Everything You Need to Know About Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Long ago, the sage Patanjali gave yogis ashtanga yoga, which you may know as the eight limbs of yoga. This body of wisdom explains a natural progression of techniques to train the body, mind, and senses for spiritual evolution. This system explained in this collection of aphorisms is called Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Neither the first nor the only ancient writing on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer a system for attaining self-realization. Although people know very little about Patanjali himself, many believe he’s thought to have lived between 500 and 200 B.C. He is also said to have been an evolved soul who returned in human form in order to help lift others out of their sorrows.
Patanjali’s insight comes in 196 aphorisms, or maxims of deep truth. The aphorisms offer endless wisdom and provide a step-by-step path toward enlightenment for the spiritually unevolved. While concise, each word in combination with the others creates an endless field for thought and discussion. This is why Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are still deconstructed and analyzed by philosophers and yogis today.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are broken up into the following four chapters:
Samadhi pada: Defines yoga, but is meant to guide those who are already close to samadhi, or self-realization.
Sadhana pada: Describes the eight steps to follow for spiritual evolution. This chapter is targeted toward the common person. It’s possibly the most important of all the chapters, as most yogis use the eightfold path as a reference for yogic life. This includes ethical moral behavior, asana, pranayama, mastery of the senses, concentration, meditation, and self-realization; accomplished in this step-by-step order.
Vibhuta pada: Describes and also warns against the temptations of the eight siddhis or supernatural powers that a yogi can achieve in the higher levels of spiritual development.
Kaivalya pada: Describes how to live in the world in a detached manner, beyond the influences of the three gunas (sattva, rajas, and tamas) or qualities of energy. Together, these four chapters focus on a person’s overall evolution in action, thought, and speech. Patanjali has provided the ultimate instruction manual for yoga and spiritual development, making Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras one of the most referred-to sources of yogic wisdom.
THE EIGHTFOLD LIMBED AT A GLANCE
Patanjali’s greatest gift to modern yogis is his ashtanga yoga, the eightfold structured path that helps man to rise out of ignorance and become closer to self-realization.
Sutra 11.29: Moral injunctions, fixed observances, posture, regulation of breath, internalization of the senses toward their source, concentration, meditation, and absorption of consciousness in the self, are the eight constituents of yoga.
This sutra and those that expand upon it are the most important to present-day yogic action. While much of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are meant for those who are close to enlightenment, the “spiritually unevolved” should spend time understanding Ashtanga yoga. For many, yoga’s ultimate culmination of self-realization cannot be attained on demand. Patanjali understood these obstacles of the human psyche and gifted us with his eightfold path.
Each limb of his path builds upon those before it, and to skip any of the steps would be a major obstacle—if not the demise—to further progress. The eight limbs of yoga begin with the yamas and niyamas, laying the groundwork for the moral conduct needed to guide us on our yogic journey. The limbs end with samadhi: the ultimate goal of yoga.
The yamas are five ethics that focus on our relationships with others and set us up for a harmonious existence in society.
1. Ahimsa: the ethic of nonviolence. By embracing ahimsa you refrain from hurting yourself or others physically, verbally, or mentally.
2. Satya: the ethic of truth. This means truth in words, thoughts and deeds, and aligning what you say with what you do.
3. Asteya: the ethic of non-stealing. Fairly straightforward, this refers to not taking what is not yours.
4. Brahmacharya: the ethic of properly using your sexual energy. The point of this yama is to build the inner strength, vitality, and vigor needed for higher yogic practices.
5. Aparigraha: the ethic of non-collection. This yama encourages you to acquire only what you need and discourages you from attachment to worldly possessions.
The niyamas are five principles that are oriented toward individual conduct and discipline. They encourage you to adopt a pure lifestyle and mindset to promote spiritual growth.
1. Saucha: the ethic of cleanliness. This refers not only to good hygiene, but to purity of food, mind, and surroundings.
2. Santosha: the ethic of contentment. It encourages you to be satisfied with what you have.
3. Tapas: the ethic of self-discipline. Through tapas, you develop the willpower needed to stay on the yoga path.
4. Svadhyaya: the ethic of self-study. This includes education and study of spiritual texts, as well as an understanding of our individual purpose in life.
5. Ishvara pranidhana: the moral observance of complete surrender to god. This practice redirects the energy you expend on earthly affairs to your pursuit of self-realization.
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Asana is the physical practice of yoga, which is meant to purify the physical body and promote its long-lasting health. In a literal sense, you learn to find a steady and comfortable posture that can be sustained for a long period of time during meditation.
