Hang around enough yoga studios and eventually you’ll hear someone mention The Yoga Sutras, a book of wisdom credited to the sage Patanjali, a writer and physician of the Mauryan period (ca. 321–185 B.C.). One of the oldest “how to” books on the psyche, The Sutras consist of 200 threads that delineate the steps to enlightenment. Each sutra is made up of a few Sanskrit words, meant to be recited and expounded on by an accomplished teacher whose direct experience could illuminate the meaning of the sparse text. Beautiful to read, The Yoga Sutras lies somewhere between the wise poetry of the Tao Te Ching and Nikola Tesla’s mind-bending epiphanies.
The word yoga literally means to yoke or unite individual and universal consciousness. The Sutras break down how this task is to be accomplished by defining what yoga is, the nature of the mind and senses, meditative practices and signs of mastery and liberation. Numerous interpretations of The Sutras have been published and it is a tradition among gurus and scholars to release a commentary to accompany the text, some dry and scholarly, others intuitive and mystical. As the philosophical foundation of Raja Yoga, The Sutras lay down the components of a meditative approach to enlightenment with surprisingly clear and concise instructions.
Divided into 4 portions, the Sutras are:
Sadhana Pada: Practices
Vibhuti Pada: Powers
Kaivalya Pada: Liberation
The second and third Sutras represent the whole of the book in microcosm.
Sutra 1.2 The restraint of the behavior of the mind field is yoga.
Sutra 1.3 Then the seer abides in his own nature.
The ultimate goal of The Sutras is to lead the seeker to the true Self, releasing him from the bondage of illusion. In this context, the word Self does not mean the individual ego, as it does in the West. Instead Self means our true nature, beyond personal ego— a manifestation of the divine. In many ways, The Yoga Sutras are the operator’s manual of the mind, breaking down mental habits and how to conquer the illusions separating us from our true identity. The Sutras serve as a guide to meditative states and how to accomplish sublime integration with the creative source of all things; God, Ishvara, YHWH, Ain Soph, Satnam, Allah, Tao, Christ Consciousness, Quantum Field, The Universe, etc— or whatever term you prefer.
Chapter 1: Concentration
First, Patanjali breaks down how the mind works. His observations are relentlessly logical, predating modern psychology by several thousand years. The first chapter of the Sutras explores the mind-field, its patterns and tendency towards attraction or aversion to objects. Patanjali outlines the five kinds of thoughts, including imagination, sleep and memory and right and wrong perceptions. The steps of stabilizing the mind by developing one-pointed focus are broken down and the student is introduced to the levels of non-dualistic Samadhi, a transcendent state uniting consciousness with any object of contemplation, including Śūnyatā or emptiness, the concept that all phenomena is in a state of change and flux and possesses no inherent reality outside of the subjective perception of the seer.
Chapter 2: Practices
Patanjali breaks down the deeper mechanics of the mind, thought formation and how thoughts are “colored.” Solutions are offered to neutralize destructive thought patterns. Patanjali describes ignorance and the cycles of karma, the nature of duality and how the perceiver and the perceived interact. He also elucidates the idea that discrimination is the key to enlightenment and introduces the Eight Limbs of Yoga, as an aid to discrimination. The steps outlined in The Eight Limbs, guide the seeker toward enlightenment through physical and mental purification. Finally, Patanjali instructs the seeker how to sense the true Self and not confuse it with the illusions of manifest forms around us or the ego.
Chapter 3: Powers
The third chapter outlines the Siddhis or extraordinary powers, which can be acquired. These powers include invisibility, entering another body, knowledge of the future, past or anything contemplated, super-senses, mind-reading, etc. (In western society, psychics, empathics, mediums and channels exhibit some of these side effects, as do people on psychotropic drugs). The Siddhis are a side effect of the practice and Patanjali warns that “The Powers” can be a stumbling block on the path due to the tendency for the ego to identify itself with these abilities.
Chapter 4: Liberation
The fourth and final chapter is the most mysterious and sublime. Patanjali describes the nature of reality and duality, how manifest reality evolves from the interplay of Chitta, the mind-field which functions like a mirror and reflects Prakriti or matter which is finally illuminated by Purusha (transcendent consciousness). Patanjali describes the Jivamuktas, those who have achieved the highest levels of Samadhi and operate from the Purusha or transcendent witnessing consciousness. Although they appear to act in the world like anyone else, their seeds of karma have been destroyed. This is known as Seedless Samadhi; an egoless state so pure the seeds of Karmas within the Jiva (the part of consciousness that migrates from body to body) are burned, so Karmas cannot germinate when conditions occur. In Seedless Samadhi, actions and thoughts become so pure, they cease to produce karma.
To those students of the mind who wish to comprehend the mechanics of perception, there is no greater map to study than Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Just as our bodies grow stronger with yoga, so Patanjali’s mental asanas will train our minds to be powerful, clear and flexible
And in time, enlightened. Image by h.koppdelaney
My favorite translations of The Yoga Sutras: