“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great and wonderful world.
Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, or “threads” in Sanskrit, are a collection of 195 or 196 aphorisms (there’s controversy amongst scholars as to how many there are!), or short verses outlining the theory and practice of The Eight Limbs of Yoga…
These “threads” of wisdom, often referenced as The Yoga Bible, are guidelines for living a meaningful, purposeful life. In this article, we’ll introduce this complex text and unpack the first few, the most famous Sutras.
Once Upon a Time
Around the second century BC, the Sutras were composed by Patanjali – which means “fallen angel” and implies that he came to help guide humanity.
No one knows if Patanjali was one man – a doctor, as some believe – or a group of people who collectively curated the Sutras, but Patanjali has been called the father of modern yoga.
Patanjali said that when we’re in harmony with nature and ourselves, the path will become smooth – yoga is the smooth – and the Sutras explain how yoga can help us live in this world in a harmonious, conscious way.
Four chapters, or books, comprise the Sutras. In the first chapter, yoga is defined. The other chapters detail practices and guidelines for living our best life, and what practitioners may encounter along the path of yoga.
The Language | The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
According to Patanjali, the Sanskrit language is a gift to humankind, to commune with God.
The Sutras are little Sanskrit packets of wisdom that are meant to be unpacked and contemplated. Their brevity is intentional – even the verbs are often omitted to make memorization easier – as originally they were transmitted orally, from guru to student.
The non-linear repetition reflects the way we speak, not the way we write, hence the choice of organization. The highest teaching is given first – then expanded upon, or broken down.
Loaded with lasting insight, the Sutras still hold their power and relevance in our present culture, daily life, and spiritual journey. And most devoted students of yoga study read them en route.
The Chapters | The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Book One: Samadhi Pada – Contemplation
In the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras, yoga is defined, the goals of the practice are laid out, and potential issues are discussed.
The concept of separating identity from thoughts is also introduced along the lines of stating that “yogis shall concentrate and absorb into the Spirit (Purusha) instead of misidentifying with the Self (Prakriti).”
As one begins to become a yogi, the practitioner must become aware of how their perceptions, and those of others, have created impressions – or programs for how we make judgments and decisions – based upon those perceptions.
We have to realize that we’ve been running on autopilot.
We may believe something, or think we do, due to our own direct experience or to trusting the experience of another. However, we often do not know things as we think due to having selective memory or wrongly perceiving them because of our impressions which can lead us to believe in things that aren’t true.
So one of the challenges of the yogi is to base perception on truth.
This means not succumbing to confirmation bias, not being influenced by external stimuli or desires, and not drawing erroneous conclusions. It means seeing things for what they are rather than being swayed by a perceived feeling of connection or attachment.
We can strive to practice non-attachment, which is what much of the science of yoga is all about. How? By balancing the Gunas, the qualities of energy or forces of nature.
- Tamas – darkness and chaos
- Rajas – activity and passion
- Sattva – beingness and harmony
And… Perfection of non-attachment may lead to Samadhi (superconsciousness, enlightenment, liberation, bliss).
Book Two: Sadhana Pada – Practice
In this book, Patanjali tells us how to prepare for Samadhi. He says to let go of attachment by dissipating the ego through meditation, and to work towards minimizing and overcoming obstacles so that we can see life as it truly is.
This part of the Sutras explains the mind, suffering, and how to live a classical yogic lifestyle as a renunciant. These three paths of practice are also taught in The Bhagavad Gita:
- Body – karma – action (past, present and future – determined by our actions)
- Mind – jnana – alignment
- Heart – bhakti – attitude
First, Patanjali outlines the Eight Limb Path of Yoga:
- Yamas – the don’ts
- Niyamas – the do’s
- Asana – postures
- Pranayama – breath control
- Pratyahara – sensory withdrawal
- Dharana – concentration
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – absorption
Then he defines the five afflictions (kleshas) that cause suffering:
- Ignorance, or misperception
- Ego consciousness – identifying with the limited, individual self
- Clinging – to life or fear
Again, meditation is the prescription for reducing these yogi ailments.
If nothing is done to alleviate the kleshas, actions will be conditioned by suffering and our experience in the world will be determined by the intention behind those actions.
And thus the Sutras have established the cause and effect nature of existence and asked the yogi to recognize that actions have consequences.
As we practice the Eight Limbs of Yoga to prepare the mind, body, and spirit for Samadhi, we can add another technique to daily life – cultivating a positive thought when a negative thought enters the mind will help manifest joy and keep us on the path to self-realization.
Book Three: Vibhuti Pada – Accomplishments, Gifts and Supernatural Powers
Time for the Siddhis (supernatural powers, abilities, attainments) which are gained from perfecting the practices within the Eight Limbs. Patanjali warns us that these powers are not the goal of yoga, just by-products – so do not get caught up in the fancy fun!
The third chapter of the Yoga Sutras is about practising Samyama (perfect discipline), through the final three Limbs of Yoga, in which the yogi directs the mind into:
- Dharana – concentration, or focusing the mind on an object
- Dhyana – meditation, or the uninterrupted flow of the mind toward the chosen object
- Samadhi – absolute union, when the mind becomes totally absorbed, or transparent, and no separate sense of self is felt, only the object shines forth in awareness
Combining the first two of these three limbs, in Samyama, can steady the constant flow of information to the mind and guide us towards the light of knowledge.
When nothing is needed anymore, the final Limb of Samadhi is reached. Observe the Self. Know the Self. See the true light of the Self. Detachment (or Kaivalya) is the ultimate goal of Raja yoga and is achieved when attachments are gone.
