मनःप्रशमनोपायो योग इत्यभिधीयते॥

manaḥpraśamanopāyo yoga ityabhidhīyate॥

English Translation:
The recourse to pacify the mind is called yoga.

Mahopaniṣad 5.42

Yoga has been a Bharatiya and Hindu parampara (tradition) since eons. Thanks to imports by many stalwarts, now its practiced world over and celebrated with great fervour.  

Even as we celebrate International Yoga Day on 21st June, it shall be intuitive to delve a little deeper and look beyond the popular concept of Yoga, as defined in classical Indian texts.

Yoga, as we know and practice now-a-days is more to do with postural Yoga. How does it relate to the Yoga of Sri Krishna or of Rishi Patanjali !?!

In today’s world, Yoga conjures mainly Asanas and Pranayama. Both are traditional terms but their end goal today is different from what it was in Patanjali’s text.

Yoga as per Patanjali was a quest for “Stilling the Mind” (Yoga-citta-vritti-nirodha) (Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.2) and as per the Bhagavad Gita it was about seeking equanimity “samatyam yoga ucyate”  (Bhagavad Gita 2.4)

Irrespective of the Yoga school one may hail from today, the primary goal of practicing Yoga Asanas and Pranayama today is to seek better health outcomes and to a lesser extent, Peace of Mind.

Yoga, as it seeks to compete with medicine, as being of therapeutic value, is quite different from the objectives stated in the Gita:

योगस्थः कुरु कर्माणि सङ्गं त्यक्त्वा धनञ्जय ।
सिद्ध्यसिद्ध्योः समो भूत्वा समत्वं योग उच्यते ॥

yogasthaḥ kuru karmāṇi saṅgaṃ tyaktvā dhanañjaya ।
siddhyasiddhyoḥ samo bhūtvā samatvaṃ yoga ucyate ॥

English Translation:
Be steadfast in the performance of your duty, O Arjun, abandoning attachment to success and failure.
Such equanimity is called Yog.

Seeking equanimity of the mind, in order to be able to handle success and failure alike or the more arduous objective of Patanjali: Stilling senses and consciousness (Chitta-Vrtti- Nirodha), the therapeutic aspect of Yoga, no doubt, was present in earlier times.

But the larger purpose of the philosophical school always superseded the therapeutic value. While, its nice to do Asanas for “better health”, the broader objective or goal was different.

The two primary Yoga texts: the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali Yoga sutras both offer contrasting views on what Yoga is. Nevertheless both are quite distanced from the therapeutic, utilitarian Yoga of our times

The Bhagavad Gita as we are all aware is a very ancient text, clearly predating the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In the Gita, Sri Krishna presents a view on Yoga that is worldly, embracing “action” and “karma”.

In Chapter 2, verse 50, Krishna defines Yoga as “dexterity in action” 

Yogah Karmasu Kaushalam

बुद्धियुक्तो जहातीह उभे सुकृतदुष्कृते |

तस्माद्योगाय युज्यस्व योग: कर्मसु कौशलम् || 50||

The traditional commentators like Ramanujacharya also looked at Yoga as skill in action. 

And the objective of Yoga was to devote oneself to “disinterested” action so as to gain mental equipoise.

So Gita doesn’t present Yoga as a set of disciplines to still the mind, as encountered in Patanjali in later era.

Nor does it position Yoga as a tool for material and physical ends (as is the case today)

Yoga in the Gita primarily implies pursuit of equanimity through dispassionate performance of duties with skill.

How does this change in Patanjali whose Sutras postdate the Gita?

Patanjalian Yoga is somewhat different in its emphasis from the Yoga of the Gita. Nevertheless it is not divorced from it. But quite closely related to the same.

Patanjali in his second sutra itself says – 


Roughly speaking this translates to: 

“Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind”

So the goal here is not just equanimity as envisioned in the Gita, but complete control of the senses: Nirodah. A daunting task, but one that is accomplished through the austere discipline of Yoga.

Patanjali elaborates Yoga with his eight limbs later in his work. In the 28th sutra of his second chapter he says:

योगाङ्गानुष्ठानादशुद्धिक्षये ज्ञानदीप्तिराविवेकख्यातेः॥२८॥


Upon the annihilation of impurities as a result of the practice of the “Limbs of Yoga”, the lamp of knowledge gets kindled, and culminates in Viveka (discernment)

Then he goes on to expound the Eight limbs in the next sutra – 2.29










Here Yama and Niyama refers to the ethical don’ts and do’s

Āsana refers to postures 

Prāṇāyāma refers to breath control

Pratyāhāra to restraining the senses within one’s awareness

Dhāraṇā – concentration / focus

Dhyāna – contemplation / meditation

And finally 


So Āsana and Prāṇāyāma are not merely therapeutic tools for better health, but stepping stones on the way to Samādhi.

The ultimate objective is not better health or peace of mind but the stilling of the mind (Chitta Vrtti Nirodah)

Today Āsana/Prāṇāyāma have been isolated from the larger 8-limb framework, and taught in isolation not as means to the end of stilling mind (as desired by Patanjali) or seeking mental equipoise (as desired by Krishna), but just as tools for better physical well being.

This is unfortunate, and represents a departure and dilution of what Yoga actually is, as represented in the source texts. Later Tantric texts may have contributed to this innovative understanding of Asana and Pranayama. But it is far removed from the Yoga of the Gita or that of the Yoga Sutras.

The development of Yoga primarily as a postural discipline that drives better health emerged in late 19th / early 20th centuries when the traditions of Yoga interacted with Western disciplines of gymnastics and physical exercise.

This interaction was the most fruitful down South in the environs of Mysore palace that produced the great TT Krishnamacharya, widely regarded as one of the key figures in the development of postural Yoga.

The disciples of Krishnamacharya: Pattabhi Jois, BKS Iyengar, Indra Devi, continued to push the more worldly Yoga with material ends, while paying perfunctory reference to Gita and Yoga Sutras. This shift in emphasis has continued unabated as observed in the Yoga of Baba Ramdev.

The great statesman C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) also bemoaned the rise of Postural Yoga in an article in 1968.

Modern Yoga is a fruitful innovation as a result of interaction with the West, also drawing heavily from medieval traditions of Hatha Yoga and Tantra, but not necessarily showing much allegiance to the classical Yoga darshana as expounded in the Sutras or in the Gita.

Postural Yoga has its merits. But it is worthwhile to take a step back and rediscover Yoga as much more than the simple panacea for all bodily ills as it is commonly marketed now-a-days.

DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.