The Yoga Sutras

If we are going to look at 1 of the key yoga texts – the Yoga Sutras what is yoga?

“At our core is a state of permanent infinite bliss and awareness which is called our true nature, truth, the natural state, consciousness or the self. We do not perceive this state because we erroneously identify ourselves with mental activity. Once mental activity ceases we return to our natural state “
Gregor Maehle – Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy

YOGA - Sutras - Introduction

Believed to have been written approx 200 BCE– 400 CE by sage named Patanjali but they existed as an oral tradition way before then. He codified the Ashtanga or eight limbed system [not to be confused with the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga of Pattabhi Jois] but he did not invent it.

He did however invent his own system of yoga called kriya yoga which we shall look at in due course .The Sutras will  have been added to over the years by his students but we don’t know when or by whom as the students would not take credit for their additions – passing on the attribution to Patanjali himself.

Who was Patanjali? He has his origins in Indian mythology and he started out as serpent called Ananata /Adishesha in the divine realm – the realm of the gods.
In Hinduism there are 3 main  gods – Brahma – creator, Vishnu – maintainer and Shiva – destroyer. He was Vishnus couch. Shiva was a great dancer and the yoga pose Natarajasana – dancer pose was named after him. Patanjali wanted to dance like Shiva – but needed human form to do so. He fell to earth so he could take human form and fell into the hands of an elderly lady Gonika. Pata – to fall and Anjali – into open hands. Anjali mudra.

He is depicted as a snake up to the waist and a man above the waist. He is also depicted holding a conch shell [shankara in Sanskrit] which symbolises spaciousness auspiciousness purity and brilliance. The conch shell is also connected to the sound Om – though to be the first sound ever uttered.
He is also credited with the development of ayurveda – yogas sister holistic science and was an expert on Sanskrit grammar. However, if Patanjali was just one man [ and there is a school of thought that there was more than one he would have been several hundred years old if he had indeed done all of that. This based on what we know about the history and development of these other texts.

What we do know though is that he was very familiar with other schools of thought such as Buddhism and other texts such as the Upanishads and the BG. Nowadays we think of ourselves as very connected internationally etc but remember that at the time India was a melting pot of cultures and religious traditions .
The YS were very significant in spiritual life for hundreds of years but about 1000 years ago they lost popularity until C19 when Madame Blavatsky and the philosophical society (founded in 1875 for seekers of the truth) and then Swami Vivekenanda picked them up and ran with them in the late 1800s . He spoke at length about yoga at the Parliament of World Religions in 1898 in Chicago.

Structure and what its all about 195 sutras or aphorisms – convey the most information with the least amount of words.  Never intended to be a full treatise but rather an aide memoir – read in conjunction with the commentary by Vyasa called the Yogabhashya . Vyasa is also thought to have written the Mahabharata where we find the BG. Also C18 commentary by Shankara.
Divided into 4 padas or chapters. They land with a real bump – really get your attention – as we will see later. In Pada 2 we get to the crux of the matter
II.28 yoganganusthanat asuddhiksaye jnanadiptih avivekakhyateh – from practising the various limbs of yoga the impurities are removed uncovering the light of knowledge and discernment
This is basically what the YS are all about in a nutshell! What is the nature of the mind – how does the mind work? How do we realise our own true nature.
The 4 Padas seem to be in the wrong order.
First one deals with Samadhi – you would think it would be the final one as it’s the 8th limb of yoga and the final goal! It sets out the significance of yoga.
Second – sadhana – how you get there – your practice – path of action – or karma yoga. Abhyasa – practice and vairagya – detachment (from the results). Yamas , niyamas and asana . For those not started at all or just starting out. The most practical and accessible pada and designed for the householder – look at later.
Third – vibhuti – properties of yoga – path of knowledge – jnana yoga.  Samyama – the last 3 limbs of yoga – the internal limbs, dharana concentration, dhiyana meditation and Samadhi total absorption
Fourth – Kaivalya – renunciation – total detachment – only comes when we have achieved all the above. Pretty inaccessible.
We are however looking at them with a westeners beginners eyes. We need to remember that the Yoga Sutras were aimed at those already on the path –which is why he dealt with Samadhi first and why he spent so little time on the first 5 limbs of yoga.  Yamas, Niyamas-16, asana 3, pratyhara 2 and  pranayama 5– concentrating on the final 3 – known together as samyama – the “ internal “ limbs – Dharana, Dhiyana and Samadhi .
It can also be said that the 4 Padas correspond with the 4 ashramas or stages of life (each supposed to last for 25 years – but that would mean that we live to 100)  

