There are people who say that most texts – scripture or academic can be a tedious read. While some knowledge can be gained from studying these texts and their various interpretations, they realize that ‘true’ understanding is largely intuitive – a continuous outpouring of ‘aha’ moments. Others enquiring about the phase of life you are in might be implying that empty nesters can happily dedicate more time to texts of all sorts – even the Yoga Sutra, while a mother of three is finding her moment of joy between the pages of Goodnight Moon, Charlotte’s Web or Harry Potter.
I was introduced to the Yoga Sutra in 2002 in one of the intermediate classes at YogaLife Institute. I looked through the book that was needed for the 8 week session and put it back on the shelf, obviously not ready to give up Goodnight Moon. Life had the upper hand – toddler and parents in the house – family and work – different priorities. In 2004, I read only the prescribed sections needed for teacher training using 3 different commentaries, grasping mostly the superficial meaning and an occasional deeper significance.
In 2007, I bought another book – or two in an attempt to restart when I realized that I did not how to study the text. It is only in the last few years that I have returned to study the sutras more patiently while staying alert for unexpected insights in my daily practice.
Although the YogaSutra, योगसूत्र is one among many yogic texts, it is the one frequently referred to by yoga practitioners all over the world. It is an extraordinary treatise which outlines a royal path for self-transformation by addressing the physical, mental, emotional facets while spiritualizing the human existence. I am realizing what I learn on the way down to my toes is more important than just touching my toes.
For example – how many times do you think of surrendering your ego as you drop your head down to touch your toes? The Yoga Sutra is teaching me to separate the action and the sense of doer-ship (second chapter). Of course, it is difficult to separate the ego from the action, but noticing the presence of the ego in each action has been a huge learning experience for me.
Or when your arms reach over your head in sun salute, the joy you feel at the glimpse of the infinite sky is just a morsel of what is to come when you realize the crux of yoga in Samadhi (first chapter). I have experienced a tiniest morsel of this joy on my yoga mat. The author clearly states that yoga is not just asana, pose and then proceeds to lay down the dos’ and don’ts of Abhyasa, yoga-practice in preparation to infinitely multiply this joy.
The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, was authored by Patañjali, पतञ्जलि, who is also credited with writing other texts on Ayurveda and Samskritham. Essentially, nothing of any degree of historical certainty is known about the author (Feuerstein). It is unclear whether Patañjali was an individual or merely a name forged to represent several people living in different periods of time. It appears there were several authors known as Patañjali which was just a family surname according to Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (Aranya & Mukerji).
Patañjali, also a compound word, has been explained by Sanskrit scholars in a few different ways. Leaving the literary paradox for the scholars to decode, here is a popular version that makes him a person. The name, Patañjali comes from a legend surrounding his birth. The story claims that Adhishesha, the divine serpent fell (पत् –puth) into the folded hands (अञ्जलि, Anjali) of a pious woman who had prayed long and hard for a child. Her prayers were answered. She raised this child who is portrayed as a person with the head of a snake and body of a man, who grew up to be Patañjali, पतञ्जलि, (पत् +अञ्जलि), the author of this wonderful yogic text, the YogaSutra.
The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, contains 196 Sutras or aphorisms. Sutra, सूत्र, means thread, that connects each of 196 aphorisms. It was structured this way to make it easy for students to memorize the least amount of material in a time where there was no concept of books (Prabhavananda & Isherwood). Now, as we study together we weave this thread and connect our practices to carry this ancient wisdom through time.
The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, may have been compiled sometime around 350 CE or as early as 3000 BC. Though composed of few words, each sutra, सूत्र is rich with meaning and depth, even the most ‘advanced student’ can continue to gain new insights after years of study.
The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र is also referred to as Raja Yoga. The text outlines eight limbs, Ashtanga, for self-realization. The confusion regarding Raja and Ashtanga being a type or a style of yoga is dealt with in other posts. Barbara Stoler Miller says “Yoga Sutra is not a sacred scripture but a set of philosophical analyses that probe timeless dilemmas of cognition and obstacles to spiritual tranquility.”
The YogaSutra, योगसूत्र, is not a religious sermon like the Vedas, the Bible or the Koran. The text contains no creed or rituals, verses nor hymns. Although it appears that yoga is a part to Hinduism (Sanathana Dharma), it is actually found in the Sankhya philosophy and can stand on its own without the dogma of religion. Yoga psychology is based on the Sankhya system of philosophy; i.e., you arrive at the truth by calculation, experimentation and careful reflection through the study of YogaSutra.
Despite arising amidst the most religious of all cultures, there is no direct reference to a divine incarnation or goddesses such as Krishna or Durga in the YogaSutra, योगसूत्र. Still, the word Ishvara, ईश्वर, accessible through chanting OM – is mentioned in the first chapter. (YS 1:25-27). What this word actually signifies in Patañjali’s use may be contentious even though some translations allude to a formless Universal Spirit.
