February 29, 2012

Krishna’s 10 Definitions of Yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.

It is often said that we don’t find yoga, but that yoga finds us.

That something in our life, in the universe, responds to our readiness to benefit from what yoga has to offer us and then presents us with an invitation. Our willingness to accept that invitation is entirely up to us. How receptive we are to such an invitation usually reflects what kind of perceptions we have of yoga.

What is yoga? What will it do for me?

People’s views of this can be as varied as fingerprints!

The recent explosion of yoga’s popularity around the globe has portrayed yoga in so many various shades and colors that finding the most authentic yoga may pose (no pun intended) a challenge. So what gives yoga its authenticity? Is there such a thing as the original yoga, and the original yoga teacher?

In studying the ancient Sanskrit texts in which the word yoga first appeared, one observes that its usage was quite broad. Contrary to what some may think, the definition of yoga was not restricted to the bodily postures most of the western world associates it with, but rather, it encompassed a wide range of ways to connect with one’s highest potential. It also expanded beyond that into descriptions of what such evolved states of being felt like.

Thus, those who first used the word yoga regarded it as a highly complex term. Their definition of yoga was expansive and included not only the process of yoga but the outcome as well. 

In ancient yoga texts, the various means whereby one practiced yoga directly merged with the aims of those very practices. It’s as if yoga were asking us not to worry about time, or about what yoga can do for us, or where it can take us, but to simply be in the present moment with our yoga practice.

 In the Bhagavad Gita, a main yoga text, the first time the word yoga appears it is as a solution Krishna offers Arjuna for overcoming his inability to participate in his life. Arjuna had fallen into despondence and Krishna presents yoga to him as an alternative way of being. Yoga appeared to Arjuna via his friend and chariot driver, Krishna, when Arjuna was feeling most stuck in his life.

 So what does Krishna say is yoga?

Well, Krishna uses the word yoga over 100 times in the Bhagavad Gita, so he has plenty to say about it! In its original Sanskrit text, the word yoga appears in the Bhagavad Gita seventy-eight times as a noun and thirty-six times in its verbal form as yukta.

When we take all of the ways in which Krishna defines yoga in the Bhagavad Gita, it appears as if everyone around us is practicing yoga!

For yoga in the Gita is a rich, complex and colorful experience engaging so much of life and human existence.

The Bhagavad Gita’s yoga is something nearly every human participates in, to one degree or another, in one form or another. They just don’t know it.

For in addition to asana and pranayama, yoga according to the Bhagavad Gita is:

  1. Clear, discerning, totally voluntary, dynamic participation in one’s life.
  2. Everlasting, primal, revealing, the archetypal light and fueled by love.
  3. Sacrifice that elevates us, motivates us, informs us, actively engages us and does so in a manner that is harmonious to all other living beings.
  4. Selfless, cleansing, freeing, balancing, inspiring, and joyfully performed actions based on a vision in which one experiences peaceful interconnectedness with all life around them.
  5. Nourished in the company of other yoga practitioners, by offerings of love, and the understandings they give rise to.
  6. Heightened sensitivity and awareness of all life around us and within us, and an outpour of love in reciprocation with life’s wonder and beauty.
  7. Fearless, illuminating, and a journey that does not end with death.
  8. Vision that excludes nothing from its practice.
  9. Intimate connection with the whole universe, with eternal realms even beyond the manifested universe, and with our own being’s endless capacity to love.
  10. Pure, determined force that moves us toward the mysterious and secret, and connects us with the wonderfulness of existence, of being and of all life.

These are the characterizations Krishna gives yoga in The Bhagavad Gita, and the very sequence in which he presents them, in the original, Sanskrit language. How does he do this? 

Unfolding Yoga in The Bhagavad Gita

Art by Madhava Priya Dasi


1. Yoga is clear, discerning, totally voluntary, dynamic participation in one’s life.

Krishna first identifies yoga (chap. 2 verse 31) as clear discernment that will free one from feeling forced into action. Speaking directly to Arjuna’s stagnation, Krishna emphasizes the importance of action that does not calculate what fruits one might obtain from those actions. Krishna also makes it clear that yoga is not just philosophy, (as in Sankhya’s teachings) but philosophy in action: yoga is a lifestyle requiring active participation.