They are not an easy read. If you only read part – read Pada 2 – the most practical and the most accessible.
We are focusing more on Padas 1 and 2 – so we as householders know what we need to do in a practical way.
 Pada 1 Samadhi [ total absorption]– what we are all seeking
They really land with a bump: -

“now that you’ve tried everything else, now try yoga “.  That’s one hell of a show opener. Imagine someone stood in front of you and that comes out as the first few words. Pretty dramatic. gets your attention!
Atha is a term of reverence or benediction and can also mean now or finally. So basically you’ve tried everything else to make you happy eg material gain. possessions, money – now try yoga. Practitioners know that temporary stuff doesn’t make us happy PHONE EG – real happiness comes from inside. We start from where we are though – we can come to yoga for many different reasons – physical benefits, the discipline, feelings of calm and stillness – and these different reasons are OK.

possibly the most famous sutra – the definition of yoga. Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind or chitta.
Mind has a wide definition - basically anything which goes on in the mind – thoughts perceptions processes, the ego etc
Chitta is the filling in the outside world – purusha sandwich – purusha being out innate nature, innate goodness. Everything we do leaves a mark on the chitta – and if we do that thing often enough it becomes an imprint – a samskara.Therefore  we need to behave ourselves make the right decisions and we have to exercise viveka – discernment as samskaras condition us and make us who we are.

He deals with the 5 vrttis or fluctuations in
1.5 -1.11 - Valid Cognition (Pramana) [and its opposite] Misconception (Viparyay) Imagination (Vikalpa)Sleep (Nidra)Memory (Smriti)
So vrttis are not necessarily intrinsically bad. They are just bad when they disturb the mind in a negative way.
For example we may be meditating – dharana and dhiyana and some thought may pop into our mind and disturb us even if it is not bad in itself  .Too much sleep may make us dull and a poor use of our time – a waste of time. We may be meditating and a thought comes into our head and rather than just let it go – we cling to it and start to create a story – imagination. You know how it is – in Savasana and the thought that you need to go to Tesco pops into your head. Rather than just letting it go – you make a list , visualise your drive there , visualise that they haven’t got what you want , there is a long queue at check out etc etc and before you know it – Savasana is over
The way to prevent the vrttis is

the suspension of these fluctuations is through practice and detachment – abhyasa – practice and vairagya detachment [ from the results]
So we work for the sake of work – the journey not the destination. This is a theme very present in the Bagavad Gita. A conversation between the soul Arjuna [us] and god [Krishna]. Arjuna a warrior finds himself in an impossible situation – a war is about to start but it’s a family feud gone horribly out of hand and his friends and family are on both sides – he doesn’t want to fight – whatever he does many will die . Krishna says to him
2.12 “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings nor in the future shall any of us cease to be “
Essentially – the real us Purusha has always been is now and will always be in the future. Infact Krishna likens the body to a piece of clothing which we wear, it wears out and we then discard it and get another one. Compare this to the Prakriti – our temporary everchanging uniqueness.
When we say “namaste” we are bowing down to the light within, honouring the eternal the Purusha in the other person.
And we need to use viveka discernment to realise that we are not the body and that the 2 purusha and prakriti are separate.
what do we need to practice? He lists a number of very specific qualities

