Yoga is not a one size fits all exercise system for the body alone. Yoga is a deep and rich philosophy of life that can be traced as far back as humans have been seeking to understand the nature of reality

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Yoga is not a one size fits all exercise system for the body alone. Yoga is a deep and rich philosophy of life that can be traced as far back as humans have been seeking to understand the nature of reality. Yoga is referred to in the ancient Upanishads, the Bhagavadgita and further expounded and synthesized by Patanjali in a brief and concise text known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, which came after the Bhagavadgita, is thought to have been written approximately 200 B.C.

The Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali (The Sutras) offer more than theoretical and philosophical discourse on the nature of reality. The Sutras offer great insight into the nature of the human condition and how to rise above it. Patanjali explores yoga, the nature of mind, the source of our suffering, and then does something, until this point, we have not seen before. Patanjali offers practical tools to assist us on the path out of suffering to freedom and liberation. He then further explains the wonderful benefits and joys that can be realized in this life as a result of a dedicated practice of these disciplines.

Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras are divided into four chapters, each with a different focus. Chapter 1, Samadhipadah, defines yoga and discusses the obstacles to achieving yoga and how these obstacles can be overcome. Chapter 2, Sadhanapadah, describes the practices that will aid in changing the mind from a state of distraction to one of focus and why it is important to do so. Chapter 3, Vibhutipadah, describes the effects of the practices and the potential problems in practice. Finally Chapter 4, Kaivalyapadah, presents the potential of what can be realized and experienced by one who achieves the mental refinement described throughout the text.

Yoga, in the Upanishads and the Bhagavadgita (The Gita), refers to a state of being when an individual comes to know their true self as one with all that is, not as a separate individual “I”, but rather as and indivisible one with all. This is experiencing the true self as Atman, the individual manifestation of Brahman, is a theme first found in the Katha Upanishad and restated throughout many of the ancient texts that followed.

The Sutras and The Gita are deep rich philosophical treatises whose teachings are eternal and universal. These teachings are as relevant today as they were thousands of years ago. These texts deal with the fundamental questions of basic human nature, the causes of suffering and how to achieve freedom from suffering. The yogic teachings and practices show us how to overcome the crises of the conscious, the confusion of identity, the struggles in human nature that have and continue to be the cause of so much human misery and strife. Today, as it was thousands of years ago, freedom and joy can be experienced in our lives through the dedicated and disciplined practices of yoga.

As much as an in depth analysis of both books would bring the greatest understanding of the wisdom of these teachings, and how to integrate them into our lives, the scope of this short essay must limit our explorations primarily to comparing the commonalities and differences of the Gita and the Sutras. The focus will be on the 6th chapter of The Gita, for it is known as ‘The True Yoga’ and Chapter 1 and 2 of the Sutras which explore the definition of yoga, mind, the causes of suffering and what one can do to move out of suffering to freedom .

The Gita is one section of 18 chapters, found in the middle of the epic Mahabharata. The Gita is a discourse between the philosopher king, Krishna and the despondent warrior prince Arjuna. The discussion between Krishna and Arjuna centers on the inner turmoil Arjuna is experiencing as regards the impending battle. Arjuna’s turmoil is indicative of everyone’s inner battles. How are we to make the right choices in our lives, to overcome our sufferings and aspire to an enlightened joyful state of being?

In the Katha Upanishad we find one of the original definitions of Yoga. “When cease the five [Sense-] knowledges, together with the mind, and the intellect (buddhi) stirs not – That, they say, is the highest course. This they consider as yoga – the firm holding back of the senses. Then one becomes undistracted. Yoga truly, is the origin and the end.”1

The yogin here is described as one who has discovered happiness within, having resisted the

distractions that would otherwise detract from this discovery. Yoga is defined as the highest state of awareness that is not subject to the distractions of the senses, limited to the (thinking) mind or just the intellect (awareness of the self as Atman). But rather, yoga is the source of and final state, a merging of all the layers of awareness as one, without division or separation. “From the Upanishadic standpoint, any method that enables us to become aware of the atman or Brahman is referred to as a ‘yoga’ in that it unites us with the infinite dimension within. However, in the Gita, the term ‘yoga’ refers to a combination of karma yoga, or the yoga of work and raja yoga, the yoga of psychic control.”2 Jnana yoga, the yoga of wisdom and Bhakti yoga the yoga of love and devotion are also discussed in the Gita.

