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Exploring the Bible of Modern Yoga: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

A deep dive into the sacred text of Yoga philosophy.
Exploring the Bible of Modern Yoga: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

For those who have

an intense urge for Spirit

and wisdom,

it sits near them,

waiting.

– Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, Book 1:21.

I'm a connoisseur of cultures. A sommelier of sacred texts. A disciple of direct experience.

I love learning how different groups answer life's most fundamental question: "What is going on here?"

This fascination has led me to several major schools of thought and practice throughout the past decade of story-hunting.

Zen. Gnosticism. Shamanism. Buddhism. Christianity. Taoism. Hinduism. Islam. Atheism. Scientism. Stoicism. Yoga.

Surprisingly, Yoga is among the most impressive Way of Being and School of Thought I have come across in these metaphysical adventures.

The depth and comprehensiveness of its theoretical foundations and the accessibility of its practical techniques are unrivalled across the world and throughout history.

Yoga has a remarkable ability to root everything back in direct experience and provide a tailored pedagogical progression for committed practitioners.

Today, I want to share with you the 'Bible' of Modern Yoga.

I want to introduce you to the deep philosophical underpinnings of yoga practice. The fact that so few of us, even relatively dedicated yoga practitioners, know about this seminal text astounds me. To practice yoga asana (posture/poses) without firmly establishing yourself in the worldview that the practice grew out of seems incomplete.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is this text. This was the seed that the entire forest of modern yoga grew out of. When I come across something like that, I pay attention.

In the future, I will also cover ‘Inside the Yoga Sutras’ – a technical exploration of the terminology, definitions, meanings, and interpretations of the pithy aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras.

But before the technical, we explore the original and organic teachings.

Defining Yoga

Ask 100 people how to define yoga, and you’ll either get 100 completely different answers or the same singular answer. Something like “watered-down exercise that bougie white women and weird Indian mystics do.”

This definition is, of course, disingenuous and completely off the mark.

Starting with etymology, a direct translation of yoga is ‘union’. A joining, yoking, merging. What exactly are you unifying through yoga practice? Nothing less than the small self and the God Self. Consciousness and Cosmos. Atman and Brahman. Mind, Body, & Spirit.

To achieve this grand unification, yoga employs a comprehensive bio-psycho-spiritual Way of Being. Yoga is not a religion. It is an orientation towards life. A complete set of practices designed to enable a developmental ladder within the individual towards these ultimate states of Self-Realization.

Yoga is an embodied awakening stack that will take you all the way to abiding identification with exactly who and what you are.

Yoga may also be considered the process of evolving identity. In the Upanishads, one of the most ancient sacred texts of Hindu philosophy, 3 fundamentals truth claims are made:

  1. There is a changeless, universal reality behind the entire world of changes.
  2. This reality is also present inside of us.
  3. The purpose of life is to find this reality inside and outside of yourself, and establish your identity firmly in this center.

The Yoga Sutras are considered a unique ‘darshan’ — an entire worldview.

This text has become 1 of the 6 recognized darshans in the Indian philosophical system. They present both a worldview, and also a set of landmarks, of milestones, that the individual may progress through as they move into deeper and deeper self-realization and re-identification.

Personally, my favourite definition of Yoga is a “journey of the self, to the Self, through the self.”

Far more than a set of physical postures, yoga is one of the most ancient and advanced schools of embodied awakening that exists. While not relying solely on theoretical or religious stipulations, it nevertheless has one of the most comprehensive maps and definitional repertoire of the awakening process I have come across.

And all these seeds of modern yoga were planted by one man: Patanjali.

Introduction to Patanjali

Patanjali rightly deserves his title of the Father of Modern Yoga, insofar that the vast majority of yoga practice, techniques, and teachings today are built off of ashtanga yoga, or the 8 Limbs of Yoga (ash = 8, tanga = limbs).

The 8 Limbs were his creation.

Patanjali is to Yoga what the Buddha is to Buddhism. This is not a text to take lightly.

Written in a highly aphoristic and poetic style, sutra translates as ‘thread of wisdom’.

The yoga sutras become the threads of wisdom on yoga philosophy, meant for you to pull on and explore in your own practice and your direct experience. While comprehensive in its theory, these are not ideas, they are lived experiences available to the committed student.

Inside the Yoga Sutras

Each individual book of the Yoga Sutras has ~50 individual sutras. I have curated a selection from each chapter that I feel best provides a comprehensive overview of yogic philosophy without getting into too many details or nuances.