1.33 maitri karuna mudita upekshanam sukha duhka punya apunya     vishayanam bhavanatah chitta prasadanam
Through cultivation of friendliness compassion joy and indifference to pleasure and pain virtue and vice respectively the consciousness becomes favourably disposed serene and benevolent.
Note very specific qualities of a yogi – compare with yamas and niyamas which are behaviours and quite vague – look at later
The definition of Samadhi but what does this mean in practice?
Be friends with those who are happy – even if we might feel jealous of them because they seem to be/are happier than us. Have a generosity of spirit towards people even if they are happier than us and that can be really hard.
Be compassionate – ahimsa – the first Yama – first of the 8 limbs. Be nice to those who are suffering – don’t pity them – condescending. Don’t just show empathy – just puts you in their shoes. Be compassionate – spurs you to do something to alleviate that other persons pain / distress.
Joy, delight. Spend time with those who are god and take inspiration from them – we all have that goodness inside us.
Be equanimous. Don’t get pulled off track by those who aren’t being good. Keep your distance and don’t get involved.
All the above 4 are qualities of light – they are sattvic – intrinsically good cf tamas – heavy and rajas – rushing around active movement

Pada 2 Sadhana – the practical one
This is the one for the householder who has a family, kids and job. He cannot spend all day studying texts or sat in a cave – this chapter is for us! How can we be on the path but in a practical way enabling us to go about our normal life. Remember that you don’t need to be a sannyasin to be on the path – some of the greatest yogis such as Krishnamacharya, BKS Iyengar – all had families – wife, kids etc
Whilst he did not invent the ashtanga system in Pada 2 he does introduce his own style of yoga Kriya yoga – the yoga of action in 2.1 and 2.2
2.1 tapah svadyaya isvarapranidhana kriya yoga
Burning zeal in practice self study and surrender to god are the acts of yoga. You may recognise these as some of the Niyamas – the internal observances – the 2nd limb of yoga
Tapas – burning desire to burn away the impurities of the body [asana]
Svadyaya – repetition of mantra and the study of sacred texts
Isvarapranidhana- surrender to god or the offering of everything to god – everything we do breathe etc
That can sound a bit scary but it can be easily practiced. Iyengar gives an eg – resolve to go for a walk outside every day [tapas], chant a mantra as you walk – can be in English! [ svadyaya] and bask in your surroundings and the greatness of nature [ isvara pranidhana]
2.2 samadhi bhavanarthah klesatanukaranarthasca
The practice of yoga reduces afflictions and leads to samadhi
There is a lot of repetition of ideas and concepts – probably as kit started life as an oral tradition as people couldn’t read and write – so would need to be re minded of the salient points during the session.
2.3 avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah
Here right at the start of Pada 2 he sets out the obstacles or kleshas we as householders will face in our sadhana.
“Emotions or instincts that arise when our buttons are pushed “– Nicolai Bachman – The path of the yoga sutras
Avidya – lack of knowledge -ignorance of what is permanent and what is impermanent. It is sometimes called the breeding ground as the other 4 kleshas stem from this first one. This is a concept also known of course in Buddhism – quite heavy on the impermanence
NB if you put “A” at the start of a word it negates it so vidya is knowledge and avidya lack of knowledge
Asmita – ego – smita – smiling or blossoming
Raga – attachment [ to a previous pleasurable thing]
Dvesa – aversion [ to a previous unpleasant thing]
Abhinivesah – fear of death [of the ego]
One of my teachers Stewart Gilchrist teaches yoga in a modern context and translates them in a more accessible way for us
Avidya -ignorance
Asmita – individualism
Raga / dvesha -addiction
Abhinivesah – fear of the afterlife
But they are all interconnected – eg fear of death is due to our ignorance / not knowing that we have been here before and will be here again in the future – reference back to that quote from the BG.
We are our past experiences – they make us what we are now and if we approach bad stuff with the right frame of mind – will leave a good imprint [ samskara] but if we are negative in our approach it will have the opposite effect
We should distinguish vrttis from kleshas . Vrttis are not necessarily bad – they just disturb the mind. Kleshas however are intrinsically negative
He then starts on the 8 limbs of yoga in 2.29-
2.29 – yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara, dharana, dhiyana , samadhi
Then proceeds to look at each one
2.30 ahimsa satya asteya brahmacharya aparigraha yamah
External observances
Non harming truthfulness non stealing moderation nongrasping
Give egs
2.32 saucha santosha tapas svadhyaya  isvanapranidhanani niyamah
Internal observances
Cleanliness contentment fire – dedication to practice, selfstudy and surrender to a higher power – overlap with Kriya yoga
Give egs
Of the 195 sutras only 3 deal with asana – and then not in detail
2.46 sthira sukham asanam
Asana is a perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence benevolence of spirit
Yoga pose is steady and comfortable position. That could mean anything – sit for meditation or in trikonasana.Although bear in mind that at the tine of the YS  virtually no physical poses and whatb there were were designed to prepare the body for meditation .
Need effort though. Effort both physical and mental. Eg savasana – pretty easy from a physical perspective but just how hard is it to stop the mind wandering – so little physical effort but lots of mental effort.
Shankara though  stresses that should be no pain.   Makes sense – if have pain – then you are not comfortable, and pain means that you are connected to the body rather than the infinite consciousness. External distraction. Prathayara – withdrawal of the senses
2.47 prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam
perfection in an asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within us is reached.
no longer needs effort as you are totally in it !
2.48 tatah dvandvah anabhhighatah
In asana there is no assault from the pairs of opposites – youre in it – and being in it is effortless.
No differentiation – mind body soul are unified
So not very helpful for us in the West!!! Can see that back in the day – virtually no emphasis on physical postures – unless prep for meditation and seated meditation itself.
Hatha Yoga Pradipika – C15 – does refer to some postures but again not many – 15 and pretty difficult. I did once intend to lesson plan a class based round the HYP postures took one look at them and thought may be not
Gomukhasana virasana kurmasana kukkutasana – arm balance with legs in lotus!
He then looks at pranayama
2.49 tasmin satisvasa prasvasayo gatavicchedah pranayamah
Pranayama is the regulation of the incoming and outgoing flow of breath with retention. It is to be practiced only after perfection in asana is achieved.
This suggests that the 8 limbs are to practiced in order and don’t move on to the next unless the current one is mastered.
2.50 hahya abhyantara stambha vritti desha kala sankhyabhih paridrishtah dirga sukshma
Pranayama has 3 movements prolonged and fine inhalation exhalation and retention all regulated with precision according to duration and place
Lots of different sorts – with different effect – eg Kapalabhati energizes, nadi shodhana balances and EX x2 IN calms and instills peace