Pranayama, or breath regulation, forms a bridge between the three externally-centered limbs above and the four internally-centered limbs that follow. After preparing the body through asana, you control and expand the breath through pranayama to increase you life force. This helps to clear the mind of distraction and ignorance, preparing it for the next stages of yoga.
Pratyahara is the practice of sensory withdrawal. Once the body and its energy are under our personal control, the senses must be mastered. When the mind is no longer a slave to the senses, it can progress on the spiritual path.
Dharana means concentration, and this step is imperative for the next limb: meditation. Without concentration, meditation is impossible. You must first gain control over the body, prana, senses, and mind to be able to properly concentrate.
Dhyana is the practice of meditation. Meditation spontaneously arises through the uninterrupted flow of concentration. Hence, dharana must be mastered first before this limb can be achieved.
Samadhi comes through sustained meditation and is the highest goal of yoga. In this stage, the sense of ‘I’ or ‘me’ is surpassed. There are various levels of samadhi, but it’s the higher yogic samadhis that are needed to attain self-realization.
The limbs do build on one another, but their progression isn’t meant to be rigid. For example, someone might begin asana before they have mastered niyama, but still must follow the general progression of the eightfold path so that do not hit obstacles along the way.
DIGGING DEEPER: THE EIGHTFOLD LIMBS
Valuable for yogis and non-yogis alike, the five yamas guide us toward higher principles and values. They’re concerned with both your personal wellbeing and how you relate to others.
Patanjali calls the yamas mighty, universal vows that are irrelevant of time, social class, or where one lives. Although these moral observances were set forth ages ago, they are still important to the spiritual endeavor of yoga. They form the strong, moral foundation needed to advance on the spiritual path.
Ahimsa is the ethic of nonviolence. It’s important to note that nonviolence is the very first of all practices explained by Patanjali, as it sets the tone for how you practice yoga, interact with others, and behave.
In a passive sense, ahimsa means to not harm oneself or another physically, verbally, or mentally. As an active practice, ahimsa means loving and respecting all everything, including ourselves. It helps to calm the turbulent mind that’s tainted by hostility, anger, and inflated ego, moving us toward the sattvic or peaceful state that’s needed for the higher stages of yoga. Practicing ahimsa puts us on a path of right action and encourages us to think about the karmic implications of our behavior.
True nonviolence requires an awareness and respect for all beings. To a yogi, the lives of both a man and a mosquito are valuable. Both have souls; both are a form of god, so neither should be killed. According to yoga, all creatures have a purpose in this world. It’s not up to you to decide if that role is any less meaningful than your own.
Yogis consider every living being to be an extension of themselves, hence, they don’t kill for the sake of sensory pleasure. Killing animals is a blatant defiance of ahimsa, so by definition, yogis are vegetarian. However, while most of us will not only survive but flourish on a vegetarian diet, there are a few exceptions that make eating meat acceptable. For example, those who are emaciated, very weak, or suffering from debilitating diseases may benefit from adding meat to their diet. To ignore this would be a source of self-violence.
On the yoga mat, ahimsa is the practice of yielding to the body’s limitations. Pushing too far or having an overly vigorous, obsessive practice does more harm than good. Any yoga practice that depletes the body or causes injury goes against the ethic of ahimsa. To adhere to ahimsa, you must lovingly accept your body.
As a teacher, ahimsa means being aware of your students’ physical limitations. Be gentle and mindful when giving hands-on assists. Help students push themselves, but not to the point of injury.
Beyond the physical, ahimsa means that violent speech should be abandoned. By embracing ahimsa, you become mindful of the emotional and psychological repercussions of your words, and learn to speak kindly to others. As the foremost principle of Ashtanga yoga, ahimsa makes you a more compassionate human being.
Satya is the practice of truth in words, thoughts, and deeds. It not only means not lying, but also aligning your words with your actions. While you may feel like lies protect you in the short term, they eventually catch up to you.
Truthfulness helps you to determine what is real and unreal. If you are dishonest about yourself, or unwilling to see the truth about others, you’re likely to be disillusioned and have a distorted view of the world. When you’re in the role of a yoga teacher you can practice satya by being authentic.
You can teach your yoga students to practice satya by honoring their bodies: encouraging them to recognize when an asana or class is beyond their level. When you offer students an advanced option, you can remind them to only try the posture if they are truly ready. The same goes for your own personal yoga practice.
Asteya is the principle of non-stealing. It means not taking anything that you haven’t earned or that isn’t yours. This includes stealing someone else’s idea and taking it as your own, stealing someone else’s partner, abusing the trust of your students, or stealing a physical object of some kind. Adhering to asteya fosters satya, or truthfulness. It requires respect toward others and develops your good behavior amongst society.