This entire book can be read in a single sitting. If a single sutra resonates with you, I would urge you to sit down with this entire text and absorb it, and then take it into your individual sadhana, or personal practice.

This specific translation from Mukunda Stiles is one of only dozens of translations. They have chosen to keep the translation light and poetic, and to honour this I have formatted the quotes exactly as they are presented in the book.

Below each sutra I have added any commentary I think is necessary/helpful for context or additional elaboration.

BOOK 1: ON BEING ABSORBED IN SPIRIT

1.2

Yoga

is experienced

in that mind

which has

ceased

to identify itself

with its

vacillating waves of perception.

The definition of Yoga as stated by Patanjali.

Yoga translates as union, so we read this as "union/self-realization is experienced in the mind which no longer identifies as the ephemeral changes of thoughts and sense perceptions."

1.3

When this happens,

then the Seer is revealed,

resting in its own essential nature,

and one realizes

the True

Self.

The True Self, the Seer, the Atman, is like the sun. It is the light of awareness, that which illuminates the entirety of existence, always radiating its light.

When you have, through practice and devotional surrender, quieted the mind and removed the clouds of false identification, the True Self is revealed — as it was there all along, just like the sun is always shining behind the clouds.

1.4

At all other times,

the Self

appears

to assume the form

of thought’s

vacillations

and the True Self

is lost.

The essence of misidentification. You make an incorrect association of your True Identity as the ephemeral, changing waves of thoughts, beliefs, opinions, emotions, and sensory experiences.

When this incorrect identification sets in, proper identification with your True Self is lost.

1.20

For others

who are not born

with this thorough knowledge,

being absorbed in Spirit

is preceded by faith,

indomitable vigor,

and a mindfulness

that is always concerned

with the wisdom

of Oneness.

The pathway to Self-Realization.

There are many stories throughout global history of spontaneous awakenings or natural giftedness, this is what Patanjali means by "others who are not born with this thorough knowledge."

1.21

For those who have

an intense urge for Spirit

and wisdom,

it sits near them,

waiting.

Awakening is available to all earnest seekers. It sits closer to you than your own skin.

1.30

These nine obstacles

to self-knowledge

disrupt and scatter the mind —

they are disease,

dullness,

doubt,

negligence,

laziness,

dissipation due to excess craving,

delusion,

lack of the concentration

necessary to achieve

higher consciousness,

and instability.

Much of the ashtanga, the first 5 of the 8 Limbs of Yoga (the 'external' limbs), are meant to help an individual root themselves firmly in their practice by addressing and avoiding these central obstacles to Self-Knowledge.

1.41

One

whose vacillations

are steadily diminishing

experiences the mind,

as transparent,

just as a high-quality gemstone

reveals the form of objects

placed near it.

They attain

a state of absorbtion

wherein the knower,

the experience of knowing,

and the object of knowledge

fuse

into one

indistinguishable

subject-object.

As more metaphysical truth claims arise, you must always remember: everything in this book is a direct experience of absolute Truth.

The merging of the perceiver, the perceived, and the act of perception is a very real and direct experience. This is an example of the milestones along the way, and you will know it without question when it happens to you.

BOOK 2: ON PRACTICES FOR BEING IMMERSED IN SPIRIT

2.1

The practical means

for attaining higher consciousness

consist of three components:

self-discipline and purification,

self-study,

and devotion

to the Lord.

True to the title of this second book, we enter the realm of techniques and practices.

Straightforward, one progresses in Self-Realization through commitment, awareness, and surrendered devotion.

2.3

There are five

primal causes of suffering:

ignorance

of your True Self

and the value of spirituality;

ego

and its self-centredness;

attachment to pleasure;

aversion to pain;

and clinging to life

out of fear of death.

Similar to its neighbouring cousin Buddhism, Yoga lays out the path for the cessation of dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

For Patanjali, these 5 perennial problems of being human are the roots of suffering.

2.18

The seen has the qualities of

luminosity, activity, and stability.

It is embodied through the elements

and the sense organs.

It exists

for the dual purpose of

sensory enjoyment

and liberation

of the Self.

The nature of the manifest/visible world.

2.20

The Seer is

pure consciousness only.

Even though

it appears to see

by directing thoughts and concepts,

it remains unchanged

by the mind’s operations.

The nature of the Self/Seer.

