This is the first in a series of articles intended for all those with an interest in yoga and in widening their understanding of Sanskrit words used in connection with its practise. Yoga has now for a long time been one of India’s best known export goods and all, even those who do not practise it, have a reasonably precise idea of what the practise of yoga involves and intends. But the word योग (yoga) comes from Sanskrit and has, as most Sanskrit words, a wide range of possible meanings and applications, many of which resonate in the specific meaning of Yoga as it is used to day in English and in languages all around the world. To understand what yoga is one must therefore know what योग (yoga) can mean as a common noun.

The word yoga is derived from the root युज् (yuj), which means to join or unite and is also, in the form adapted by the Germanic languages, at the origin of the English word yoke. At its very simplest the word योग (yoga) therefore just describes the act of yoking, joining or uniting in a very general way and without special reference the practise of yoga as a discipline of physical and mental education. For an explanation of the reason behind the change of the vowel from उ (u) in the root युज् (yuj) to ओ (o) in the noun योग (yoga) the reader is advised to read the article entitled Vowel gradation 101. The same word can also mean application, diligence, zeal, i.e. the yoking of ones mind to a certain desired object. It is from this original meaning of joining or uniting that the specific meaning of Yoga as abstract meditation, the intense concentration of thought and body, was developed. 

In the earliest Indian scripture, a collection of hymns called the ऋग्वेद (Ṛgveda), the word योग (yoga) is used in a much deeper, pregnant sense: the acquisition of what cannot be attained by worldly means and does not relate to the world and its transient nature; knowledge which can only be attained by metaphysical contemplation fuelled by the hypnotic flickering tongues of mantras, their geometrically rising and falling pitches and staggering succession long and short syllables. This knowledge, which is beyond the universal churn of growth and decay – a result of yoking oneself to eternal truth – pertains to the highest of four different modes of cognition differentiated by Vedic theory, by which the world can be contemplated and knowledge gathered as a result of contemplation.

The first of these types of प्रमाण (pramāṇa), lit. proof, is called प्रत्यक्षप्रमाण (pratyakṣapramāṇa), lit. visual proof, i.e. immediate sensual cognition, through sight, touch or smell. The second is called अनुमानप्रमाण (anumānapramāṇa) inference, e.g. there is smoke so there must be fire. Following this there is उपमानप्रमाण (upmānapramāṇa) analogy, e.g. having seen one elephant one will recognise another elephant. And finally there is the mode used by the Vedas: शब्दप्रमाण (śabdapramāṇa) verbal cognition, i.e. perception and understanding which does not depend on sensual experience but purely on the faculty of the mind to understand ideas wrapped into abstract thought. Since the two middle modes of cognition both ultimately depend on the first, which is primarily a reaction to the external world, these three are grouped together as worldly modes of cognition. By these one can acquire knowledge relating to worldly things. The last and highest does not depend on the first and therefore on neither of the following two. This is called the divine mode of cognition, by which one can acquire योग (yoga), i.e. knowledge, which is beyond the grasp of the mutability of the temporal world. This pregnant use of the word योग (yoga) is for example to be found in the following mantra taken from a hymn to Indra (Ṛgveda 1.5.3).

स घा नो योग आ भुवत्स राये स पुरन्ध्याम् | गमद्वाजेभिरा स नः ||

May he unite us with eternal knowledge, wealth and wisdom. May he come to us with all kinds of invigorating food.

All these meanings, from the most physical and literal to the most metaphysical and pregnant, resonate in the word yoga as a discipline in which physical exercises are used to free the mind.


Silvio Zinsstag,

teacher for ancient languages