Gita Life

Let’s Go Back to the Basic Philosophy of Yoga – Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

I got an opportunity to take a 6-month course on Philosophy of Yoga from Oxford Hindu Studies. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras was the main topic, which I have tried to explain in a simple way possible in this article.

First, who was Patanjali?

He was a sage in India who wrote Yoga Sutras, which is considered a classical yoga text. You must have heard about the ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga‘ – that philosophy is ‘just one’ part of his Sutras.

Second, can you believe that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras has nothing to do with asanas? He does not speak about those Yoga poses that we are aware of. In fact, his entire verses focus on mind and how Yoga can regulate our mind to see our true self (atman)

The Sutras are divided into four ‘padas’ or chapters that cover the art, science, and philosophy of life as seen through the eyes of a Yogi.  Below is my understanding of the theme of each pada;

  1. Samadhi Pada: You are a soul
  2. Sadhana Pada: What are the actions to be taken
  3. Vibhuti Pada: Warnings of mystic and supernatural powers gained through the practice of Yoga
  4. Kaivalya Pada: Self-realization, the true goal of Yoga

I will try my best to explain each chapter, nonetheless, there is so much to learn and process from each chapter that I recommend that you take it slowly.

Samadhi Pada

Sage Patanjali is direct and straight forward when he begins his first Pada.  He starts with the definition and purpose of Yoga, which is,

‘Yoga citta vritti nirodhah’, which means, ‘Yoga is the restriction of the movements of the mind’. 

And when we achieve that calmness and steadiness in our mind, we will be able to see our true self (atman); otherwise, we associate ourselves with the false identity as dictated by the movement of mind.

The chapter further gives introduction to its readers how mind works, and techniques to bring serenity and calmness to the mind. He categorizes five kinds of mental activities, starting from,

  1. Good thoughts and true knowledge (pramana)
  2. Bad thoughts and wrong understanding (viparyaya)
  3. Confusion (vikalpa)
  4. Sleep when mind is still active (nidra)
  5. Memory or sensual encounter of any object based on smell, sight, feel, flavor (smriti).

Patanjali further explains how one can restrict these mental activities through ‘resolute, sustainable practice (abhyasa)’ and ‘turning away from worldly pleasures(vairagya)’.

Even though Patanjali Sutras might not be theistic in orientation, he does speak about devotion to Isvara, who he describes as a special soul free from the influence of affliction, actions, karmas, and who can help us attain the realized knowledge.

Nonetheless, he does not suggest that liberation can be acquired as a gift of grace, rather it is achieved by sustained practice and renunciation of worldly pleasures.

He talks about obstacles, such as, disease, sloth, self-doubt, negligence, indolence, indulgence, inconsistency etc.  that might affect the ‘progress of Yoga’ as these obstacles bring more confusions and distractions in mind resulting in both mental and physical distractions.

He emphasizes on the importance of calmness in mind and suggests different lifestyle choices to bring serenity in mind, for example, we have to choose to show;

  • Friendship towards those who are happy
  • Compassion for those who suffer
  • Delight towards the righteous
  • Indifference towards the wicked people.

He further stresses on breathing techniques, concentrating on a single object (Japa medication) and avoiding too much longing for a single object (detachment) to bring serenity in mind.

When we practice calming and controlling the movement in our mind, we reach the state of Samapatti, which is often taken as a preliminary stage of Samadhi– the ultimate state of consciousness that Yoga is striving towards.

This is where he ends the first chapter.

Sadhana Pada

The second pada deals with the practical steps by which serenity of mind can be achieved and thereby introduces the famous ‘Eight Limbs of Yoga’.

He starts the second chapter by introducing the concept of Kriya Yoga, which is Yoga based on actions; and the afflictions (kleshas) that Kriya Yoga can overcome.

The afflictions that we humans suffer from are ignorance, egotism, hankering, aversion and attachment to life.  

He suggests that these afflictions are the root cause of our sufferings.

Patanjali suggests that this world can be used either for the enjoyment of sensual pleasure (bhoga), or for bringing about a cessation of worldly existence (apavarga).  However, our true happiness is when we learn not to perceive the world through the prism of the material senses. 

He then introduces the concept of viveka, which is the knowledge that allows us to properly discriminate between what is our true self and what is not . And this is when he introduces his famous Eight Limbs of Yoga practice that gave rise to the name Ashtanga.

He suggests how our ignorance (avidya) can be removed by our knowledge that can discriminate between what is the self and what is not (viveka), and we can acquire such realized knowledge through ‘yoga-anga-anushthana’, which means, adherence to Eight Limbs of Yoga.

These eight limbs of Yoga re Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.

The Yamas listed as

  • Ahimsa – not harming or non-violence;
  • Satya– speaking the truth or avoiding falsehood;
  • Asteya– not stealing;
  • Brahmacharya – celibacy; and
  • Aparigraha– having no sense of ownership.

If we want to pursue the path of Yoga, this renunciation of these five vices (violence, lies, stealing, over-indulgence, and ego) is the must. 

The Niyamas, which probably means rules to avoid those five vices, are what Patanjali wants Yogis to adapt. These are –

  • Shaucha– purity of both body and mind
  • Santosha– contentment in the sense of not always seeking more than one already has
  • Tapa– acts of religious austerity
  • Svadhyaya– study and recitation of the Veda; and
  • Ishvara-pranidhana– devotion to God.

