Who is Patañjali and what are Yoga Sūtras?
The Yoga Sūtras are the first and foremost scriptures of Yoga, presented by the sage Patañjali. It is the primary text of Rāja Yoga (the ancient mental science), or Aṣṭāṅga (eight-limbed) Yoga. Sūtra can be translated as ‘thread’, and these are a combination of words “threaded” together. They are carefully coordinated Yogic thoughts, explained from teacher to student. The students would use only a few words to write them down, to remember them, and they are often not even well-formed sentences.
There are 196 Sūtras, divided into 4 sections:
Samādhi Pāda: Portion on Contemplation
Sādhana Pāda: Portion on Practice
Vibhuti Pāda: Portion on Accomplishments
Kaivalya Pāda: Portion on Absoluteness
It is unknown when exactly Patañjali lived, and if he was even one single person. It is also a great possibility that multiple people used the same title and compiled the work. It is estimated that the Yoga Sūtras range from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D. Patañjali did not invent Rāja Yoga, but systematized and compiled the already existing ideas and practices. He is considered to be the “Father of Yoga”, and to this day the Yoga Sūtras are the basis for all types of meditation and Yoga.
Yoga Sūtra 1.2
मोगणित्तवणृत्तणनयोध् ॥ २॥
Yogaś is yoga
Citta is ‘mind-stuff’, the workings of the mind
Vr̥tti means modifications, fluctuations (of mind and breath)
Nirodhaḥ means to stop, control over the mind
This Sūtra is often translated as ‘Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’, or as my teacher taught me: Yoga occurs when we stop identifying with our thoughts.
Basically, this Sūtra explains the goal of yoga. When the mind becomes still, yoga can arise.
The outside world is based on our thoughts and our own attitude. It is our own projection. Yoga doesn’t want to change the outside world. There is a beautiful Sanskrit saying that says, “Mana eva manuṣyanam karaṇam bandha mokṣayoḥ.” The meaning of this saying is “As the mind, so the person; bondage or liberation are in your own mind. If you feel bound, you are bound. If you feel liberated, you are liberated. Things outside neither bind nor liberate you; only your attitude toward them does”.
So, if you can have nirodhaḥ; control over your thoughts and change them as you want, you will not be bound by the outside world. If you can control your mind, you will be able to control everything. Nothing in the world will bind you. And that is what yoga is based on. We are turning away from the ‘material’. Yogaś citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ.
Yoga Sutra 1.2
Yoga Sūtra 1.12
अभ्यासवयै ाग्माभ्यां तणियोध् ॥ १२॥
Abhyāsa vairāgyābhyām tannirodhaḥ
Abhyāsa is practice (consistent, conscious practice)
Vairāgyābhyām is freedom from desires, detachment
Tat is their (the vr̥tti states of mind)
Nirodhaḥ means controlled, restrained
We all know the word yoga, and many of us have a steady yoga practice. A practice that in the West is mainly known as yoga āsana. But is yoga only the practice of postures or is there more to it? Today we will find out by taking an in depth look at ancient scriptures. So what exactly is yoga?
According to the Bhagavad Gita yoga is balance. Balance between two extremes, like past & future, warm & cold, rich & poor. My teacher taught me that the mind craves getting into those extremes, because there’s a sense of achievement in doing so. A certain “kick”. However, the ability to find balance is what yoga is, and there’s also a great sense of achievement in that.
The Gita says that “When you have freed yourself from attachment to the results of work, and from desires for the enjoyment of sense objects, you will get to the unitive state.” So by practicing vairāgya (detachment) you will be able to reach this state of yoga.
We can learn a lot about the importance of detachment from The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. For example, in Sūtra 1.12 we learn that “Repeated practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness.”
So what this Sūtra teaches us is that through consistent practice and detachment (vairāgya) from results and outcomes and even material objects, we can achieve a serene and unitive state. By practice and detachment we can still the vr̥tti states of mind, which are the changing states of the mind.
We learned about this in Yoga Sūtra 1.2: Yogaś citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ. So the vr̥tti means fluctuations of the mind. When you conquer yourself you can live in peace no matter the outer circumstance. You will live alike in cold and heat, in pleasure and pain, in praise and blame.
The Gita puts a large emphasis on meditation. It reads that “Those who aspire to the state of Yoga should seek the Self in inner solitude through meditation. With body and mind controlled they should constantly practice one-pointedness, free from expectations and attachment to material possessions.” So again the importance of vairāgya is made clear here.
I asked my teacher about this emphasis on meditation in the Gita, and he explained to me that this meditation can be done in different ways. Different people have different practices, and this is not a one size fits all situation. Some can enter this state of meditation by sitting in silence, others by practicing āsanas or pranayama. The Gita goes on to explain that “With senses and mind constantly controlled through meditation, united with the Self within, an aspirant attains nirvana, the state of abiding joy and peace within.” So this chapter of the Gita explains how to attain the state of union just as Yoga Sūtra 1.12 does.
Krishna tells Arjuna: “It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control. But it can be conquered through regular practice and detachment.”
Now we have taken a closer look at the meaning of Yoga according to both the Gita and the Sūtras.
The definition of Yoga can be found in the actual word yoga, which is derived from the root “yuj”, which means to yoke (to unite/join/combine). So yoga can literally be defined as the union between the Individual and Universal Soul.
The meaning of Yoga was first described in The Upanishads, where it’s defined as a tool to have mastery over the senses.
The Yoga Vasistha explains it as a tool to calm the mind.
It is very important to study the ancient texts, and also to study different translations and commentaries, to keep learning about this beautiful way of living, known as yoga. We keep further connecting to the meaning behind the words and valuable lessons, and see that they are still very relevant to this day!
