a definitive version:
- Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity
- B Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga
- Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions
- Patanjali's Yogasutras, translated by TKV Desikachar
- Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness
- Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, in pages 288-310 of Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga Tradition
- Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind
- Swami Hariharananda Aranya, Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali (translated by P.N. Mukerji)
- Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications
- Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore (eds.), A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, pages 453-485
- The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda
- Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind
- IK Taimni, The Science of Yoga
It is thus clear that there is no real consensus. But what is perhaps more important than arguing over the exactness of the translation is to clarify what the aphorisms mean. The yoga-sutra is first and foremost a practical handbook. So it stands to reason that the only way to be able to understand an aphorism is, firstly, to practice yoga oneself. Till then, no amount of scholarly commentaries, including this one, will make full and complete sense.