Brahmacharya is the proper use of one’s sexual energy. This yama is hotly debated and widely interpreted. It’s sometimes translated as celibacy, meaning that someone committed to yogic life must give up sex. While some yogis may choose to adhere to celibacy for their own spiritual development, it’s a choice that isn’t well suited to “householders”, or common people. This term is used in India to describe people who live amongst society.
Most modern yogis are householders—not sages who spend their lives meditating in caves. Householders have husbands and wives, social lives, and jobs. Sometimes, celibacy is too extreme for a someone like this. To some, this term may mean moderation in sex, not being a slave to your sexual urges, or limiting ourselves to one partner.
It can also mean creative energy, and using our power of creation to do creative work, write a book, or cook a beautiful meal instead of only using it for sex. No matter one’s specific interpretation of brahmacharya, putting it into practice builds willpower, creative energy, and vitality—the qualities that a yogi needs.
Aparigraha means non-collection or non-greed. It encourages you to practice living simply and to let go of what we do not need. Worldly possessions will never bring true peace or happiness. Aparigraha teaches you to detach from material things that get in the way of spiritual growth. Weeding out excess stuff in the house should be a continual practice. You can embrace a one-for-one philosophy: every time you buy a new pair of jeans, for example, you donate one old pair, never accumulating excess.
Aparigraha can also mean not being greedy for love and attention. As yoga teachers, putting aparigraha into practice is the act of detaching yourself from the love and attention of your students. Their affection should never be your motivation for teaching, and you should be apathetic toward both praise and insults.
The niyamas encourage yogis to adopt a lifestyle that supports the spiritual journey of yoga. Unlike the yamas, which focus mostly on harmonious relationships with others, the niyamas are focused on individual conduct and discipline. They involve self-control and self-development. These five moral observances are meant to encourage personal evolution, and to teach yogis how to internalize and properly use their energy.
Saucha is the moral observance of cleanliness. Patanjali wasn’t only referring to bathing, but internal cleanliness as well. External cleanliness is a quality of a sattvic life—one of purity. People who practice Hatha yoga depend on their bodies for spiritual growth, so it’s important to treat the body with the utmost respect.
Internally, saucha refers to physical purity. The yogic practices of asana and pranayama clean the internal body, removing toxins and stale air, and creating new healthy tissue. Pure food is that fresh, nourishing, sattvic, and full of prana. Purity of mind is achieved by overcoming negative emotions such as jealousy, anger, and greed.
Santosha means contentment. As far as material possessions go, santosha is the act of being satisfied with what you have. Yogis are encouraged to live a simple life and to practice the yama of aparigraha: non-collection. True happiness comes from within, not from stuff, fame, or power; and these principles serve as reminders.
At a deeper level, santosha refers to the contentment that comes from inner well-being. This inner wellbeing is trusting that you have a dharma, or higher purpose, and living in alignment with your own higher purpose. Nothing in the outside world can ever give you the contentment, or bliss, that is only accessible from the inside.
Sutra 11.43: Self-discipline burns away impurities and kindles the sparks of divinity.
Tapas means self-discipline, which includes ahimsa, or nonviolence, detachment from material possessions, and making choices that align with spiritual development rather than drifting from it. Such self-discipline leads you toward embodying divinity. You shouldn’t think of tapas as a painful sacrifice, but more so as the practice of working on yourself, seeking self-improvement, and developing patience.
Tapas teaches you to control your outer self in pursuit of inner development. Yogis must be disciplined to progress, otherwise, the mind is unruly and seeks contentment in the outside world, which is not true bliss. You can practice tapas by giving up or lightening your own dependencies. You’ll eventually find yourself craving less and can free yourself of dependency. Practicing small acts of self-discipline are key to the later stages of yoga, which demand serious focus and willpower.
Swadhyaya is the practice of self-study. This means truly knowing yourself to realize your own dharma, or purpose in life. It requires that you cultivate inner awareness and try to understand how the mind works.
In a more literal sense, swadhyaya advocates education to burn away ignorance and open the mind. You can practice swadhyaya by reading and reflecting on spiritual writings such as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to help guide you.
5. Ishvara pranidhana
Ishvara pranidhana is complete surrender or devotion to God. This doesn’t have anything to do with religion—God here means your own higher self. This niyama encourages you to surrender your own individual ego to your higher self.
You thereby redirect the energy consumed by earthly dramas toward the purpose of finding a connection with God. This also dissolves the feeling of separateness by encouraging you to see God in everything and everyone else.
Ishvara pranidhana is the simple and direct path toward enlightenment. It’s also the most difficult niyama to embody because it requires surrendering the ego. Many people hold on so tightly to their societal identities, putting great weight on things such as job titles, clothes, and money. However, you can continue playing your role within society, but yoga encourages you not to forget your higher self.