2.21

For the sake

of that Self alone

does the seen world exist.

The devastatingly direct connection between Consciousness and Cosmos.

The manifest world of form and change exists solely for the Self and its playful liberation and ongoing evolution.

2.29

Yoga’s eight component parts

are self-control

for social harmony,

precepts

for personal discipline,

yoga pose,

regulation of prana,

withdrawal of the senses from their objects,

contemplation of our true nature,

meditation on the True Self,

and being absorbed in Spirit.

These are the 8 Limbs of Yoga. These few lines now inform millions of practitioners' lives.

Loosely translated in order, they are the: yamas (don'ts), niyamas (do's), asana (postures), pranayama (breath), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), & samadhi (oneness).

The first 5 are the 'external' limbs of yoga, while the final 3 are the 'internal' limbs. The 8 limbs, practiced with devotion, comprise an entire path of Self-Realization.

2.46

Yoga pose

is a steady

comfortable position.

The definition of asana. This is the practice that has come to dominate the modern world of yoga. You'll notice this is only 1 of the 8 limbs of Yoga.

Originally, yoga had far more meditation involved in it. Most of the original yoga 'asanas' were seated meditative postures.

There is only one definition of what a true asana is: a steady, comfortable position. No fancy balances, no contorted twists are required. And in fact, too heavy of a focus on advanced physical postures can distract you from continuing down the path of Self-Realization.

2.47

Yoga pose is mastered

by relaxation of effort,

lessening the tendency

for restless breathing,

and promoting an identification

of oneself as living

within

the infinite breath of life.

The technique for perfecting asana posture.

Non-forcing, conscious breathing, and active re-identification.

2.48

From that

perfection of yoga posture,

duality,

such as reacting to praise and criticism,

ceases

to be a disturbance.

With the mastering of asana and pranayama (posture and breath), an individual has completed the external 5 limbs of yoga and is prepared now to turn inward for contemplation on and realization of the True Self.

BOOK 3: ON SUPERNATURAL ABILITIES AND GIFTS

3.1

Contemplation

is

the confining

of thought

to one point.

Also defined as 'concentration'.

This is the essential starting point for meditative absorption.

3.2

Meditation

depends upon this

foundation for directing thoughts

into a continuous flow

of awareness.

Meditation is sustained direct concentration on a singular object, thought, or form.

3.3

Being absorbed in Spirit

is that consciousness,

whose object is

void of form or goal

and only the

essence of the object

remains

shining forth.

Through direct meditation on the formless space between thoughts, one arrives at meditative absorption with essences.

3.4

Samyama

occurs when these three processes

flow together harmoniously,

integrating the full spectrum

of the mind’s potential.

Samyama is the combination of the three previous techniques and becomes the foundation for samadhi (awakening/insight) experiences.

Samyama is the combination of turning the senses inward, focused concentration, and sustained meditation as a singular process.

3.21

By the practice of samyama

on the form of your body,

you disappear,

as you suspend

the receptive power of light

from being received

by others’ eyes.

Several demonstrations of siddhi's (superpowers) are given.

These are the byproducts of samyama practice on specific ideas, objectives, or thoughts.

It is important to remember that these are not only ideas or fancy flourishes. These are real experiences. If you'd like to explore stories like these in more detail, I recommend 'Autobiography of a Yogi' by Paramahansa Yogananda.

3.24

By the practice of samyama

on friendliness and other virtues,

one gains their full power.

The only true way to Know something is to Be the thing.

The practice of samyama on an object leads to the merging of subject-object experience as discussed earlier, so the absolute essence of the thing is Known.

3.25

By the practice of samyama

on the strength of an elephant

and the virtues of

other animals,

one gains corresponding strengths

and other virtues.

True to its focus on the unification of Consciousness and Cosmos – Yoga frequently weaves in examples from the natural world.

You see this in things like Eagle Pose, Lizard Pose, Mountain Pose, Tree Pose, and other asanas.

3.30

By the practice of samyama

on the navel’s psychic center,

knowledge

of the organization and functions

of the body

arises.

Both discriminative knowledge and 'superpowers' are the byproducts of samyama practice.

3.31

By the practice of samyama

on the cavity

of the throat,

hunger and thirst cease.

Dedicated samyama practice begins to cultivate mastery of the physical world.

This is still discussing the siddhi's, or superpowers, and they are well documented throughout yogic history.

3.36

The lucid mind and

the Transcendental Self

are absolutely distinct.