Verse 23 and 24 of the 5th Chapter of the Gita set the stage for the continuing discussion of Yoga that follows in chapter 6. “He who is able to resist the rush of desire and anger – even here before he gives up his body, he is a yogin, he is the happy man. He who finds his happiness within, his joy within, and likewise his light only within, that yogin becomes divine and attains to the beatitude of God.”3

How is it that we are to find this happiness within when there is so much inner turmoil? What does Yoga mean and how can it be attained?

Patanjali’s definition of yoga is, “yogascittavrttinirodhaha”4 When we consider the meaning of each word in the sutra we can perhaps better understand this sutra. The root of yoga is yuj, to yoke or harness, citta means mind or consciousness, and vritti can be interpreted as whirl, activity or fluctuations, and nirodhaha means restrictions. Therefore we can determine that for Patanjali, Yoga means to harness and restrict the activity of consciousness. The mind or consciousness itself must assist in restricting its fluctuations. “Patanjali defines the mind as a composite of the activities that occupy it. It cannot be perceived except in terms of these activities.”5

vrttayah pancatayyah klistaklistah - “There are five activities of the mind. Each of these can be beneficial and each can cause problems. Pramanaviparyayavikalpanidrasmrtayah. The five activities are comprehension, misapprehension, imagination, deep sleep and memory.”6(For further detail on the 5 activities of mind see appendix A).

By harnessing or using the activities of the mind we yoke, or bring all the activities of mind together to achieve Yoga. Yoga, the harnessing of the mind, is truly the means by which the mind itself is restricted. Yoga is the source of and means by which Yoga is achieved. For Patanjali Raja Yoga, or controlling the activities of the mind, is an integral part of attaining the yoga of action (Karma), wisdom (Jnana) and devotion (Bhakti).

The Gita’s definition of the human mind is described in terms of faculties not activities. This is a subtle but important difference when considering why Patanjali considered Raja Yoga the foundation through which we can successfully achieve the others. The four faculties of the mind as described in the Gita are: thinking, feeling, willing and restraining. These are sources of action where as faculties of the mind are instruments of knowledge or powers by which we learn and know. It is these instruments of knowledge, the activities of the mind, that provide the nourishment for how to think, feel, choose and act in order to achieve yoga. A calm and focused mind makes for wise and inspired choices and supports our ability to maintain the discipline required to rise above the challenges and limitations of the human condition.

With all these different activities and faculties we have to ask: HOW are we to harness them, in order to still and calm these faculties in order to achieve yoga? Verse 12 of chapter 1 in the Sutras answers that question: “abhyasavairagyabhyam tannirodhaha”7, abhyasa = practice, vairagya = renunciation, abhyasa = practice, tan=to extend, nirodhada = restriction. By consciously practicing renunciation, as well as the practice of restriction, that is, restricting the activity of the mind, we will arrive at the state of yoga. Practice, practice, practice.

Krishna also speaks of renunciation and restriction as necessary practices for a yogin. “What they call renunciation, that know to be disciplined activity, O Pandav (Arjuna), for no one becomes a yogin who has not renounced his selfish purpose.8” “When one does not get attached to the objects of sense or to works, and has renounced all purposes, then he is said to have attained to yoga.”9

In the earlier chapters of the Gita it has been explained that work, karma, is inherent in the life of every human being. “Not by abstention from work does a man attain freedom from action; nor by mere renunciation does he attain to his perfection. For no one can remain, even for a moment without doing work; everyone is made to act helplessly by the impulses born of nature”10 But he who controls the senses by the mind, O Arjuna, and without attachment engages the organs of action in the path of work, he is superior.”11

Krishna indicates that a combination of knowledge and work are how we come to yoga. For Krishna the highest knowledge of the Self as Atman brings a peaceful and calm self-mastery. “The ascetic (yogi) whose soul is satisfied with wisdom and knowledge, who is unchanging and master of his senses, to whom a clod, a stone, and a piece of gold are the same, is said to be controlled [in yoga].”12

For those whose works are enlightened with the knowledge of Self as Atman, will be inspired by that knowledge and choose to work not for mere personal gain and pleasure, but as a means to serve and thus attain freedom. Work that is inspired by such wisdom is Karma yoga, the yoga for the man of action. The pursuit of knowledge as a means of inspiration for one’s life is Jnana yoga, yoga for the contemplative. Both require a disciplined and calm mind, and this is the basis of Raja yoga.