 2. Yoga is everlasting, primal, revealing, the archetypal light fueled by love. 

The fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita opens with the dramatic announcement that the yoga Krishna gives Arjuna is the same yoga he gave the sun god, Vivasan. Here yoga is connected to light, to primal origins, to sonic transmission and to the eternal. It is characterized to be as valuable and reliable to all beings on our planet as the sun is. Only loosing sight of the sun, as in the passing of time, can obscure our vision of yoga.

When light is lost to us, and we feel uninspired on our journey, what becomes our compass? How does yoga find us in our lives? In chapter four, verse three, Krishna tells Arjuna that it is through love that we are found.

Krishna tells us it was Arjuna’s love for him that inspired him to speak of yoga again, the “ultimate secret”, the same yoga that was once known by the ancients. This is the first instance in which the word bhakta, a lovingly devoted one, appears, from the noun bhakti. Thus the connection between yoga, light and our loving relationships with others is emphasized.

 3. Yoga is sacrifice that elevates us, motivates us, actively engages us and does so in a manner that is harmonious to all other living beings. 

The verses in which Krishna directly utters the word yoga, or yukta, in chapter four speak about sacrifice: the voluntary renouncing of something of lower value, for something of higher value. How interesting that this follows Krishna’s exposition of love’s value to a yoga practice. He then speaks of offering the actions of one’s senses and one’s very life breath into “the fire of yoga”.

Chapter four then ends with a spirited and exclamatory urging that Arjuna “rise in yoga!” by cutting the doubts in his heart with the sword of knowledge, which is wielded by his very self.

Chapter five begins with Arjuna asking Krishna which is better: the renunciation of actions or the practice of yoga? To this, Krishna replies that the performance of actions in yoga, or the yoga of action is far better than giving up all action.

In verse six of the same chapter Krishna characterizes absorption in yoga as the swiftest way to reach Brahman, or ultimate reality. Then Krishna defines yoga as that which causes one’s self to become connected to the Self in all beings, “and thus one is not tainted even while acting” (5.7) So never does one who is absorbed in yoga act alone. “That one, whose self is absorbed in the yoga of Brahman through yoga, attains imperishable happiness” (5.21).

 4. Yoga is selfless, cleansing, freeing, balancing, inspiring, and joyfully performed: a vision in which one experiences peaceful interconnectedness with all life around them. 

In chapter six on the way of meditation, Krishna devotes 29 verses (more than any other chapter in the Bhagavad Gita) to defining what yoga is, what yoga is not, and what the effects of practicing yoga are.

Krishna begins by telling Arjuna how yoga cannot be practiced without renouncing selfish motive (6.1). Then he emphasizes action in yoga as a prerequisite to being calm and still. Yoga is defined as not being attached to one’s actions, one’s senses and having no selfish motives, but only for the “purification of the self” (6.12)

Being absorbed in yoga is holding divinity in the highest (6.14) Absorbing oneself in yoga “culminates in the highest state of Nirvana”, which Krishna tells Arjuna rests in him.

Then Krishna goes on with one detail after another about yoga: Yoga is not possible for those who have extremes in sleeping and eating. Being absorbed in yoga destroys suffering. One absorbed in yoga is free from longings for selfish desires. Yoga steadies the thoughts, the mind, and rids one of suffering. Yoga should be practiced with determination and without entertaining discouraging thoughts. One absorbed in yoga enjoys boundless happiness, sees the Self present in all beings, and all beings present within the Self.

In verse thirty-three of chapter six Krishna defines Yoga as the “state of sameness”. One’s self needs to “strive fully” to achieve yoga without difficulty.

 5. Yoga is nourished in the company of other yoga practitioners, by offerings of love, and the understandings they give rise to. 

