Current scholarship on Patañjali’s Yogasūtra holds that it was composed around 400 CE in India, in Sanskrit, in a style known as sūtra. This means the text, which is the core presentation of Yoga as a path of living or as a practice in life, uses as few words as possible. Moreover, each of those words has multiple meanings and applications.
To illustrate this, we thought it would be useful to present the meanings of the words in the first two sūtras (Yogasutras I.1 and I.2) as examples.
Yogasūtra 1.1: atha yogānuśāsanam
Literal translation: now, the teaching of Yoga
Practical translation: here, the experiential teaching of Yoga [is explained]
There are three words in this sūtra (sentence): atha, yoga and anuśāsanam. Let’s explore the translation of each sanskrit word below!
The First Word: atha
The first word, atha, means: now, here. It gives the overall meaning of the entire teaching of the text which is to be present, to be here, in the now.
Generally, the first word of every chapter characterizes the overall meaning of the chapter, in the first chapter, the first word characterizes the overall meaning of the text as a whole. That is to say, Yoga as a process involves becoming completely present. At one level this means preventing the mind from wandering, and at another, very high level, it means experiencing a transcendent, timeless experience (samādhi). Both meanings are indicated by this one word.
The dictionary meaning is: “ind. an auspicious and inceptive particle, now; then; moreover; rather; certainly; but; else; what? how else?” But it is a bit dry and lacking in practical application
Additionally, atha is what is known as a maṅgalam, an auspicious word. Just as we try to “start off on the right foot,” many Sanskrit texts also have a tradition of using an auspicious word to begin the text. Often this word is “Oṁ” but since “Oṁ” is a Hindu word and strictly speaking the Yogasūtra is not a Hindu text, Patañjali chooses atha as the first word instead. Symbolically, this means that Yoga is not only for Brahmanical practitioners of the Vedic Tradition but for everyone, all faiths and all creeds.
Lastly, this sūtra is known as the pratijñā, the commitment sūtra. It is a sort of promise or vow to fulfill, i.e. “Now, I will study Yoga until I have mastered it.” Alternatively, it is also known as the saṁkalpa, the decision toward a specific intention. The practical application is that whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re spending your time on, it is either worth doing well, or you should decide it is not worth doing at all. In a sense, it poses a question for the student: are you committed? Is this worth doing? If so then it is worth the entirety of your being in doing it. There are actually a few more meanings that we’ve not listed here!
The Second Word: yoga
The second word, yoga, is defined in the next sūtra, I.2, so I won’t say more about it here [please see below.]
The Third Word: anuśāsanam
The third word, anuśāsanaṁ, literally means “instruction.” However, at the beginning of a text like this, its use indicates the text intends to set out a corpus of knowledge with a specific topic, in this case yoga.
The dictionary meaning is simply: “instruction, direction, command, precept”
If we break the word down and look at its pieces we’ll find the meaning is something closer to“experiential teaching.” The verb root of this word is √śas which means to teach, the suffix ana indicates “ing” so śāsana means “teaching or instruction,” (as a noun, not a verb) and the prefix anu means “following” which indicates this is something that should be followed.
This is Patañjali’s way of saying that Yoga is something to be implemented, that it is a series of actions to be done, not simply an idea or a presentation of principles. On a subtle level, Patañjali is also indicating that he is not the originator of Yoga, but that he has followed its practices to the point of mastery and is qualified to explain its meaning.
The prefix anu in this word is so important because it is a reminder that Yoga is something we do, that we must apply to our life and practice, not once or twice, but daily in an ongoing manner.
There is an interesting symbolism in the placement of these words, atha, as the beginning symbolizes the student, the new beginner who knows nothing about the subject. Anuśāsanam symbolizes the experienced teacher who has followed the teachings to the point of master and is qualified to teach. So what is the connection between student and teacher? Yoga is the connection, and by implication, nothing else.
It is a subtle reminder that the student teacher relationship is not horizontal but rather vertical. It automatically, by its very nature, contains a power imbalance, and consequently, the only contact between student and teacher should be the instruction of Yoga, no other, so called “dual,” relationships should be entered into.
Yogasūtra 1.2: yogaḥ citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ
Literal translation: Yoga is the restraint of the mental activities
Practical translation: the practical application varies according to the person to which it is being applied. In the case of the beginner, the meaning of this sūtra will be: Yoga is keeping the mind from wandering. It is stopping the attention from getting distracted which can also be stated in a more positive way as Yoga is directing the mental activities toward a chosen place [and maintaining them there]. In the case of the most advanced practitioners, the meaning will be Yoga is the complete cessation of mental activity. Both meanings are absolutely important. Let’s look at how we got here.
This sūtra has four words: yogaḥ, citta, vṛtti, and nirodhaḥ.
The First Word: yogaḥ
The first word, yogaḥ, is being defined in this sūtra, and so we won’t translate it. Its translation is quite literally the point of this sūtra. In fact, the Yogasūtras are a sort of dictionary that defines many of the terms of Yoga.
The Second & Third Words: citta-vṛtti
The second word, citta, means the mind,and the third word, vṛtti, means activity or function. Together they mean mental activity, or the functioning of the mind. These two words, citta-vṛtti, are further defined in the next few sūtras, specifically sūtras 1.5-1.11. It makes sense because Patañjali is defining Yoga in terms of the mind, so he will have to also define what he means by mind. It is helpful to remember that Patañjali’s definition of mind is a functional definition, it is a definition based on what the mind can be observed doing.
A fun point about citta is that its verb root is √cit which means to understand or comprehend as well as to perceive. Then the suffix ta which means “ness” is added. Thus citta is quite literally that which acts like it is conscious (but is really reflecting that which is conscious). It is that which is conscious-ness or perceiving-ness, a point consistent with Yoga philosophy which holds that spirit is the source of cognition and perception and the mind, body and senses are merely the implements or tools of cognition and perception.
The Fourth Word: nirodhaḥ
The final word, nirodhaḥ, means restraint or confinement.
The dictionary says “confinement, locking up, imprisonment; investment, siege; enclosing, covering up; restraint, check, control, suppression, destruction; (in dram.) disappointment, frustration of hope; (with Buddh.) suppression or annihilation of pain (one of the 4 principles).”
The verb root is √rudh means “to obstruct, check, arrest, stop, restrain, prevent, keep back, withhold; to avert, keep off, repel; to shut, lock up, confine in (loc.); to besiege, blockade, invest; to close, block up.” And the prefix ni means “down, back, in, into, within” so together, nirodha is to restrain or confine. As noted above, the multiple meanings of nirodhaḥ allow for this sūtra to mean different things to different people in different situations.
For beginners it means Yoga is about keeping the mind from wandering, and trying to sustain one’s focus in a single direction. And for advanced practitioners it means that Yoga is the complete restraint of mental activity to the point of transcendence! As you can see, there is a continuum of different but related meanings in between these two extremes. And that is what makes this text so incredibly practical and applicable to one’s life and daily living.
If you’re interested in understanding more about Patañjali’s Yogasūtra, please check out our free ebook: Understanding Patañjali’s Yogasūtras.
You can also learn more from Chase Bossart, the Executive Director with the Yoga Well Institute, in the Yogasūtras Chapter 1 Overview. Chase provides an overview of the content of Chapter 1, including its three major subsections and how the flow of ideas fit together. This chapter, in its entirety, provides a general overview of the path of Yoga from: the development of sustained attention, to how to maintain a state of Yoga in the midst of life’s difficulties, to the transformation that results from doing so.