In verses 19 through 26 of Chapter 1 Patanjali acknowledges that for the rare few, with an unwavering faith in God, right effort and regular prayer, over time, yoga can be achieved. Krishna, in fact, considers the Bhakti yogin to be of the highest order, as is indicated in verse 47 Chapter 6 of the Gita, “And of all yogins, he who full of faith worships Me, with his inner self abiding in Me, him, I hold to be the most attuned (to me in Yoga).13

Patanjali recognizes the limitations in Bhakti yoga for the average person. He offers explanations of what interferes with our success and causes misapprehension. He then goes further to explain the practices and tools that can aid us in the pursuit of right knowledge, clarity of mind, positive attitude, sustained enthusiasm for the attainment of yoga, by anyone, not just those of extreme faith, learning or wealth. We each find our way, not to the exclusion of one or the other, that is, not to the exclusion of work, knowledge or devotion, but through the system most suitable to our own natures. Not everyone is of a philosophical or intellectual nature, not everyone has a deep conviction or faith, not everyone is prone to great acts. Patanjali explains that not understanding what our own nature is best suited for, leads us astray.

In both the Gita and the Sutras the individual’s nature is taken into account on the quest for enlightened living. Both texts refer to the Gunas, or three primary qualities inherent in nature. Prakriti, nature, or that which exists in the phenomenal world, is said to be composite, to varying degrees, of sattva or equilibrium, tamas or inertia and rajas or activity. The Gunas according to the Gita are born of Prakriti, and bind to the individuated self and Prakriti is believed to unfold the Gunas. For Patanjali the Gunas are three forces whose existence can be deduced from the behaviour patterns found in Prakriti. These three fundamental forces are in continual conflict with each other. The resulting tension creates the different levels of existence.

The difference between the two texts is in the understanding of which is influenced or developed by which. Do the Gunas influence Prakriti, or do the Gunas come from Prakriti? In the Sutra’s the Gunas are derived from Prakriti, in the Gita, Prakriti is derived from the Gunas. We need not be distracted by this difference, for it is really a chicken and egg kind of thing. The important thing is that both texts understand that each individual is a combination in varying degrees of all three Gunas and Purusha. Purusha is the transcendental Self, the Atman, the individual manifestation of Brahman. Each person is a manifestation of Prakriti (nature) and Purusha (the Divine).

The fundamental difficulty in achieving a refined mind or enlightened self awareness comes from a basic confusion of identity. Yoga Sutra 1.16 Tatparampurusakhyatergunavaitrsnyam”14, Tat = self or that, Param = the smallest part, Purusha= transcendental consciousness, or Atman, Khyati= vision or to see, Guna = 3 essential building blocks of nature = sattva, rajas, tamas, Vaitrsnyam (vairagya) = dispassion, no thirsting. “When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his true self, he will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him.”15

Through steady patient and persistent practice we can overcome this basic confusion of identity. Verse 1.14 clarifies “It is only when the correct practice is followed for a long time, without interruptions, and with a positive attitude and eagerness, that it can succeed”.16

The journey to yoga requires that we renounce our desires for personal pleasure and gain not merely as an intellectual pursuit, but in our work and actions. For such renunciation to take place an incredible personal discipline must be achieved. For the distractions of the senses and the many different activities of the mind are strong and well established forces in our lives. It is much easier to take the path toward comfort and pleasure, to rationalize our actions for taking the easy route than to take the path of service. To be motivated to achieve the enlightened state of yoga requires a steadfastness of mind and an understanding that in attaining yoga one will experience a far greater joy and happiness than can be experienced as a result of choices and actions based in the self- interested pursuit of personal pleasure and gain alone.

“This yoga declared by you to be of the nature of equality [evenness of mind], O Madhusudana(Krsna), I see no stable foundation for, on account of restlessness, For the mind is verily fickle, O Krsna; it is impetuous, strong, and obstinate. I think that it is as difficult to control as the wind.” 17”Without doubt, O Mighty-armed (Arjuna), the mind is difficult to curb and restless, but it can be controlled, O son of Kunti (Arjuna), by constant practice and non-attachment. Yoga is hard to attain, I agree, by one who is not self-controlled; but by the self-controlled it is attainable by striving through proper means.”18

What is meant by proper means Krishna describes as follows: “For the man who is temperate in food and recreation, who is restrained in his actions, whose sleep and waking are regulated, there ensues discipline (yoga) which destroys all sorrow.”19

How are we to overcome the desire for pleasure and personal gain that are an integral part of the human condition? If we simply try to ignore, deny or restrain our desires they will no doubt boil up and come to the surface with a vengeance. Will and intention alone are not enough to develop the discipline required to no longer be servant to our desires, to our very nature.

