What is Yoga? Ask a Sage, and The Answer May Surprise You

what is yoga

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the second sutra answers the important question, What is yoga? After calling students to attention with the first sutra, Patanjali states:

Yoga is restraining the mind stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).

You’ll see this in other words depending on which translation of the Yoga Sutras you read. The general idea, though, is yoga is an expanded state of mind. It isn’t an empty the mind, however, and that’s an important point. The goal is to restrain, not turn off, the mind. We do this so we can experience reality beyond the thoughts that keep us stuck.

Chitta and Vritti

To understand this definition of yoga, we need to define the terms chitta and vrittis. Chitta is roughly translated, as you can see, as “the mind stuff.” Vrittis are thoughts. So, we can think of our mind as an entity capable of creating thoughts.

But why do we want to restrain our thoughts?

I don’t know about you, but when my mind is racing with thoughts, I can quickly spiral into a troubled and dark state. Even when thoughts are not particularly negative, they are often a kind of mental clutter that keeps me stuck. I may think too much about what I want or how to control things, when I’d be better off letting go.

Have you ever been so engrossed in something that it becomes effortless? You’re not really thinking about it. You’re just doing it. When I was a young girl and took piano lessons, I’d have this experience often. But the moment I thought about the next note or the position of my fingers, I’d freeze. My fingers would do the wrong thing, and I’d play the wrong note.

Now, this happens a great deal when I write. When I can get beyond my thoughts and let the words flow through me, I write with lightness and ease.

So, we practice yoga to get past the thinking monkey mind so we can be our higher selves.

The Path to Enlightenment

Not everyone has the same answer to the question, What is yoga? For many people in the West, stilling the mind is more of a practical tool for dealing with stress and anxiety than a step along the path to enlightenment. Either way, the Yoga Sutras teach us to start our yoga journey by becoming aware that we are not our minds.

Before we can expand awareness, we need to understand the tricks of the mind. The next couple of sutras deal with these. Basically, they tell us that as we practice, we’ll sometimes be able to restrain the mind. And other times, the mind will get the best of us.

The more we practice, the better we’ll get at filtering out the mind’s chatter.

The Five Modifications

Patanjali suggests there are five “modifications” of the mind. That is, there are five types of thoughts that clutter our minds. They are right knowledge, indiscrimination (thinking we know when we don’t really know), verbal delusion, sleep, and memory. As you can see, they’re not all necessarily negative. Tune in to a future post for more on these.

For now, the point is, there can be a lot going on in our minds, and we need to be very discerning about what we pay attention to. Ideally, we can get beyond the mind to an expansive state of awareness.

So, what is yoga?

We may be able to answer that question after years of practice—practice that begins with learning about the nature of our minds. No rush, though. It’s a practice that continues to expand for each yogi who embraces the path.

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Maria Kuzmiak

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