Patañjali also mentions the word, Purusha, पुरुषः, (similar to Atman, आत्मन् in Vedanta/Upanishads) possibly with an intention to indicate the presence of the universal sentient being – separate but identical – within each of us (Prabhavananda & Isherwood). Hence, the belief in multiple Purushas. Ishvara, then is a superior Purusha who remains untouched by afflictions, action, fruits of action and seeds of Karma (Satyananda Saraswati).
The Chapters – Four Padas, पादाः
Samadhi Pada समाधि पाद : 51 Sutras
- The first chapter provides a definition of Ishvara, alluded to as a universal Absolute and the purpose of Ahbyasa, practice with detachment, Vairagya.
- According to Sankhya Darshana, there are many Purushas and Ishvara is the superior of them all (1:24, Satyananda Saraswati).
- Patañjali focuses on cognitive dynamics, thought modifications, and their relationship to the sense of self, the ego. (Mishra)
- He also characterizes yoga as surrender. It is the letting go of all doing that allows yoga to reveal itself in a state of cognitive absorption called Samadhi.
- Samadhi is the main technique the yogis learn in order to dive into the depths of the mind to achieve true freedom, Kaivalya.
- Many levels of Samadhi are described. By repeatedly diving deeper into Samadhi, the yogis emphasize cognitive deconstruction and eradication of the ego.
- Here, Patañjali is presenting yoga as an deep awareness state.
Sadhana Pada साधन पाद : 55 Sutras
- The first part analyzes the dynamics of identification of self in Kleshas, hindrances of the mind. This is linked to cognitive dynamics by way of the suffering they cause. (Mishra)
- Patañjali presents yoga as Abhyasa, repeated practice of techniques until one is completely habituated with them, and at once detached from them (Vairagya)
- The second part contains the practical approach to achieving the goals of yoga. Here, two forms of Yoga are outlined: Kriya Yoga (Yoga of Action) and Raja Yoga, Ashtanga, an Eightfold systematic approach, providing a map to the inner world. (Yogananda)
- This section explains the five ‘external’ limbs, (बहिरङ्ग -Bahiranga) of yoga with exercises in physical, mental, emotional and moral concepts in order to increase inner-self awareness.
- Patañjali insists that Abhyasa, practice is deep and liberating leading to the process of reflection.
- Here, he calls perseverance of this practice – Sadhana.
Vibhuti Pada विभूति पाद : 56 Sutras
- Although this chapter is named Vibhuti Pada, this is word is not used again through out this portion of the text. (Feuerstein)
- The first part of this third chapter deals with the three ‘internal’ practices (अन्तरङ्ग – Antaranga) of the Eight-Fold Path
- Practice of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi is referred to as संयम:, Sumyamaha, and is a tool of achieving various perfections, Siddhis. (Taimni)
- The second part focuses on Siddhis, supernatural powers of an adept yogi.
- Patañjali explores the depths and subtleties of the meditative mind through Siddhis.
- Here, yogis warn us that Siddhis are distractions (you can get lost in the maze of supernatural powers) or with discernment view them as milestones on the path. (Satchitananda)
Kaivalya Pada कैवल्य पाद : 34 Sutras
- Patañjali delivers a wonderful concluding chapter, summarizing the nature of consciousness and its implications on human experience, Karma.
- He describes Kaivalya as perfect isolation or fulfilling freedom – the final fruit of yoga within which no sense of ego-self remains.
- This chapter describes the process to the liberation of the ego and promises the attainment of the highest freedom when we bravely go beyond kleshas (hindrances) and karma-samskaras (action-reaction); i.e. deliverance from earthly bondage. (Satyananda Saraswati)
- We arrive at a state of consciousness that is natural and wholesome, induced with pure, non-dual awareness – without prejudice and finite constraints.
- Here, Patañjali also presents Kaivlaya, as perfect detachment – the yogis’ most sought out state of true freedom.
Traditionally, a Guru is responsible to elaborate each sutra after the student has mastered preliminary practices. Today, the Yoga Sutra is best learned from an Acharyaa, आचार्या – “the one who walks the path and leads by example”; an experienced teacher who can help you appreciate the layers of complexity in this text as every word has clear meanings and expansive connotations. He or she, will also point out that the concepts expounded in the Yoga Sutra, योगसूत्र, cannot be understood through the intellect alone.
In essence, the YogaSutra is a reference guide that inspires me to practice everyday and encourages me to trust the inner language that unfolds during my asana and pranayama practice. So far, it has been an amazing study.
Next post – how to study the योगसूत्र, Yoga Sutra.
Aranya Hariharananda, Swami; Mukerji, P.N. 1963.Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. (Reprinted in 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.
Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sutras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York
Prabhavananda, Swami; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Ramakrishna Mission Press, Mylapore, India.
Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.
Saraswati Satyananda, Swami. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India
Taimni, I.K., 1961. The Science of Yoga. The Ind-Com Press, Chennai, India
Iyengar, B.K.S.2013. Core of Yoga Sutras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins India
Satchitananda, Swami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.
Yogananda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Swami. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sutras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA
Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sutra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada