what is Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras?
I am sure that many of us have read at least one book or an article about (or simply explored the question) “how to be happy?”. We all are looking for these clues because it is a common desire to lead life in peace and filled with happiness, isn’t it? What if I tell you that there is an ancient text, a book, written about 2000 years ago, widely valued as a ‘user’s manual’ for living a satisfying and meaningful human life, and at the same time is considered by many to be one of the most important texts of Yoga?
I am talking about The Yoga Sūtras. The text, authored by sage Patañjali, composed in Sanskrit in India, is the most famous work on classical yoga. And yet not popular as readers find Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras difficult to understand and even harder to apply in their modern-day life.
Patañjali in his work does not describe how to do postures, breathing techniques, or even meditation. Rather, he lays out the principles underlying all practices of yoga and leaves the details to be taught by the teacher (because of the concise style of text, it is difficult to grasp the sense without in-depth study).
"Yoga is more than āsana, it is a state of being. The Yoga Sūtras are a guide to help us operate at our highest potential and create a deep sense of peace and contentment." (~Chase Bossart)
The Yogasūtras deal primarily with the management of the mind, how its functioning affects our experience of life and is considered to be the cause of suffering. It explains how one can increase mental balance and clarity, leading the path from suffering to well-rounded wellbeing. Patañjali points out that the main reason for unhappiness comes with misunderstanding the nature of consciousness, our self and the world; with identifying it with what is constantly changing (unstable mind and body) and not seeing the bigger picture. In his definition, Yoga is more than āsana (putting the body in different positions), it is a state of being.
In order to experience the true nature of consciousness, the mind needs to be completely still. Patañjali says: “yoga is the restraint of the activities of the mind” (*), which means – putting the attention in one place, and not letting it go elsewhere. Sounds easy, but how do we do this?
Patañjali gives a variety of practical tools to work with it, called the eight limbs of Yoga:
• yama - ethical principles for improving relationships with others
• niyama - practical attitudes for relating to oneself
• āsana - intentional movements/positions of the body
• prāṇāyāma - conscious breathing exercises
• pratyāhāra – sensory exercises
• dhāraṇā - initial step of meditation: directing one’s attention toward to chosen focus, concept, etc.
• dhyāna - experience of meditation: continuous attention accompanied by insight
• samādhi - state of deep meditation
Working with all or any of these will help the mind become gradually more directable, and move the body-mind system toward balance. One might choose what works for them, as the change on one level might bring changes in all other levels.
The Yoga Sūtras warn that there are underlining, unconscious reasons and patterns which are driving us in life, such as - ego, fear, anger, desire, aversion, etc., that distort our minds and our perceptions, affecting how we think, act, and feel. The way that you function overall depends also on the series of experiences that you have had in your life, therefore the process of transformation usually takes time, involves effort and non-attachment.
Patañjali in his work touches also on more philosophical concepts – such as nature of the mind, consciousness, higher power, instruments of perception, karma and even special, mystical powers that can be developed through Yoga practices, which might be confusing or out of our system of beliefs…
But what is more valuable to us beginners is the promise that Yoga as a path provides us with opportunities to intentionally create experiences that will be useful for balancing our mind-body system and beyond. It provides a pathway to participate in how we are doing and how our system is functioning. Every posture, breathing technique, or meditation focus generates an experience (and an insight). The sum of these experiences changes how we are and refine our state of being in order to create a deep sense of peace and contentment in our practice, and in our everyday life. This is called a state of Yoga.
This is why you feel different when you practice yoga; different in your body, but also in your mind and your behaviours. It is a transformative practice.
(*) yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ - the Yogasūtras chapter I, verse 2