An indian Sage named Patanjali, who lived some time between 200 and 500BC and
who became known for his teachings and written documents about medicine,
grammar and Yoga, wrote down the text that later would become symbolic for a
whole era of Yoga (classical Yoga)
The sanskrit word “sutra” means thread and is comprised of 196 short aphorisms
strung together like beads on a thread and divided into four chapters, that sum up the
teachings of Yoga as described in
THE YOGA SUTRAS OF PATANJALI
In chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras, the Samadhi Pada, Patanjali defines the meaning of
Yoga and explains the workings of the agitated mind as opposed to the pure state of
Samadhi. The sanskrit word “Samadhi” directly translated means something like
“above level” or “above virtuous” and refers to the complete state of bliss one
experiences after succeeding in meditation. It is a complete “absorption” or
“contemplation” on the object of meditation that leads to a dissolving of any agitations
of the mind, including our Ego and lets us experience our pure conscious being. It is
the deepest state of meditation and the ultimate goal of the practice of Yoga in the
He opens with the first Sutra
1.1 ATHA YOGANUSASANAM
(Now begins the exposition of Yoga).
and then defines what Yoga is:
1.2 YOGAS CITTA VRITTI NIRODHAH
(Yoga is the restriction or cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.)
Each moment our mind is in different states of consiousness. The mind constantly
moves from state to state, from thought to thought, from emotion to emotion.
This causes our inner vision to be blurred, we can’t see through this thick veil of
incessant movement of the mind and can’t recognise our own true nature.
1.3 TADA DRASTUH SVARUPE VASTHANAM
(Then, the seer, or the self, can abide in it’s own true nature. )
But when we manage to still the mind, to clear our thoughts and emotions
continuously, the veil disappears. Like a dirty lake, full of currents, waves, mud,
seaweed, etc, we can’t see the ground but when the waters become still, the mud
settles to the bottom and the water eventually becomes clear. Then we can see all
the way to the ground. In the same way, when our mind settles, we begin to see
through it and into our true nature.
1.4. VRTTI SARUPYAM ITARATRA
(At other times, the self appears to identify with the forms of the mental
If the waters of the lake stays agitated, all we can see is the seaweed, the mud, etc. If
our mind stays agitated, all we can see is the nearest or most prominent thoughts,
feelings, etc. And without knowing our true nature, we believe that whatever we see in
front of us our self and wrongly identify with it.
The following Sutras are a discription of the different kinds of mental fluctuations or
Then Patanjali tells us what we should do to achieve this goal of Yoga:
1.12 ABHYASA VAIRAGHYABHYAM TANNIRODHAH
(The restriction of these fluctuations can be achieved through practice and
Patanjali tells us that by practice he means the continuous, firmly grounded and
uninterrupted effort toward steadiness of mind.
By non attachment, he means the liberation from all cravings.
Both is needed for a successful Yoga practice, no matter where in our practice we
Daily practice is important to create a steady habit and to maintain a daily practice we
need to be able to withstand temptations of our own mind, which might tell us that it
would be much more satisfying to stay in bed or have a big breakfast instead of
practicing Yoga. But with steady, slowly increasing effort we can create a new habit
that will leave a new imprint in our mind. We will associate our practice with the joy
and happiness that it brings into our life and we will eventually begin to crave this
more than any instant gratification.
And further down the road, eventually, when we have practiced continuously for a
long time, even those cravings will leave us and we will experience the bliss that
comes from true freedom of all dependencies, needs, wants or cravings.
(To the keen and intent practicioner Samadhi comes very quickly.)
1.22 MRDU MADHYADHIMATRATVAT TATO’PI VISESAH
(The time necessary for success further depends on whether the practice is mild,
medium or intense.)
Let’s not forget that so far, Patanjali only speaks of the practice of the mind. Physical
posture has not been mentioned yet (this will happen in chapter 2).
The practice patanjali suggests is the practice of contemplation on either the true self
(Purusha – our soul) or the supreme consciousness (Isvara – the ultimate
(Samadhi can also be attained by the complete devotion to Isvara.)
