Are Patanjali's Yogasutras about yoga?

Matthijs Cornelissen
last revision: 19 December 2023

In recent times, there is an increasing confusion about the meaning of the word "yoga". Traditionally, the word "yoga" is taken to be derived from the common Sanskrit root yuj-i, meaning "union". In the context of spirituality and philosophy it is then used for the (re-)union of the Self with the Divine, both as path and as result. Globally, hathayoga has, however, become so popular that for many people, even within India, the word "yoga" now refers to a collection of physical postures that bring some sense of peace and harmony back to our otherwise stressed city lives. A further confusion is introduced because most yoga schools take Patanjali's Yogasutras as their main philosophical support, and the second sloka of Patanjali's Yogasutras has become one of the most often quoted Sanskrit verses, especially amongst modern, cosmopolitan yoga enthusiasts. In translation it reads:

Yoga is the silencing of the movements of the mind

The statement tends to be taken as Patanjali's definition of yoga, and the previous verse, which means "Here follows an exposition on Yoga", seems to confirm that Patanjali intended it as such. And yet, for anyone who has not come to yoga through the Yogasutras, but through any of the (many) other schools of yoga, this doesn't sound completely satisfactory. While silencing the mind is an important element of any discipline that re-connects us to our highest selves and the Divine, it doesn't feel right to define yoga as the silencing of the movements of the mind.

Interestingly there is an alternative reading of Patanjali's text. Vācaspati Miśra, one of the earliest commentators on Patanjali's Yogasutras offers an unusual but actually rather plausible interpretation of Patanjali's usage of the word "yoga". He notices that there is another word "yoga" that is derived from the root yuj-a, which means concentration, and Vācaspati Miśra suggests that Patanjali might actually have meant this second much less common word. At first sight it may seem rather preposterous to assume that centuries of scholarship and a huge and growing international readership may be wrong about the basic subject matter of Patanjali's work, but the rest of the Yogasutras actually points rather strongly in this direction. This alternative interpretation is referred to and then left by the side by Ramakrishna Rao in his translation of and commentary on Patanjali, but there are others who have taken it to be the sole correct understanding of the text.

Unless specifically mentioned otherwise, I will use "yoga" in this text, in line with Sri Aurobindo and most Sanskrit scholars, for the more common meaning of the word. Sri Aurobindo describes it in The Synthesis of Yoga (p. 32) as follows:

Yoga is the union of that which has become separated in the play of the universe with its own true self, origin and universality.