He moves on to pratyahara- withdrawal of the senses – away from external distractions .

2.54 sva vishaya asamprayoge chittasya svarupe anukarah iva indriyanam pratyaharah

Withdrawing the mind senses and consciousness from contact with external objects and then drawing them inwards towards the seer is pratyaharah
Path of renunciation – letting go of stuff and not getting attached
2.55 tatah parama vasyata indriyanam
Pratyahara results in the absolute control of the sense organs

Pada 3 – Vibhuti pada [ supernatural powers]
Here Patanjali deals with the final 3 internal limbs of yoga – sometimes called Samyama
Dharana – concentration
Dhiyana – meditation
Samadhi – total absorption
He starts with definitions
3.1 fixing the consciousness on one point or region is concentration. Trataka – holding the mind steady – or concentrating on an asana in a physical practice.
3.2 a steady continuous flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is Dhyana.
The thought waves which may have been present in dharana are gone.
Eg from an asana practice. Listening to the teacher but from time to time mind wanders off to the supermarket shop on the way home or what you’ve got to do at work the next day – dharana , when the mind doesn’t wander that’s dhiyana .
3.3 when the object of the mediation engulfs the meditator appearing as the subject self awareness is lost. This is samadhi
Sankhya philosophy – there is a duality -the doer and the object, the seer and the field .We merge with the object. We can get glimpses of it – athletes or musicians experience the flow state – totally immersed in what we are doing. Or a musician playing a piece of music  We refer to them as being “in the zone “ but is a temporary state and we come out of it when the race is over or the piece of music is finished
3.4 these 3 together dharana dhiyana and samadhi constitute integration or samadhi
3.5 from mastery of samyama comes the light of awareness and insight
He talks a lot about one pointedness being focused eg
3.11 the weakening of scattered attention and the rise of one pointed attention in the citta is the transformation towards samadhi
This can be very hard in todays society as our sense organs are bombarded with all sorts of info – good bad neutral fake news. Our stimulation levels must be hundreds if not thousands times more than in the time of the yoga sutras.