In indian philosophy, every living thing is an expression of a transcendental
consciousness (purusha) which in reality is the same in all of us. All of us are
essentially the same purusha. And together we make up a bigger form of purusha. All
living things are interactive systems, held together by smaller systems and holding
together a bigger system, like the earth, the universe, etc. The ultimate Purusha, the
final system, the pure consciousness or supreme soul is called Isvara. By meditation
and devoting our actions to this highest purusha we surrender our own purusha to a
higher good. We acknowledge that we are part of something greater, that we are all
In our everyday life this can mean to practice to always see the bigger picture and let
our action be guided by the higher good.
For those who are religiously minded, the practice of devotion to god has the same
effect. Yoga in itself is an atheistic practice but it encourages the practice of all
religions as long as they are felt in a true sense of our being rather than following a
dogma in order for them to be of benefit and to help achieve this pure state of mind.
Patanjali explains also that Isvara is the concept that is free of all afflictions caused by
any fluctuations, actions or fruits of actions. It is pure consciousness, unaffected by
1.27 TASYA VACAKAH PRANAVAH
(The symbol for Isvara is the syllable OM.)
As a method for contemplation on the absolute consciousness, Patanjali suggests the
repetition of the seed mantra OM, which carries the sound vibration of Isvara and
therefor helps us to connect with it.
In the next sutras, Patanjali warns us of a variety of distractions that commonly
disturb our efforts and how to counteract them.
1.32 TAT PRATISEDHARTHAMEKATATTVABHYASAH
(In order to counteract these distractions, the Yogi should take up the practice of
concentration on a single principle.)
1.33 MAITRI KARUNA MUDITOPEKSANAM SUKHA DUHKHA PUNYAPUNYA
VISAYANAM BHAVANATAS CITTA PRASADANAM
(By cultivating an attitude of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the
unhappy, delight in the virtuous and disregard toward the wicked, mind can retain its
This is one of my favorite sutras, as this advice alone really can lead to a happy and
fulfilled life for everyone if we make a serious effort of it.
In the following Sutras, Patanjali gives further suggestions on what objects to
contemplate for the practice of meditation, keeping in mind that the mind takes on the
quality of the object one chooses for contemplation. For example if I choose to
meditate on the image of a clear crystal, my mind will steadily become more and
more clear like the crystal I am absorbing into my mind.
These objects may become more and more subtle, until they are undefinable and not
needed anymore. Then we can truly contemplate on the pure self, the soul, the
purusha and have reached the highest form of Samadhi.
1.48 RTAMBHARA TATRA PRAJNA
(This is rtambhara prajna, or the absolute true consciousness.)
In this state of consciousness we have access to all our potential. We can access all
the knowledge that is within ourself and therefor have a deep understanding of
1.50 TAJJAH SAMSKARAH ANYASAMSKARA PRATIBANDHI
A new life begins with this truth bearing light. Previous subliminal impressions are left
behind and new ones are prevented.
These subliminal impressions refer to the deep seated, unconscious, karmic seeds
that are planted in each of us with each action we take, be it good or bad or neutral.
A person who has reached rtambhara prajna has left behind all these seeds and is
planting no more, which means that the cycle of karma is over and true freedom from
consequences and actions has been reached.
After instructing us on the practice of Meditation and describing to us the state of
Samadhi, Patanjali gets into some more detail about what actions to take to reach this
goal. The practice (sadhana) of Yoga, or Kriya Yoga (the practice of Yoga or Yoga in
action) begins with the following advice:
2.1 TAPAH SVADHYAYESVARAPRANIDHANANI KRIYA YOGA
(Self discipline/motivation – Tapah, self study – svadhyaya and surrender/devotion to
the ultimate consciousness – isvaraprahidhana are the practices of Yoga.)
These are the key qualities we need for a successful practice.
Self discipline comes from being motivated, having the desire to practice. (Tapah) At
times we may be tempted to give in to excuses. Then we are required to take a good
look at ourself and learn about our own patterns and issues. (Svadhyaya) To
overcome them we need to trust in the process, have faith in ourselves and surrender
to the higher good. Surrendering to a higher force means not to follow the wishes of
our own Ego but follow a divine inspiration (Isvarapranidhana).