The mind directs awareness

for the sake of

sensual experiences.

The Self exists for its own sake

and remains separate.

Without distinguishing this difference,

worldly experience happens.

By the practice of samyama

on this distinction,

knowledge of the Self

is gained.

When samyama is applied to the nature of experience, true knowledge of Self arises.

3.38

These gifts

are impediments

to being absorbed in Spirit,

but they are seen

as the attainment of perfection

to the

worldly minded.

This is a fundamentally important point.

It applies to any spiritual practitioner of any faith or practice. It is very easy to get caught up in ego games with the development of insight, superpowers, or advanced mastery of specific domains.

However, these 'achievements' become distractions from the true goal of Yoga and spirituality, which is union with the True Self.

3.46

From this arises

attainments,

like becoming minute,

creating a sense of wealth

from the perfection

of one’s attributes.

Then the body is

not an obstruction

on the journey

to self-realization.

Samyama is done to assist with the process of Self-Realization.

Nothing more, nothing less. It is a necessary part of the process, and the siddhis are the outcomes of this practice. One must not lose sight of the end goal.

3.47

The wealth of perfections

thus acquired include

beauty, gracefulness,

strength, and the

extraordinary durability

of a diamond.

Outcomes of deep samyama practices and the siddhis.

3.52

Even when the highest celestial beings

admire you,

you should once again avoid

attachment

and the resulting pride,

because of the potential for the

revival of the

undesirable.

Avoiding the trap of the spiritual ego.

3.53

By the practice of samyama

on the moments of time

and its orderly succession

one gains knowledge

born of discrimination.

Discriminative knowledge is a foundation of yoga practice.

It is only through refined discriminatory capacities can one being to separate the Self from the self and find the suitable location for re-identification.

3.55

Thus,

knowledge

born of discrimination

is the liberator

unto absolute freedom;

it recognizes all objects

in all conditions as the Self,

regardless of their

sequential appearance.

When a practice, deeply rooted, helps an individual develop steady-state discriminative capacities, the complete liberation and unification of the self with the Self becomes possible.

BOOK 4: ON ABSOLUTE FREEDOM

4.1

Supernatural powers

can result from

an exalted birth,

magical herbs,

mantras,

intense spiritual practice,

or absorption into Spirit.

You can't ignore the fact that the Bible of Yoga points to the use of magical herbs to develop supernatural powers and insights.

4.4

Solely from the

sense of individuality

are mental fabrications produced.

This is one of the most important sutras.

This is the fundamental origins of the ego and the small linear, narrative self. From the illusory seed of separation, mental fabrications and narrative structures arise.

4.5

There is a multiplicity

of activities of the mind,

yet one thought

is the originator

of the diversity

of thoughts.

Instead of trimming the branches of thought and narrative, you address the root directly – the story of the separate and isolated individual self.

4.19

Thought is an object

and therefore

cannot

illuminate itself.

All thought is an object within awareness.

The entire story of the narrative self and separated individual are objects and therefore cannot be base reality. There is something more fundamental to identity, that which is aware of the thought – the True Self – pure consciousness.

4.22

An evolved consciousness

experiences one’s own Self

by the reflection of the

changeless Self

arising as the

field of consciousness.

In that form,

the Self

is known.

This returns us to the 3 fundamental Truths of the Upanishads:

  1. There is a changeless reality behind the world of changes.
  2. This reality is present in you.
  3. The goal is to root your identity within that recognition.
4.29

One who is free of self-interest,

even from the attainment of

the highest realizations,

and who possesses

constant discrimination

is showered with virtues

from being

absorbed in Spirit.

Spirit generates all abundance, all potentiality, all experience, all virtue, All That Is.

Of course, total immersion within Spirit leads inevitably to these.

4.30

From this

comes a

cessation of obstacles

and

karmic patterns.

Absorption in Spirit attains what is known as "actions without seed" in the yogic philosophical schools.

Actions without seed are free of karmic inheritance, and allow you to break the cycle of samsara (death/rebirth).

4.34

Absolute freedom results

when the primal natural forces,

having no further purpose to serve,

become re-absorbed

to the source of all,

or

when the power of pure consciousness

becomes established in its

own essential nature.

This is the final sutra of the Yoga Sutras.

A beautiful, poetic ending showing the result of the 8 Limbs.

Establishing Consciousness within its own nature, the origin moment-place of Absolute Freedom.