In modern life, there are endless distractions. Many we can release, many are necessary. So we practice to meet our Self, the infinite within – and we take that out into our world.
Book Four: Kaivalya – Absolute Freedom
In the final book, Patanjali brings everything together by explaining how the yogi’s practice can result in Kaivalyam – the embodiment of absoluteness, unlimitedness.
We also learn about Karmic fate, or the effect of one’s current life journey and actions on their next life – and how if this is not taken into consideration there is potential to unintentionally repeat a scenario that manifests an undesirable outcome over and over.
Patanjali tells us, again, that everyone perceives things differently so we cannot rely on others’ perception and should question our own – through practice and meditation.
The last chapter revisits the Gunas and talks about how to surpass the limitations of time and space as a continuous process of deepening self-knowledge. This leads to liberation or moksha.
Discerning between mind and spirit is crucial because the ability to do this pauses the separation, or individual identity, reunites one with source, and generates serenity.
Lacking discernment causes mental disturbances to surface – such as judgment of Self and others, poor use or interpretations of language, etc – and can cause issues.
Ultimately, even the desire for higher understanding and prescribing meaning to change must be surrendered to prevent the Gunas from disturbing the mind. Then actions can become pure and supreme knowledge attained.
Yoga Sutra Cheat Sheet – The First Five Yoga Sutras
1 | Atha Yoga Anushasanam – Now, the teachings of yoga.
The first of Patanjali’s pearls of wisdom… It’s the first word that snuggles the soul of the yogi—atha—NOW, always now.
No matter when we practice/receive the teachings, the time is now and with this auspicious moment of transition, from then into now, comes a blessing.
- Now – Often seen in Yogic scripture as an invocation implying that whatever we may have done prior, now we begin the study of yoga.
- We – This study is not meant to be done alone. A supportive community is critical for creating and maintaining momentum, commitment and evolution of ideas.
- Yoga – Yoga means different things at different times to different people. For Patanjali, Yoga meant Samadhi—individual ego dissolves and Supreme Consciousness flows.
2 | Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha – Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.
The most famous Yoga Sutra, and Patanjali’s definition of Yoga. Yoga occurs when movements of the mind are still.
- Movements – vrittis
- Mind – chitta
- Still – nirodha
Movement of the mind – thought, emotion, memory… And any disturbance to the quietude of the mind requires restraint.
In stillness, and the absence of distraction and mental preoccupation, our true nature can be experienced. It takes 194 (or 195, depending on who you’re talking to!) more sutras to explain how to achieve this!
3 | Tadā Draṣhṭuḥ Svarūpe Rūpa Avasthānam – Then the seer dwells in his own splendor.
The third thread says that when the mind is clear, we perceive ourselves and the world as they truly are – our perception is no longer distorted.
- Then – Only after—never before.
- Seer – Perceiver, pure witness (rather than the doer), pure consciousness, the divine being, true reality, soul, ātman, puruṣha.
- One’s own – Essential, intrinsic, natural form or state
- Splendor – Establishment, residence, home
This is the essence of Patanjali’s teachings. And the rest of the Sutras describe how to achieve this.
4 | Vritti Sārūpyam Itaratra – When one is not in Self-realization, the Seer takes on the identity of the fluctuations of mind.
Patanjali’s fourth message tells us that when we’re wrapped up in our thoughts, or not present, we become our thoughts.
When entangled with negative thoughts, the thoughts consume us, our emotions take on a negative tone and our words and actions usually do too – we become the physical manifestation of our thoughts.
So when we’re absorbed in happiness, emotions, words, and actions become happy. Both are finite – they come and go.
- Vṛitti – thought constructs or modifications, movement
- Sārūpyam – becoming one with form
- Itaratra – elsewhere, or everywhere except Samadhi
A pleasant attitude towards something invokes a pleasurable experience. The opposite mindset causes pain. The Sutras help us differentiate and cultivate our choice experiences.
5 | Vrttayah Pañchatayyaḥ Kliṣhṭa Akliṣhṭah – The mental modifications are fivefold. Some cause misery, others do not.
In the fifth Sutra, Patanjali’s mention of the practitioner relating with others makes it clear that he considers relationships important to spiritual evolution: Cultivating friendship towards happy teaches us what it is to be happy with what is.
Cultivating compassion towards miserable shows us our own miserableness. Practicing goodwill towards the virtuous helps us overcome jealousy. Indifference toward sinful keeps us from judging others.
- Vṛttayaḥ – thought constructs, mental modifications, revolutions of the mind
- Pañchatayyaḥ – fivefold, five categories, group of five
- Kliṣhṭākliṣhṭāḥ – derived from kleṣha – affliction, that which causes afflictions or that which is caused by afflictions, that which is hard to deal with, creates complications in life, is harmful or painful.
- Akliṣhṭa – in Sanskrit, the prefix “A” negates, so this means that which minimizes afflictions, or the modifications of the mind that are not caused by afflictions, and harmless rather than painful.
So, Patanjali summed up all activities, modifications, or fluctuations of the mind in five categories and famously says:
“Undisturbed calmness of mind is attained by cultivating friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and indifference toward the wicked.”The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Happily Ever After?
Patanjali expects the practice to be carried far beyond the yoga mat and meditation cushion. The practitioner can learn, question, practice, and live a beautiful yogic life of non-attachment – with the best of intention, to the best of their ability, but…
- Do you think it’s possible to create the cosmic conditions to reach Samadhi?
- Which pearls of wisdom will you take off the mat into your life?
- How about a lovely Cup of Chai as you digest all you’ve just taken in?