Art by Subhrata Das

This is the second time Arjuna, representing the student, or disciple, uses the word yoga. His inquiry sounds familiar to anyone struggling in their yoga practice, as he asks Krishna what happens to that person “whose mind has deviated from yoga, and does not achieve the perfection of yoga, does not strive yet still possesses faith?” (Graham M. Schweig translation, see below)

In verse 6.41, Krishna reassures Arjuna that such a soul is reborn to the “pure and prosperous”, and that even one desiring to know yoga “transcends the sound of ultimate reality”.

Aside from the obvious reincarnation interpretation, the double entendre of these words could point toward the value of surrounding oneself with others who are practicing yoga as a means to motivate and inspire one’s own practice. Being “reborn” into such company can feel like a new start, giving one’s yoga practice new inspiration.

Krishna continues emphasizing the value of loving relationships with others in yoga, as he declares in verse 6. 47 that “one whose inner self has come to me, who is full of faith, who offers love to me- that one is considered by me to be the most deeply absorbed in yoga” What is this deep absorption called in Sanskrit, the language of the Bhagavad Gita?

In chapter seven on the way of realized knowledge, Krishna only speaks six verses in which the words yoga or yukta appears. However, they are very revealing verses as Krishna first utters the word bhakti, thus speaking about love.

 6. Yoga is a heightened sensitivity and awareness of all life around us and within us, and an outpour of love in reciprocation with life’s wonder and beauty. 

Krishna then begins to describe the effects of those who completely depend on Krishna in their practice of yoga, and become attached to him. Krishna tells Arjuna they will know him completely. Then he asks Arjuna to hear how that is so.

So yoga draws one to Krishna? What does this translate into for the life of the modern yoga practitioner? Who is Krishna in relation to your yoga practice?

Krishna goes on to define what it means to know him “completely” in chapter seven and speaks about all the places he is to be found:

We experience Krishna in the taste of water, the radiance of the moon and sun, the sacred utterance in all the Vedas, the sound in space, the prowess in men. The pure fragrance in earth, the brilliance in fire, the life in all beings, austerities, the seed in all beings, discernment, splendor, power devoid of desire and passion, desire that does not conflict with dharma and the qualities in the cosmic ingredients all around us, and inside out own bodies.

Then Krishna tells Arjuna that four types of people turn toward him: those who are distressed, those desiring knowledge, those seeking personal gain and those possessing knowledge.

“Among these, the person of knowledge, who is constantly absorbed in yoga that is solely an offering of love, is exceptional. For I am so dearly loved by the person of knowledge, and that person is dearly loved by me” (7.17)

This verse has the word bhakti in it -appearing for the first time here, as a noun- also appearing a total 14 times in the BG. Bhakti is how we engage out heart in our yoga practice.

 7. Yoga is fearless, is illuminating, and is a journey that does not end with death.

Arizona sunrise by author

Krishna ends this chapter by informing Arjuna that one who is absorbed with faith in yoga, abides only in Krishna. In verse 25 Krishna says:  “I am not revealed to everyone, being concealed by the divine power of yoga, Yoga-Maya. This bewildered world does not recognize me as the unborn and ever-present” But those who do will know Krishna even at the time of death.

In chapter eight Krishna speaks nine verses about death, and how to achieve him beyond death through absorption in yoga. Concluding in verse 27 “be absorbed in yoga by means of yoga” and thus not be bewildered by the “two paths” of darkness and light through which souls exit their bodies.

In chapter nine and ten we find eight verses that employ the words yoga and yukta. Eight are spoken by Krishna as he characterizes yoga’s immortal nature, and one is spoken by Arjuna (10.18) asking Krishna to continue further describing the nature of yoga, as he is never satiated when hearing of the immortal.

