top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndrew Kelly



yoking: joining, uniting, integrating.

method, application, means, discipline, trick, magic...

From the Indo-European root *yeug- to join, or from within Sanskrit’s own perspective, a root yuj.

yoga is an ordinary Sanskrit word used in many different contexts. Its dictionary entries present a bewildering range of meanings. For instance Apte’s Practical Sanskrit Dictionary gives the following definitions:

1 Joining, uniting

2 Union, junction, combination

3 Contact, touch, connection

4 Employment, application, use

5 Mode, manner, course, means

6 Consequence, result

7 A yoke

8 A conveyance, vehicle, carriage

9 armour, putting on armour

10 Fitness, propriety, suitableness

11 An occupation, a work, business

12 A trick, fraud, device

13 An expedient, plan, means in general

14 Endeavour, zeal, diligence, assiduity

15 Remedy, cure

16 A charm, spell, incantation, magic, magical art

17 Gaining, acquiring, acquisition

18 The equipment of an army

19 Fixing, putting on, practice

20 A side; an argument

21 An occasion, opportunity

22 Possibility, occurrence

23 Wealth, substance

24 A rule, precept

25 Dependence, relation, regular order or connection, dependence of one word upon another

26 Etymology or derivation of the meaning of a word

27 The etymological meaning of a word

28 Deep and abstract meditation, concentration of the mind...

This kind of ‘polyvalence’ (every word means many things and on the other side every thing has many names) is a marked feature of the classical Sanskrit lexicon.

(On the other hand it is easy to be boggled by a word’s range of meanings in a language one doesn’t live in: among the definitions of the English word set we will find for instance ready — group — part of a tennis match — theatrical backdrop — a fixed dislike and much else, but all derived from some implication of ‘placed’. Context is everything: we hear ‘set theory’ and don’t think ‘tennis.’)

But the root notion of the word yoga is joining and in particular yoking, that is the joining of draught animals to various various forms of hauling: wagons, chariots, ploughs.

In words taken into English from Latin we can notice opposed senses of yoking. In subjugate, from a Roman victory ritual where the defeated were made to walk under a yoke i.e. enact themselves as controlled beasts, there is yoking as domination. In conjugal the using master is left out of the picture and instead it’s the common destiny and action of the yoked pair, joined in matrimony: as they say, for better and for worse. The original meaning of team is ‘draft animals yoked together’: its cousin in German, Zaum, means bridle, and in Old Norse taumr reins, both built off a root to lead, that is to say, another aspect of control.

Sanskrit for chariot is ratha, related to Latin rōta/wheel and rotundus/round, originally ‘rolling.’ Early Persian used a word almost identical to the Sanskrit version.

The word yoke (the bar across the backs of the four ponies above) is related to the Sanskrit word yoga: yugam is yoke, yoga is yoking, or the whole set-up: everything brought together in a working chariot—the material components, the people (in war one to drive, one to shoot), along with the coherence of all that working together, the training and shared competence without which it was useless.

Sixth century BCE Etruscan chariot with the yoke at the end of its pole, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York: decorated with scenes from the life of Achilles. Too ornate to be a racing chariot and once thought to be merely for the tomb it was found in; but apparently it shows signs of wear: it saw some use.

The chariot was developed, probably in central Asia (the Middle East is the other candidate) around 2000 BCE: spoked wheels and realising horses were not only for eating allowed this development out of the heavy wheeled wagon (which itself had made for a revolution of pastoral mobility across the Eurasian steppes).

The chariot became a key weapon of war from China to the Celtic world, often overwhelming in its first arrival (as when the Hittites sacked Babylon in 1659 BCE). Eventually it was supplanted by cavalry: when in the first century BCE Julius Caesar encountered Celtic war chariots that was pretty much the last gasp of that use.

It remained in use as a form of sportscar and as a display vehicle for gods and kings—and in racing. Racing, originally a training for war, was probably where most people saw the chariot close-up in its fullest and wildest expression. Mythological chariots often flew but the wheels of real ones often left the ground as well. They weighed as little as the builders could manage: according to the museum note, the chariot model pictured above appears to have floor of woven strips, probably leather.


The joining that the root yuj refers to is not sticking two bits of wood together, but bringing together possibly resistant elements to form a newly productive whole. Much of the time it focuses on fitness, that things have been put together well when they might have been botched, or which might go out of attunement. Such ideas are not necessarily always attractive.

Controlling strong animals, tethering them against their natural inclinations to technology and people learning how to work with them transformed the world: for better and for worse. Those notions are then applied to other expressions of human will, exertion and self-management.

Yoga as the name of systems of practice, or of transcendent states those practices are supposed to achieve, is one corner of that usage. But that may have been helped along by a particular metaphor.

The chariot provided an early analogy for the mysteries of the human person. It was for its time a complex composite of technology (and culture), with finely crafted material parts and human and non-human animals that had to be brought brought together in a sometimes successful, sometimes catastrophic (Ben Hur!) coherence. It required finesse and training for the humans and animals to work together—and like life it could be dangerous.

The gulf but interdependence between the horses and the driver is like the interplay between conscious and unconscious operations in the human being. For Buddhism the chariot as an assemblage was used in arguments against the essential identity of the person.

This analogy is known as the ratha kalpana/chariot image. Its most prominent expression is in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad 1.3.3-6. The date of this work is contested—between 8th and 5th century BCE, depending on whether you think you need Buddhism on the the scene to think these thoughts. It also has a close parallel in Plato’s Phaedrus 246a—whether that is a sign of influence, common heritage or independent invention is unclear.

In both Indian and Greek thought travel by chariot is also used to present transformations that go beyond the ordinary frame of understanding: the horses are dumb but they may take the driver (that babbling human) somewhere beyond what she yet knows how to speak of.

The chariot in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad analogy has two people riding in it. The driver, of lesser status, is identified with buddhi/intellect or awareness. The other, equivalent to the king or the warrior-archer, is the ātman/self. The mind, manas, mental force already acting into the world, is the reins.

Know that the self is the chariot master, and our body the chariot

Know that the intellect is the chariot driver, and our mind is the reins

ātmānaṃ rathinaṃ viddhi śarīraṃ ratham eva tu

buddhiṃ tu sārathiṃ viddhi manaḥ pragraham eva ca

It goes on to say the horses are sense organs and the space moved through is the perceived world, the incoming sensations, and then to declare a difference between properly and improperly functioning chariots. Horses = sense organs may not be an easy equation, but at the very least the authors of this analogy weren’t stuck in a mind-body dichotomy. At least four slots for phenomena that could in some sense be called mental.

The chariot analogy runs through the introduction of Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, sometimes sticking with the archaic chariot (“The chitta (mind, reason and ego) is like a chariot yoked to a team of powerful horses...” 2001 edition p.24) and sometimes recast into the world of roadside breakdowns and the RACV:

To the yogi his body is the prime instrument of attainment. If his vehicle breaks down he cannot go far. (p.6) ... The yogi conquers the body and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit. He knows that it is a necessary vehicle for the spirit. (p.20)

Here, though it runs against his statements elsewhere (‘Where does the body end and the mind begin?’ p.21) he falls into mind-body dualism: that the MIND sits in the BODY like its vehicle which it steers around.

Impression from a 6th/5th century BCE cylindar seal showing the Persian king Darius I hunting lions, discovered in Egypt and now in the British Museum.


bottom of page