For Patanjali “proper means” are practice and detachment. More than this, Patanjali gives us some help and advice on how and what to practice so that we can slowly and steadily achieve the steadiness of mind required to achieve yoga. Patanjali explains not only what it is in our nature that makes it so difficult for us to achieve such discipline but he gives us tools to overcome these inherent difficulties so that we can succeed and achieve yoga.

The second chapter of The Sutras describes the means by which we can change the mind effectively and gradually from a state of distraction to one of attention. The Eight Limbs of Yoga or Astanga are “yamaniyamasanapranayamapratyaharadharanadhyanasamadhayo’stavangani”20

1-Yama, our attitudes towards others and our environment, 2- Niyama, our attitudes towards ourselves, (For further definition of Yamas and Niyamas see Appendix B)3-Asana, body exercises, 4-Pranayama,breathing exercises, 5-Pratyahara, restraint of the senses, 6-Dharana, concentration or the ability to direct the mind 7-Dhyana, meditation or the ability to develop interaction with what we seek to understand, 8-Samadhi, complete integration with the object to be understood.

Patanjali’s eight limbs, or practices, progress from the outermost layer, or sheath of our being to the innermost, (For further explanation of the sheaths of being see Appendix C). The eight tools, or Astanga, are given because each individual learns and responds uniquely. The eight tools aid in the elimination of suffering. The key to removing suffering is calming the mind. The yamas and niyamas are the ethical principles that guide us in our work and relationships. Asana removes suffering at the physical level, pranayama calms the mind, when the mind is calm concentration, (dharana) can develop, through concentration meditation, (dhyana) begins. Through meditation we experience Samadhi, ecstasy, or the condition when consciousness has merged with the object of concentration. In Samadhi the mind is calm, there is no longer the activity of meditation and the one meditating, no separation of mind and its activities or faculties, there is only one, still in awareness of Self, Atman.

Krishna and Patanjali consider restraint of the senses an essential element for renunciation. We must remember restraint of the senses, or drawing inward, or control of, not denial of, the senses will lead to controlling their influence. The order presented of the first five limbs is not necessarily the sequence to be followed in practice. There are no set rules or definitive routes. The route that is most suited to each individual constitution should be followed. All these components develop simultaneously as the individual progresses. The last three limbs lead to an intense and refined state of introspection.

With the five activities of the mind calmed we overcome erroneous identification of self with the fragmented and distracted elements of our nature. We thus come to understand the source of our suffering and continually practice to overcome it. We do not need to discard or deny our nature, but rather integrate and harness all aspects of our being to rise above that, which is within our nature, which causes us to suffer. When all aspects of our being are brought into harmony, wholeness and balance we experience freedom from the suffering inherent in the world of duality, we experience yoga.

To remove and avoid suffering, at all levels of our being, physical mental, emotional and spiritual, we must know ourselves, our essential nature as one with all that exists. The tools, or eight limbs, of yoga help us to do so. The reflective states that arise with patient and persistent practice lead toward clarity and self-understanding. Self understanding is to have a personal experience of Atman. Knowing the true self as Atman inspires us to live, act and serve with love. Anyone, regardless of race, religion, age or conditions, young or old, sick or fit, through patient and persistent practice of the eight limbs, all can benefit.

Patanjali has given us the tools and practices to still the mind. And as the great modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said: “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”21 Practicing yoga is the means by which we will achieve the state of yoga. As Jesus of Nazareth, and all the other great prophets of humanity have taught; ‘Be still and know that I am God’.


Desikachar, T.K.V. The Heart of Yoga Developing a Personal Practice. Inner Tradition International. Rochester, Vermont. 1995

Desikachar, T.K.V. Reflections on Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali. Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram. Chennai, India.1987.

Feuerstein, Ph.D. Georg. The Shambhala Encyclopedia of Yoga. Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boston, Massachusetts.1997.

Moore, Charles A. Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. Source book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.1957.

Radhakrishnan, Sarvepalli. The Bhagavad-Gita. Harper Colophon books, Harper & Row Publishers, (First Harper Torchbook edition). London, England. 1973.