Yoga Sutra 1.12
abhyāsa vairāgyābhyām tannirodhaḥ
Yoga Sūtra 2.2
सभाणधबावनाथ्य िेशतनकू यिाथिय ॥२॥
samādhi-bhāvanārthaḥ kleśa-tanū-karaṇārthaś ca
Samādhi is meditative absorption, profound meditation, contemplation
Bhāvana means bringing about, producing
Arthaḥ for the purpose of, contemplating with meaning and feeling, to obtain
Kleśa afflictions, troubles, obstacles
Tanū means weak, to diminish
Karaṇa making, causing
Arthaḥ for the purpose of
Ca and, both, as well as
In this Sutra Patañjali discusses kriyā-yoga, the yoga of action. This Sutra can be translated to “The practice of (kriyā) yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samādhi''. By the practice of yoga the afflictions (kleśas) like ego, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life, are weakened. The word kleśa means to torment, trouble, cause pain, afflict. This word also gets translated as obstacles.
By reducing these kleśas through the practice of kriyā-yoga, profound meditation is achieved, which is the precursor to samādhi (absorption). Not being subject to these afflictions leads to a vibrant life.
We can know about this from teachings and reading the Yoga Sūtras and other scriptures, however the knowledge alone will not remove these kleśas. So by knowing, yet not practicing kriyā-yoga, we will still be victims to the afflictions like ignorance and ego. A great quote by Benjamin Hoff to remind us of this very lesson is: “Knowledge and Experience do not necessarily speak the same language. But isn't the knowledge that comes from experience more valuable than the knowledge that doesn’t?”.
So the lesson to be learned here and that Patañjali is trying to bring across is that kriyā-yoga must actively be practiced to weaken the kleśas and get to the state of samādhi. As we remember from Yoga Sutra 1.2 ‘yogaś citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ’, yoga occurs when we stop identifying with our thoughts. By removing the kleśas we can get to the ultimate state of samādhi.
Yoga Sutra 2.2
samādhi-bhāvanārthaḥ kleśa-tanū-karaṇārthaś ca
Yoga Sūtra 2.35
अणहंसाप्रणतष्ठामां तत्सणिधौ वयै त्याग् ॥ ३५॥
ahiṁsā pratiṣṭhāyām tat-sannidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ
Ahiṁsā means nonviolence
Pratiṣṭhāyām is upon the establishment, upon having established
Tat that, his
Sannidhau is in the presence
Vaira enmity, hostility
Tyāgaḥ means given up
This Sutra can be translated to “In the presence of someone who is established in nonviolence, all hostilities are abandoned.” So that means that animosity disappears in the presence of someone who has perfectly established nonviolence within.
One of the Yamas (restraints, ethical codes) we practice in Ashtanga Yoga (the 8 limbs of yoga) is ahiṁsā: nonviolence (अहिंसा). In this Sūtra Patañjali explains that even the most natural enemies (like animals in the wild) give up their enmity in the presence of the yogī who has fully renounced all thoughts of violence.
Think of The Buddha for example, who cultivated this practice and brought peace and harmony anywhere he went. Someone else who united many people through the practice of ahiṁsā is Mahatma Gandhi.
To perfect the yamas and niyamas, like ahiṁsā, the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga can be of great help: dhāraṇā (धारणा): fixing the mind, concentration, meditation. All the limbs complement each other, and build upon each other. Ahiṁsā is a beautiful, valuable, and important practice that can be implemented by all of us, in our daily lives.
Yoga Sutra 2.35
ahiṁsā pratiṣṭhāyām tat-sannidhau vaira-tyāgaḥ
Yoga Sūtra 2.42
सतं ोषाद्अनत्तु भ् सखु राब्॥४२॥
Santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
Santoṣād means from contentment
Anuttamaḥ is the highest / supreme
Sukha is happiness / joy
Lābhaḥ means the attainment
This Sutra can be translated to “From contentment, the highest happiness is attained.” or “By contentment, supreme joy is gained.”
Contentment goes beyond satisfaction. Being content means not looking for things outside of ourselves to fulfill or satisfy us. It means not going to outside things for our happiness. All is well in the state of contentment. This happiness does not depend on external objects that are fleeting. Instead this highest happiness comes from a tranquil and content mind.
A beautiful quote that really summarizes this feeling of contentment is: “What’s meant for me will never miss me, and what misses me was never meant for me.” - Source unknown.
So through contentment (and the cessation of desire), the highest happiness (anuttamaḥ sukha) will arise.
Yoga Sutra 2.42
santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukha-lābhaḥ
Yoga Sutra 2.46
Yoga Sūtra 2.46
णस्थयसखु भ आ् सनभ ॥४६॥
Sthira is steady
Sukham is comfortable
Āsanam means posture or seat
This Sutra can be translated to “āsana is a steady, comfortable posture”. So that being said, the seat of a yogi should be steady (firm, disciplined, done with effort and focus) and joyful (sweet, comfortable).
So ask yourself this question: How many āsanas do you truly feel comfortable and steady in? It may sound very simple at first, but the reality might be that the postures aren't that easy to obtain. So this ‘sthira’ and ‘sukha’ reinforce each other. My teacher once taught me that a posture is steady because it is pleasant and pleasant because it is steady. This steadiness includes a regular breath and firmness of the body and mind. The smooth breath and easeful attitude will produce happiness and pleasure.
Toxins in the body can be removed by “squeezing” the body in different directions. And that is exactly what our āsana practice does for us. Take our forward fold Paschimottānāsana for example. This āsana cleanses the liver, spleen, and intestines. Lifting the stomach, as we do in Uḍḍīyāna Bandha, does this as well. In our daily āsana practice we move forward, sideways, in all directions. All of this is there to help us remove the toxins of the body.