 8. Yoga is a vision that excludes nothing from its practice.

In these verses Krishna, in the role of the yoga teacher, describes those always absorbed in yoga as pleasing and honoring him with offerings of love, and striving with intense devotion. (9.14) Krishna then promises prosperity and security for ones so fully absorbed in yoga. And that such souls will surely come to him: “Surely you shall come to me, thus having absorbed yourself in yoga with me as the supreme goal” (9.34)

And again in verse ten of chapter ten: ““For them, who are constantly absorbed in yoga, who offer loving service with natural affection, I offer that yoga of discernment by which they come close to me”

What is this discernment Krishna speaks of? How does a person intent on practicing yoga see everything in the world as fuel for their yoga practice?

In chapter ten Krishna elaborates and injects his presence as the original yoga teacher into fire, the radiant sun, the moon, the ocean, quietly repeated prayer, the Himalayas, the thunderbolt, death, time, wind, the shark, the beginning, the end, the middle, the spring season, courage, the silence of secrets, knowledge, beauty and abounding power. “But what is the necessity of knowing such things, O Arjuna? I support this whole universe continuously, with one part of myself.” (10.42)

 9. Yoga is our intimate connection with the whole universe, with eternal realms even beyond the manifested universe, and with our own being’s endless capacity to love. 

 In the famous chapter eleven of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna gives Arjuna a vision of his “Universal Form”. Perhaps what is most amazing to any yoga practitioner about this spectacular vision is that Krishna attributes his universal form as having manifested from the yoga of his own being! So even Krishna himself practices yoga!

Chapter twelve begins with Arjuna inquiring about which form of yoga is “the greatest”, that of “those who worship Krishna by offering love, or those who worship Krishna as the “imperishable unmanifest”?

Krishna answers that it is those whose mind are directed toward him and are always absorbed in yoga.

Then Krishna characterizes yoga again as devoting all actions to him. And in chapter twelve verse ten, Krishna defines yoga as “the unwavering offering of love”. Then in 14.26 Krishna says:

“And one, who unfailingly, with the yoga of offering love, serves me, that one, transcending these ‘qualities’ prepares oneself with being united with supreme reality.”

 10. Yoga is a pure, determined force that moves us toward the mysterious and secret, and connects us with the wonderfulness of existence, of being, and of all life itself. 

Krishna begins chapter sixteen with a verse that talks about “steadfastness in the yoga of knowledge”. Then the subject of energies that pull one toward and away from absorption in yoga begins, with only eight verses in the last three chapters of the Bhagavad Gita that use the words yoga or yukta, mainly characterizing those absorbed in yoga as reflecting the qualities of sattva, or clarity, purity.

Radha Krishna by Syamarani

The penultimate verse in which the word yoga appears are spoken by the visionary Sanjaya who ends by calling Krishna Yogeshvara, the Lord of Yoga, in verse 18.75:

“By the grace of Vyasa I have heard this supreme secret of yoga from Krishna, the supreme Lord of Yoga, appearing directly before my eyes, speaking it himself”.

The Bhagavad Gita ends with an emphatic, final verse that delights in the triumph of those who align themselves with a genuine, loving yoga practitioner and teacher, as Arjuna did with Krishna.

“Where there is Krishna, the Supreme Lord of Yoga (Yogeshvara), where there is Partha (Arjuna), holder of the Bow, there is fortune, triumph, well-being, and lasting righteousness- that is my conclusion”.

So yoga appears in more ways than we imagine. Perhaps the individual practices of today’s yoga practitioners will be significantly nourished the more they embrace the rich and complex definitions Krishna gave yoga in the Bhagavad Gita.

As one of the world’s most important yoga texts, the Gita stands to illumine the areas in our lives we get stuck in -just as Arjuna was in his- and offer us an alternative way of being through practicing yoga: an experience that can potentially include everything! 

(All translations in this article were taken from Graham M. Schweig’s translation of Bhagavad Gita, published by Harper Collins, 2010)

Copyright © 2011.  By Catherine Ghosh All rights reserved

Radha Krishna Painting Copyright © by Syamarani Dasi


Editor: Brianna Bemel

Read 33 Comments and Reply

Read 33 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Catherine Ghosh  |  Contribution: 2,460