What is yoga? The word has many meanings: relation; means; union; knowledge; matter; logic; and so on. For now, let us say that the meaning of yoga is upaya, which means path, or way which we follow or by means of which we attain something. What then is the path we should follow? What or whom should we seek to attain? The mind should seek to attain what is best. Just as a servant seeks a king to serve, a disciple seeks the best guru, and a wife seeks an ideal husband, so too will the mind seek the Universal Self. Even this is one type of union. As the servant who wins his master’s heart and blessings through his virtues and good conduct verily attains royal character himself; and the disciple who, by great virtue and intellectual power, verily wins the heart of his Guru and becomes as one with the Guru; and the wife who shows virtue and character, as well as devotion to her husband, verily becomes as one with her husband, so too, if the mind establishes itself in the Self or attains the Self, it will not exist as different from the Self. Thus, the way of establishing the mind in the Self should be known as yoga. An aphorism of Patanjali, the great sage and founder of the science of yoga, makes this clear: yogash chitta vritti nirodhah (yoga is the process of ending the definitions of the field of consciousness).
It is in the nature of our sense organs to grasp their respective sense objects. If the sense organs are harmonized by the mind, and if the mind establishes itself in the sense organs, then objects are known or grasped. If, however, there is no contact between the mind and the sense organs, knowledge of objects will not occur. The mind is thus the basis of all sensory functions. The means by which the mind is directed towards the Self and prevented from going towards outside objects is what is known as yoga, as a hymn of the Katha Upanishad affirms: tham yogam iti manyante sthiram indriya dharanam (Yoga is considered to be the steady fixing of the senses). Here, the means to establishing the sense organs in the Indweller, and thus to prevent them from going towards external objects, is called yoga. Therefore, the word yoga signifies the means to the realization of one’s true nature.
We now have to ask whether it is possible to realize the true nature of yoga simply by understanding its meaning as a word. By the mere study of texts on yoga, by the mere grasp of yoga’s meaning as a word, by a mere discussion of the pros and cons of this intellectual grasp, one cannot have a thorough knowledge of yoga. For, just as good knowledge of culinary science does not satisfy hunger, neither will the benefits of yoga be realized fully by a mere understanding of the science of its practice. Thus, the scriptures only show us the right path. It is left to us to understand them and to put them into practice. By the strength gained through this practice, we can come to know the method for bringing the mind and sense organs under control. Thus can we achieve yoga. For it is only through the control of the mind and sense organs that we come to know our true nature, and not through intellectual knowledge, or by putting on the garb of a yogi.
Hence an aspirant, by the grace of his Guru and constant practice of yoga, can someday realize, before casting off his mortal coil, the Indweller that is of the nature of supreme peace and eternal bliss, and the cause of the creation, sustenance, and destruction of the universe. Otherwise, an aspirant will be unable to see anything in this world but turmoil.
Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, excerpted from Yoga Mala, 1999