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Sutra 11.46: Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.
While asana should be practiced with physical steadiness, it should also be practiced with steadiness of the mind. Asana also has a spiritual component and when performed with awareness, it unifies the mind, body, and spirit. It promotes healthy functioning organs and glands, proper circulation, proper elimination, and natural detoxification.
Physical health is absolutely necessary in order to advance down the yogic path and steps that follow. The asanas also train you to sit still, preparing you for sitting during pranayama and meditation.
Although pranayama or breath regulation is considered one of the three main components of yoga, along with asana and meditation, it’s omitted in the majority of modern yoga. Yogis who want to advance on the yogic path shouldn’t skip this crucial step. Pranayama translates as “breath expansion.” It’s a conscious regulation of the breath, an altering of its natural flow.
There are four parts to pranayama:
1. Recaka: Exhalation
2. Puraka: Inhalation
3. Bahya-kumbhaka: Suspension of the breath after exhalation
4. Antar-kumbhaka: Retention of the breath after inhalation
Beginner’s pranayama focuses mainly on exhalations and inhalations. While advance pranayama incorporates inner retention, outer suspension, bandhas, and mudras. Pranayama serves as a link between the external and internal practices of yoga. The first three of Patanjali’s eight limbs—yamas, niyamas, and asana—are considered external practices that help the yogi master their body and energy. Pranayama is the step that helps yogis graduate from the external to the internal.
“As the breeze disperses the clouds that cover the sun, pranayama wafts away the clouds that hide the light of intelligence.” – BKS Iyengar
Only when you clear the mind of ignorance and agitation can you concentrate. Only when you concentrate can you meditate and only when you meditate can you achieve the ultimate goal of yoga: self-realization.
Sutra 11.54: Withdrawing the senses, mind and consciousness from contact with external objects, and then drawing them inwards towards the seer, is pratyahara.
Pratyahara is defined as sensory withdrawal and is considered a key step on the yogic path. All yoga practices teach the mind to go inward, detaching from the illusory external world. But pratyahara frees the mind from enslavement, sensory pleasure, attachment to objects, and sensations.
Pratyahara is an act of intelligence. Normally, the five organs of action—eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin—come in contact with their organs of perception—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. The mind gathers the impressions from the organs of perception and stores them within your memory. Remembering the pleasures of the sense organs’ interactions, the mind and senses endlessly seek more pleasure.
“Owing to the force of past impressions, one continues to hanker after renewed sensation. But one can never be satisfied. This breeds unhappiness and frustration.” – BKS Iyengar
Pratyahara is the practice of engaging intelligence to understand that no sensory pleasure can ever truly satisfy the soul. In pratyahara, one uses their intelligence to discipline the mind. The desire for sensory gratification gradually fades away as intelligence discriminates between appropriate and inappropriate, right and wrong. The spiritual seeker comes closer to the ultimate goal of self-realization.
Dharana is the practice of concentration. It is not the same as meditation, but the practice, which can eventually create a meditative state. The yogi must first master dharana, and only then is dhyana possible. While the word meditation is loosely thrown around, it’s a state of thoughtless awareness that’s probably achieved less often than people care to admit. In order to get to this stage, the mind must be focused.
The mind is constantly jumping from one thought to another—the harder you try to push out its thoughts, the more stubborn these thoughts seem to get. Even during concentration thoughts will come and go, but repeatedly returning your focus to that one image, object or sound trains the mind to hold one thought in a continuous stream.
Dharana can be developed both as a formal practice and in daily life. The more you incorporate concentration into your daily life, the easier it will be to concentrate during your meditation practice.
Morally correct behavior, asana, pranayama, and control of the senses all lead up to a more transformative process in yoga: meditation, or dhyana. Through meditation you’re able to witness the mind’s fluctuations and thoughts, and to control them.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras describe that merely focusing on a single object is not meditation, but concentration. Through sustained concentration free of interruptions, the mind eventually becomes so absorbed in that one entity that it enters a thoughtless state. It is no longer engaging in one-pointed concentration, as it is in dharana, but in no-pointed awareness.
Sutra 1.2: Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.
Samadhi is the most difficult of the eight steps to understand. Until it is experienced, it remains elusive. Samadhi is the state in which the meditator loses self-awareness through continued flow of consciousness on the object of perception.
Samadhi is sometimes defined as self-realization or enlightenment. In this stage, the sense of “I-ness” dissolves. There is no ego, and the yogi truly understands that they are not separate from everything and everyone around them but one with all. There are several stages of samadhi and it is not the end of the yogi’s journey, but the true beginning.