The first four lines of the ancient text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, offer a basic definition of yoga — that might surprise many westerners who are used to thinking of yoga primarily as a form of physical discipline. But the kind of yoga practiced at your local gym or yoga center is simply one type of yoga — Hatha Yoga. Yoga is a much more broad term for spiritual discipline, just as “prayer” is a much broader term than Centering Prayer or charismatic prayer or liturgical prayer.
The word yoga itself can be translated to mean union. It appears to have originated from a proto-Indo-European root word that means “to join” — the same ancient root that gave us the English word yoke. Which makes sense: a yoke “unites” one or more animals together, with the will of the farmer or driver. So it also has a sense of discipline or control to it.
Just as a yoke provides discipline or control to a farm animal, so does yoga cover all the disciplines designed to “control” or foster the spiritual growth of the yogi. One of these disciplines, of course, is the kind of physical care that Hatha Yoga provides. But The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali provides an important early definition of yoga, which suggests that the most essential meaning of this word has to do not only with the health of the body, but also the contemplative heart of the mind.
Consider these three different translations of the first four verses of the Yoga Sutras. Of course, the most important verse is the second.
OM. What follows are instructions on Unity.
Unity obtains when the activities of mind have ceased.
The witness then abides in its true nature.
Otherwise, the witness is identified with the activities of mind and is just another thought-form itself.
(translated by Bart Marshall)
Marshall translates the word “yoga” as “unity.” In essence, his transition tells us that yoga becomes manifest when mental activity ceases.
Now, another version:
Now, the teaching of Yoga.
Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.
Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.
(translated by Chip Hartranft)
And finally, my personal favorite; although it’s a bit of a paraphrase, it retains the essential meaning and offers such a beautiful definition.
And now the teaching on yoga begins.
Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.
When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.
Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.
(translated by Alistair Shearer, available in hardback or Kindle versions)
Yoga — Union (with God), or spiritual discipline — is the settling of the mind into silence.
If we look at Patanjali’s actual Sanskrit, verse four contains only four words: YOGAS CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH. Yoga is self-explanatory; Citta (chitta) means “mind” or “consciousness,” Vrtti literally means “whirlpool” but carries the connotation of change, dynamics, or disturbance; and nirodhah implies restraint or settling.
Yoga is the restraint of the whirlpool of consciousness: the settling of the mind into silence.
Why This Matters
So why am I paying so much attention to this? Especially for Christians and others who do not practice any form of Hindu spirituality, why do I think this matters so much?
Remember, yoga is related to yoke. Now, consider this quote from Jesus:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Could it be that the “yoke” Jesus calls “easy” is simply this: the settling of the mind into silence?
In Eastern Orthodox spirituality, there is a common image for the practice of the Jesus Prayer: the settling of the mind into the heart. The idea is that we can prayerfully allow our consciousness to sink from the normal, linguistic/thought-centric awareness of the mind, into the vast, pre-verbal (and post-verbal) silence at the base of the heart: the silence between every heartbeat, the blank page on which the heartbeats are “written.” The Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart, is our heart-centered prayer at a level “too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
Perhaps this settling of the mind into the heart is another way of describing the settling of the mind into silence — the silence between and beneath every heartbeat.
I realize that I am allowing my intuition to make giant leaps that might not stand up very well under scholarly scrutiny. But I am writing not as an academic, but as a practitioner. My own experience with silent forms of prayer help me to trust that “settling the mind into silence” is not only a definition for yoga, but a definition for contemplation — in whatever form it takes; including Christian contemplation, Christian contemplative prayer.
“Silence is praise,” says the author of Psalm 65, at least in the original Hebrew; it often gets mistranslated when rendered into English. If silence is praise, silence is a way of worshipping God, a way of expressing love for God. Silence is a salutary “form” of prayer. If silence is a way of praying, then settling into silence is a way of preparing to pray. Whether we rely on a sacred prayer word, or a repetitive use of the name of Jesus, or a Bible verse, or a short prayer like the Jesus prayer — or whether by grace we are able to be present to silence merely by following the rhythm of our own breath — whatever “method” of silent prayer is really not that important. What is important is the silence itself. The silence is Christ’s yoke, Christ’s yoga. And while it may be tricky to lean to gently let go of the “whirlpool” of our mind’s thoughts and images and feelings, to rest in the silence itself is a light and gentle task. Truly, Christ’s yoke is easy.