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What is Yoga, Patañjali?

Yogaḥ cittavṛttinirodhaḥ

Yoga Sūtra 1.2, Patañjali

Photo by Daniel Mingook Kim on Unsplash

I've been thinking about this sutra, this thread from Patañjali's Yoga Sutras, the second sutra: yogaḥ cittavṛtti nirodhaḥ. The Yoga Sutras were compiled by Patañjali sometime between 500BCE and 400CE, although scholars generally agree that somewhere in the 3rd century CE is most likley. It is one of the central texts used to describe yoga, one of the two most likely to be encountered in a yoga teacher training (YTT) program, along with the Bhagavad Gita.

​This sutra, the one that follows, "And now we're going to talk about yoga," (my rough translation of the opening) is usually translated to mean approximately, "Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." After the introduction, it's the first real description of what yoga is. It's foundational for everything that is going to follow it, and many practices are built on this concept.

Here are some other translations I've found in my own library and other places:


is experienced

in that mind

which has


to identify itself

with its

vacillating waves of perception.

~trans. Mukunda Stiles

Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

~trans. Chip Hartranft

To block the patterns of consciousness is yoga.

~trans. Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Yoga happens in the resolution of consciousness.

~remixed by Matthew Remski

Yoga is the control (nirodhah, regulation, channeling, mastery, integration, coordination, stilling, quieting, setting aside) of the modifications (gross and subtle thought patterns) of the mind field.

~Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati

I've used this many times in my teachings on the breath. If yoga is stilling the fluctuations of the mind, and if the mind follows the breath, we should calm the breath to calm the mind (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 2.2), and this then is yoga. Stilling the breath is yoga — it's the bedrock of what I teach. But this week I came across a blog post by Lucie Crisfield entitled "Yoga is not the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." (I'll link to it at the bottom — if you're with me on this so far, you might want to read it, but maybe just one thing at a time.) Lucie is a long time student of yoga and Sanskrit, and she has a beautiful and thorough description and explanation for what these words actually mean, but in the end it comes to something like this:

In the context of and within the practice of yoga, we remember who we are, and as we shift and change and grow, sometimes with action and other times without action, moved by the creative energy of the universe, we become ourselves, one with everything.

That's my language, but I think it encapsulates what she says. (Disagree? Happy to discuss it! Comment below, or email me...) If this is the case, then the goal of yoga is more than stilling. And although it remains true that stilling the breath will calm the mind, perhaps the goal of yoga is not always to calm the mind. Maybe we need to also stir and move the mind sometimes (like I'm doing right now) as a part of the process of practicing yoga.

We often say, in our modern interpretations of yoga, that yoga can be anything, if the intention is there, which I agree with. Perhaps this is what Patañjali was saying as well. If you are becoming more you through the process, then it's yoga.

So what does this mean for the breath? Although there are many good reasons to "still the breath," if by stirring up the breath, you are connecting more with who you are, then that may be yoga for you, at that time. I think that none of this has given me more answers — merely more questions, more things to consider, more things to include, more things to study (including more Sanskrit!).

When does your breath feel like yoga to you?

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