Patanjali does not divulge too much on the concept of Asanas, which is more popular in the contemporary Yoga practice.  There are three Sutras devoted to Asanas; and he seems to talk about the pose that we should have while we are meditating (there is no suggestion whatsoever that he is aware of or is advocating the variety of bodily postures undertaken as a part of hatha-yoga)

He simply suggests asana should be firm, steady, relaxed, still, comfortable (it may be that Patanjali is suggesting that when one achieves this high state of meditation when one’s sitting posture (or any asana) naturally becomes steady and easy to hold.)

After briefly mentioning how the asana should be, he moves to the practice of Pranayama, which is the practice of controlling the breathing. He suggests that Pranayama can only be achieved when we master in the practice of Asana.

Then again, if we confuse ourselves with those complicated Hatha-Yoga poses, then we are mistaken. Here he is speaking about a simple sitting pose that needs to be comfortable, relaxed, steady, and still. Once we master in that pose, then we can think of breathing exercises.

He explains how the breathing technique should be, which is inward breath, exhalation and breath retention or suspension. These practices are undertaken in relation to the place and time, they are to be enumerated and they can be done in a manner that it is either deep or shallow.

He vaguely indicates that a timed and enumerated rhythm should be imposed upon the breathing in terms of the inhalation of breath, its being held within the lungs, its expulsion and then a pause before the next breath is inhaled. This can be done sometimes with very deep inhalations and sometimes only lightly. Such breathing exercises will be familiar to most modern yoga practitioners.

He then explains the practice of Pratyahara, which is usually understood as the withdrawal of the senses from external perception. 

Pratyahara is where the senses no longer make contact with the objects of perception (sound, form, aroma, flavor and touch) and are withdrawn back into the mind. This withdrawal is the means by which the senses are brought under control.

Vibhuti Pada

Patanjali starts the third Pada explaining how the remaining three limbs Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi are closely connected.

Dharana means fixing our mind on an object.  Dhyana is one step ahead, where we focus on concentrating our mind on that object. Then when the concentration becomes so intense that the object alone fills one’s consciousness in a manner that goes beyond our thought processes on the attributes of that object, that stage becomes Samadhi.

He suggests that when the final stage is achieved, one’s understanding is illuminated as we excel in restricting the movement of mind which will result in our ability to overpower latent impressions (samskara) on our mind. We will then experience flood of tranquility because as a Yogi, our perception of the external world is turned exclusively inwards while the process of thought and conceptualization are brought to an end. 

He then warns that this stage also opens opportunities for Yogis to experience some supernatural power/ mystic experiences. These powers vary such as ability to see past and future; knowledge of the speech of different creatures; ability to read other people’s minds; power to become invisible; ability to determine the time of one’s death; enhanced physical strengths or abilities; ability to acquire knowledge of hidden or distant matters; possessing knowledge of other worlds; and knowledge of the movements of the stars.

At the same time, he concludes the chapter by suggesting that these worldly abilities or supernatural powers are more of a mere distraction and obstacles to reach the stage of Samadhi. He suggests that a true Yogi is someone who renounces these supernatural powers and focuses on achieving Kaivalya, which he discusses in detail in the subsequent chapter.

Kaivalya Pada

In the final pada, Patanjali focuses on the ultimate goal of the Yoga practice and philosophy he has expounded up until this point. 

This chapter is more closely associated with Samkhya philosophy where Patanjali speaks about the separation of the soul (purusha) from the nature or source (prakriti) so that the soul no longer experiences the misery and death that arise from this unwanted association. In that sense it can be understood as a term broadly equivalent to moksha in Hinduism or nirvana in Buddhism.

There is no God or deity that oversees the process of our karma. There is a close connection between our actions, outcome of those actions and the mentality underlying those actions.

This is because every action of ours leaves a latent impression (samskara) on our mind, this means action does not end when its performance is complete.  The mental transformation that our present actions result also lead to our future results, and that is how law of karma unfolds.

This point is significant in Yoga Philosophy because it means that the transformation of the mind that Yoga produces can have a direct effect on the nature of one’s future.

For example, if a Yogi leaves no latent impression (samskara) on his mind, then it will not produce any future action and the progression of the law of karma will be interrupted. This is when a Yogi becomes a visesha-darshain, which means he will be able to perceive the distinction between the soul (purusha) and the world (prakriti), and through this perception he is able to attain nirvana.

In his final sutras, Patanjali brings his discourse to a conclusion by revealing that the ultimate goal that can be achieved through Yoga practice is the attainment of knowledge of one’s true spiritual identify, which he names as kaivalya.

Conclusion

Today, when we are more focused on excelling in Yoga Asanas, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras come as a reminder to all that Yoga is a way of life with a sole objective to attain that realized knowledge where one can differentiate between what’s self and what’s not. And one can do so ONLY by bringing the cessation of movements in the mind (Yoga Citta Vritti Nirodah).

In the coming weeks, I will break down each Chapter (mainly Sadhana Pada) and try to explain how these ancient Yoga philosophies can be applied in our daily life.

7 comments

    1. Thank you Ryan. I am a big fan of Yin Yoga. I need to learn more about Kriya Yoga. Can you share what you have understood and your experiences so far?

  1. I enjoyed reading your post very much. So informative and even calming right now. I find Yoga to be an alternative for many of us now at home over thinking this crazy pandemic. Thanks again. And thanks for stopping by Poemattic.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words. I think we should write more about it as things are so crazy. Thank you so much for your encouraging words 💕

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