yogaḥ – yoga (is); citta – the consciousness; vṛtti – modifications (of the), state or condition of material consciousness, to set in motion (as a wheel); nirodhaḥ – arrest, suspend, restrain, contain, suppress;
When the endless mental fluctuations and modifications (vṛtti), which characterize material consciousness, are suspended or arrested, that is Yoga.
The natural state of the ātmā or the natural state of existence, is to be in pure spiritual consciousness. The material condition is the state where that consciousness, becomes contaminated or colored also understood as the pure ātmā being covered.
The first word, yogaś (yogaḥ) of course references yoga. Citta can have a number of meanings, as is common in Sanskrit. It is sometimes used to mean ‘mind’, but of course in a specific way. It can also reference the core of one’s heart, meaning the deepest sense of things, or that which is most close to us. But it primarily means ‘consciousness’.
In this particular sūtra, citta is not referring to the mind, which is technically different than consciousness. Here the reference is to actual consciousness. A lot of people may not be really aware of the difference between the mind and consciousness. Like the body, the mind does not actually possess consciousness as an inherent characteristic. The consciousness that we see permeate the body and the mind is actually imparted by the presence of the ātma.
The natural characteristic of the ātma is to manifest consciousness, which we see as life. For instance, you look at the difference between a dead body and a live body. At the moment of death when the living being leaves the body, the body instantly transforms. Now we see its real characteristic or real nature manifesting. But moments before, the body was manifesting what appeared to be consciousness or awareness, but that consciousness or awareness is not inherently part of the body; it is imparted to the body.
In a similar manner, the mind is not inherently conscious. It is described as an object – a material object, but it takes on the quality of being conscious. It appears to have a life of its own; to be animated or alive, due to its proximity to the ātma – the spiritual self, the puruṣa or dṛṣṭā.
So it is in this context that the word citta is used here. Again, ‘consciousness’, at least in English, can be used in two ways. As we’ve been using it here, consciousness can refer to ‘awareness’ – the awareness or the symptom of life. This consciousness is actually a characteristic and a symptom of the presence of the ātma, as we said. But consciousness can be also used in the sense of a ‘state of consciousness’ – like a mental state, if you wish, which is actually what’s also been being referred to here. The original state of consciousness of the ātmā, is spiritual but that consciousness can be altered or contaminated.
Just as light is naturally white, but if I take a source of light like a flashlight, and I am in a dark room and I place, for instance, a green filter over that flashlight and then I turn it on, only green light is now manifest, not the original white light, and it colors everything in the room green. If I change it to a red filter, now red light is projected and everything in the room becomes colored red. The example that I’m giving will help us understand how, when the consciousness of the pure living being becomes covered – particularly by this subtle energy known as the ahaṇkāra, which is part of the subtle body, then that consciousness becomes colored or contaminated, and becomes known as material consciousness. That consciousness manifests in the ideas like ‘the body is the self’, and the covered pure spiritual living being within experiences the so-called happiness and distress attributed to the physical and mental experiences of this world.
The next word here is vṛtti which speaks of modifications to something, or a state, or the condition of material consciousness. As most Sanskrit words have multiple meanings, it can also mean ‘to set in motion’. So what is being spoken of here in relation to this verse, is when the pure consciousness is contaminated and becomes influenced by the material energy. So then we are subject to all these subtle influences, particularly by the three guṇas – the three modes of material nature, which cause the living beings to become attracted to different types of material experience.
The mode of goodness – sattvá-guṇa, conditions one to peacefulness and happiness; people are drawn to country living, cleanliness and light, not loud noise and a lot of agitation. Raja-guṇa on the other hand, imparts a quality of intense desire and action, influencing people that are professional athletes, businessmen, or those drawn to intense physical undertaking, or creation in an artistic sense or in the sense of building. Cities are built by this influence of Raja-guṇa. Tama-guṇa is the mode of ignorance, which produces indolence, lethargy, sleepiness, laziness, intoxication, and varieties of insanity.
Because of the contaminating influence of these different energies on the consciousness and living out this illusion that ‘this current body I have is me’, the living being is led to engage in actions that cause reactions, being perpetually bound to the cycle of repeated birth and death, taking on any one of a limitless variety of bodies, even in very lower species of life. And so, we have this understanding of something being set in motion – that the vrttis create action, binding the living being almost perpetually to material existence, through what is called saṁsara – the wheel of repeated birth and death.
The next word nirodhaḥ, is an interesting word that again has quite a number of meanings. One way to understand nirodhaḥ is, to contain, to suppress; it can mean to completely wind up, in the sense practically of destruction. A fantastic example that will perhaps help understand can be found in the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, where the following verse is stated: “In the same way that the practitioners of yoga bring their senses under control to check their consciousness from flowing out through the agitated senses, the farmers erected strong mud banks to keep the water within their rice fields from draining out.” So that’s a really beautiful verse that indicates how one can understand this term nirodhaḥ.
The verse must be frequently revisited while on our journey to self-realization in order to gain deeper appreciations of it. “When the endless mental fluctuations and modifications (vṛtti), which characterize material consciousness, are suspended or arrested, that is Yoga.” Vṛttis cannot be stopped by any “mechanical” or “external” process. Even if I could completely bring my mind under control and cause it to cease thinking, that would not automatically purify my consciousness or destroy the root cause of my material entanglement.