The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

…as we have been touching on the philosphical application of contentment whilst we work in forward folds, I thought I would give you a broad overview of how our physical yoga practice fits into the bigger picture. I would recommend that any serious yoga student gets hold of a copy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. You will need a version with a full commentary; my own version has a commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, and is very readable. So,  here is a brief introduction to this book…..

Patanjali is known as the ‘father of yoga’, and his classic work ‘The Yoga Sutras’ (dating from around 200 BC) was the first book to systematically describe the practice of yoga in 195 short phrases.  The term ‘sutra’ (from which we get the word ‘suture’) appears to have two meanings: one is ‘aphorism’, that is, a pithy phrase which is a condensation of truth or ideas.  The second  is ‘thread’; this implies that although many of the phrases appear to be unconnected, there is a hidden thread of reasoning running behind them all, which can be discovered with much reflection.

The sutras are divided into four chapters, or ‘pada’: the first deals with samadhi – the aims of yoga, the second with the means (‘sadhana’ or practice) to achieve yoga;  in this chapter, the ‘eight limbs of yoga’ – raja or ashtanga yoga – are described:

  • Yamas,  restraints on our behaviour: non-violence, truthfulness, non-theft, sexual continence, and non-greed.
  • Niyamas, behaviour to cultivate: purity in body and mind, contentment, physical austerity, study of the self and spiritual books, surrender (to God).
  • Asana, physical yoga practice.
  • Pranayama, the control of the breath.
  • Pratyahara, withdrawal from the input of the senses.
  • Dharana, concentration in preparation for meditation.
  • Dhyana, meditation.
  • Samadhi, absorption into the sublime.

The third chapter describes the powers (‘vibhuti’) that the yogi encounters along the path, and the fourth deals with freedom, the ultimate state of yoga (‘kaivalya’).

The overall intention of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras seems to be outlined in the first four sutras.  These state that the theory and methods of yoga are about to be expounded to those who are attentive and prepared to learn; that is, one should approach the study of yoga with an open mind and heart, being careful not to impose any expectations of results in oneself.

“This is the beginning of instruction in yoga.  Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.  Then man abides in his real nature.  At other times, when he is not in the state of yoga, man remains identified with the thought-waves in the mind.”

The aim of yoga is to develop voluntary control, or inhibition, of the thoughts (‘chitta’) so that they slow down and eventually cease.  Many people identify themselves with their thoughts, and relate current events in their lives to happenings in the past, and thus they may well fail to appreciate exactly what is occurring in the present.  The same thing can happen with regard to the future: people often worry about what might happen, rather than focusing their attention on what is happening right now.  By learning to still the thought waves of the mind, one’s underlying consciousness is discovered, and therefore, realisation of one’s fundamental nature – that we are not our thoughts.  In later sutras, Patanjali gives instructions as to how this quietening of the mind may be achieved.

I hope this gives you a little taste of what this important book has to teach us. Happy reading!



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