What does Yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ actually mean? | Mark Whitwell on Patanjali Yoga Sutra 1.2

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga
Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

Yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ is the most famous sutra in Patanjali Yoga Sutra because it communicates the entire definition of Yoga in the most concise way.

The father of modern Yoga Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989) defined Sutra 1.2 as follows:

Yoga is to direct consciousness via the mind in a direction of choice with continuity.

∙ Yogaś = Yoga

∙ Cit = consciousness

∙ Citta = mind

∙ Vṛtti = direction

∙ Nirodhaḥ = absorption in a chosen object

Typically, this sutra is understood to mean that Yoga was to reduce the mind’s modifications: to restrain or stop the ‘whirlings’ of the mind. Krishnamacharya’s definition differs from the dominant understanding in an important way.

Krishnamacharya would say that the reduction of the mind’s fluctuations is not itself what Yoga is. Rather, the mind’s fluctuations reduce as a result of Yoga; as a by-product of the primary process of directing consciousness towards a single point.

TKV Desikachar fleshes out this nuanced understanding nicely:

In this process [of speaking to you] my mind has only one interest. It is almost as if my mind is completely enveloped by it. Nothing else bothers me and all my understandings with regard to this concept of nirodha come before me and I am full of it. It follows, therefore, at this moment that nothing other than this subject is before me. This is what the word nirodha means. Rudh represents the envelopment of a particular interest, ni represents the intensity of that envelopment. This is a moment the mind functions with no division of activity. The whole mind functions in one area and nothing else can interfere. The word nirodha also means “restraint.” It is not by restraining the mind that it will move and become involved in a particular direction of choice. It is the other way round; that is, so strongly and intensely the mind has moved toward one area and has become absorbed in one area that there is no “infiltration.” Therefore, nirodha, meaning “restraint,” is just an effect of nirodha meaning “complete absorption.” “Citta vritti nirodha” is how yoga is defined in the Yoga Sutra. It means that the mind has one and only one activity in all its totality and that the other activities which would distract the mind are absent.

—TKV Desikachar, Religiousness in Yoga

In other words, when we know what we want and when we go in that direction with continuity then the mind calms down. Yoga then is not a restrictive practice of controlling the mind but a positive practice of direction and embrace.

Mark Whitwell | Heart of Yoga

The next sutra elaborates:

1.3 tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe vasthānam

When you go in a direction of choice with continuity then you know the draṣṭā — the one who sees; you know the knower; you know consciousness itself. Then you stand in your own form (sva: your own; rūpe: form).

And the fourth sutra is a bit of a scary one:

1.4 vṛtti sārūpyam-itaratra

If the first sutras are not there then all there is is confusion. If we do not go in our directions that are right for us, there will be fluctuations of mind, of emotion, and of everything else. For example, if you want six boyfriends there will be a lot of confusion in your mind. If you want one and you go there then there will be peace. To know where you want to go and go there is Yoga.

Find a Good Teacher

As you experiment with getting to know your desires and acting upon them, it is supremely useful to have the help of a teacher. They are somebody who has experience in Yoga and experience in going in their own authentic directions in life.

It is the teacher’s job to help the student to see and to know where they want to go in all areas of their life: career, place, geography, relationships, sexuality. In meeting with your teacher these matters are worked out: what you want, what is right for you.

Rosita Pompili and Mark Whitwell
Rosita Pompili and Mark Whitwell

If there is confusion

If you don’t know what you want, fair enough! The advice from our teachers is to just do your Yoga. Take the time to practice and allow your Yoga to help you form your feelings about what you really want in life. When you are doing your asana, your direction is your body and your breath. During pranayama, your direction is to your breath in its gross and subtle aspects. Meditation (clarity of mind and clarity of desire) arises naturally as a gift of your asana and pranayama.

*For an introduction to personal home Yoga practice you can join the by-donation online immersion course at www.heartofyoga.com/online-immersion.

Mark Whitwell

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Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell

Mark Whitwell has worked as a Yoga teacher around the world for the last 45 years and is the author of 4 books on Yoga. He lives in Fiji with his wife Rosalind.