Graham, Martha. “An Athlete of God”. As heard on the Bob Edwards Show, October 9, 2009. November 14, 2010.

Murty, Ram, M. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. PHILOSOPHY 410/810: Introduction to Indian Philosophy Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario. November 14, 2010.

Appendix A

Activities of Mind:

Pramana = comprehension or knowing correctly based on direct observation of the object, inference and reference to reliable authorities.

Viparyaya = incorrect knowing which occurs through faulty observation or the misinterpretation of what is observed.

Vikalpa = imagination, thought of an object based on words, expression not on direct experience.

Nidra = deep sleep – when no other activity is present.

Smrtayah = memory, recollection of past experience.

Appendix B

Yamas: Social disciplines

1-ahimsa – Consideration towards all living beings, especially those who are innocent, in difficulty, or worse off than we are, (do no harm).

2-satya – Right communication through speech, writing, gesture and actions, (truth).

3-asteya –non-covetousness, don’t take what does not belong to you at any level, (no stealing).

4-brahmacharya – moderation, loyalty and truth in all our actions.

5-aparigraha- accept only what you deserve and what is appropriate, (absence of greed).

This is a brief introduction. The five Yamas are not always possible to stick to all of the time; it is not a black and white outline for our interactions. The particular circumstances and players involved in each situation must be considered in the light of these guiding principles.

Niyamas: Personal disciplines

  1. Sauca – cleanliness at all levels, internal and external.

  2. Samtosa- contentment & gratitude with and for what you have (one of the most important mental disciplines).

  3. Tapas-elimination of impurities in our physical and mental systems through the maintenance of correct habits such as sleep, exercise, nutrition, work and relaxation.

  4. Svadhyaya - reflection and study, the necessity to review and evaluate our progress.

  5. Isvarapranidhana- actions done more in the spirit of service than for personal gain (detachment and the spirit of surrender).

These priorities establish themselves and the correct attitudes develop concurrently with our rectification of errors and actions which cause problems.

Yamas .Niyamas, Asana and Pranayama are disciplines that need to be consciously undertaken and will prepare us and support the effect which begins to happen as a result of a devoted practice of the first 4 components.

Appendix C

The five Koshas or sheaths of being –

The system prescribed here in the Sutras, and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika recognizes five different layers of being, or Koshas, that surround the subtlest level of our being. By penetrating these layers of being we experience ourselves at our subtlest layer, our essential essence, which is without disturbance or suffering. “Maya” which means “mother” or, more specifically that which nourishes, is how each of the five sheaths of being can be understood and is described.

Annamaya - nourished by food, is the physical body,

Pranamaya - nourished by prana or life force energy, is the breath,

Manomaya, which is nourished by personal experience, information, and learning gathered by the senses, is the lower level of knowing,

Vijnanamaya, the higher level of knowing is nourished by knowledge and intellect which extends beyond simple information,

Anandamaya, the highest level of being is joy, or bliss.

It is by penetrating through the denser layers of our being to the most subtle that we experience the Atman, this is Yoga. ‘When the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain focus in that direction without any distractions is achieved, one has attained yoga.’22 When one is able to merge the activity of the mind, without any distraction, on the subtlest level of our being we experience Samadhi. We attain union with Atman, there is no longer one who is meditating on an object, there is just one, this is Yoga.

1 A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, pg 49.

2 An Introduction to Indian Philosophy, M.Ram Murty, pg 76.

3 A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, pg.122.

4 Reflections on Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali, TKV Desikachar, pg.18

55Ibid. Pg.20

6 Ibid. pg.20-21


7 Reflections on Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali, TKV Desikachar, pg.24

8 A Source Book in Indian Philosophy, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Charles A. Moore, pg.122.


10 The Bhagavad-Gita, S. Radhakrishnan. pg 133

11 Ibid. pg 134

12 Ibid. pg 191

13 Ibid. pg 211

14 Reflections on the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali, T.K.V.Desikachar. pg26

15 Ibid. pg 26

16 Ibid. pg 25

17 A Sourcebook in Indian Philosophy, Sarvepalli Radhaksihnan and Charles A. Moore. pg.125

18 Ibid. pg 125

19 Ibid. pg 124

20Reflections on Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali. T.K.V Desikachar, pg.61

21 An Athlete of God, Martha Graham

22 Reflections on Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali, T.K.V.Desikachar. pg 19

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