I start to feel a bit uncomfortable here as he talks about how we can get these siddhis – or powers – as if only realised people will attain them – but is this a form of attachment? Texts such as YS or BG spend a long time talking about detachment vairagya and karma yoga – action but without being attached to the results. Is he saying therefore that these siddhis are biproducts of our quest, spiritual journey? They can be
Iyengar gives eg of a businessman who works really hard and accumulates lots of riches – a bi product of his hard work but then those riches and that luxury life become the driving force – the reason behind his actions .And it is this which we need to avoid
The siddhis seem a bit random to us – like why would you want to ….

With Samyama on specific things – big talents for the yogi egs
3.28 by samyama on the moon the yogi will know the position and system of the stars
3.32 by samyama on the pit of the throat the yogi overcomes hunger and thirst
3.35 by samyama on the region of the heart the yogi acquires a thorough knowledge of the contents and the tendencies of consciousness
He warns though
3.38 these attainments are impediments to samadhi although they are powers in active life
This is because they are part of prakriti – nature and we can get attached to them and may think of them as the goal of yoga practice when they are in fact bi products – nice to have I guess but not the aim of the practice.
3.42 by samyama on the relation between space and sound the yogi acquires the power of hearing distant and divine sounds
And he issues a warning – not to let ourselves get distracted by celestial beings
3.52 when approached by celestial beings [ who try to distract us from the path of yoga] there should be neither attachment nor surprise for undesirable connections can occur again
He is saying just don’t fall to temptation – keep on at it

Pada 4 – Kaivalya Pada
Very complex Pada and certainly not user friendly
He sets out vairagya – the path of renunciation/ detachment – remember abhyasa and vairagya?
“Kaivalya“means solitude or detachment. It refers to the isolation of purusha – the eternal or spirit from prakṛiti- nature or matter and described in the BG as the "primal motive force", and therefore the freedom from rebirth and freedom from suffering. We are no longer attached to matter – which is constantly changing – we have moved above it
Purusha is also the masculine energy and prakriti the feminine energy
Prakriti – nature – constantly changing whilst Purusha is constant and unchanging. Prakriti is the creative energy and Purusha the pure consciousness. Prakriti is the object the seen, Purusha is the seer.
NB prakriti is made up of the 3 gunas – rajas – activity, tamas – inactivity and sattva – purity. Each thing has a different combination of in different percentages
It is said that suffering occurs when we identify with the temporary forms of prakriti ie the physical material stuff rather than the eternal purusha.
Samkhya philosophy – duality – seer and the seen Vedanta – one
The BG describes beautifully the qualities of a yogi in 2.55 -59, 61 and 64-72. Egs
They live in wisdom, neither agitated by grief nor hankering after pleasure established in meditation
So what is the difference between Samadhi and Kaivalya? Samadhi seems to be the goal but so does Kaivalya
Helpful if we broke it down - there are actually 2 levels of Samadhi –
Sabija samadhi – the absorption as in sloka 1.43 and Kaivalya the detachment as in Pada 4.
In Samadhi there is says Iyengar total absorption in the self – so there cannot be any action as there is no one to act! Samadhi could be so enjoyable – can be translated as ecstasy that then yogi may want to stay in that state and not come back! You cannot just stay there! A yogi should come back into the world so that he can take action – which he cannot do in Sabija Samadhi. He says that when the yogi comes back into the world he acts [acts being the operative word] in full knowledge of unity of everything but he remains detached from it all.
So you can say that Kaivalya is samadhi in action. Samadhi is the tool of yoga to reach Kaivalya.



The Heart of Yoga Desikachar
Core of the Yoga Sutras – Iyengar
Light on the Yoga Sutras Iyengar
The path of the yoga sutras – Bachman
Ashtanga Yoga Practice and philosophy – Maehle [good section on the Yoga Sutras]

Michelle Higgins
Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow Teacher Southampton and Hampshire

[email protected]
07803 586161

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