To cultivate these attitudes will help us to minimize or remove any obstacles that
might stand in the way of our success.
Patanjali describes these obstacles:
2.3 AVIDYASMITA RAGA DVESABHINIVESAH KLESAH
(The five obstacles are Ignorance – avidya, Egoism – asmita, Attachments – raga,
Aversions – dvesa and Fear (of death)- abhinivesah)
Of these five obstacles, Patanjali describes Ignorance as the seed of all the others.
Because we mistake the ever changing outer conditions and expressions of life as
permanent, we mistake our Ego to be our true self, we cling on to what we perceive
as desirable and feel aversion toward what we perceive as uncomfortable. This leads
to further confusion and keeps us from truly experiencing life in it’s deepest form.
Ultimately it leads to a deep seated fear of the unknown, of death.
But these feelings can be rooted out by starving them of attention. This is practiced in
Patanjali also tells us about the consequences of allowing these obstacles to
2.12 KLESA MULAH KARMASAYODRSTADRSTA JANMA VEDANIYAH
(All our actions and their consequences have their roots in these obstacles. They will
bring experiences in the present or future lives.)
The sanskrit word Karma refers to both Action and the Consequence or result of an
Patanjali introduces us to the concept of subliminal impressions, caused by the 5
obstacles (Kleshas), which are like deep imprints into our psyche and like seeds, will
lay there until the right conditions make them grow and mature. The fruit of these
actions will be experienced sooner or later and can influence our life span, the
circumstances of our birth (in a next life) and any experiences within a life, now or in a
Just like the seed of an apple can only grow into one particular kind of tree – an apple
tree – the seeds sown by our attitudes and actions can only grow into the same kind
of consequence (Karma) – the soil in this analogy being our subconscious mind which
records and stores all our actions and will later attract experiences accordingly. So
happiness causing actions will grow into joyful experiences, pain causing actions will
result in painful experiences and so on. This is the concept of merit and demerit.
Patanjali then points out that once we recognise the impermanence of nature we
become aware of the fact that even the most pleasurable experiences eventually
bring with them the grief of loss and that the only way to avoid this or any other kind
of pain or suffering (dukha) is to stop identifying with impermanent aspects of nature
(like our body or the contents of our mind) or grasping on to things that are never
going stay with us forever and completely detach or disassociate with them. (not to be
confused with indifference – we are just loosing our fear, not our love. Lessening the
five obstacles will in fact enhance qualities like love, compassion and freedom – as
the natural state of our self is unconditioned love, bliss and happiness.)
He then describes in a little more detail the qualities of nature and the purpose of our
2.18 PRAKASA KRIYA STHITI SILAM BHUTENDRIYATMAKAM
(Nature has three qualities (gunas) – brightness/illumination (Sattva), Activity (rajas)
and inertia (tamas) and is embodied in the elements (fire, water, earth, air, space)
and the sense organs and serves the purpose of experience of our own
consciousness (purusha) through the sensual quality of nature (prakriti) but also of
our own liberation from this dependency.)
This is quite a big statement – he basically tells us the meaning of life. We are here to
experience ourselves and once we do, we remember our true nature and don’t need
the identification with any aspect of prakriti anymore. Just like in our everyday life, we
experience ourself through the mirror of relationships, so does our soul experience
itself through the mirror of our senses.
Once we have learned our true nature and are able to identify with it without the need
of a mirror, we are free.
The reason why we need the sensual experience of nature is that we are ignorant of
our own permanent, all knowing nature. Our goal (in Yoga) is to come back to this
eternal knowledge and experience of ourself. We do this by removing ignorance as
the root cause of other obstacles of the mind.
Then Patanjali tells us with great clarity what concrete steps we should take in order
to achieve this goal. The following Sutra is probably the most famous of them all as it
describes the 8 limbs of Yoga which all classical forms of Yoga are based on (Ashtau
– eight, angani – limbs/components. In short Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbed path of
YAMA NIYAMA ASANA PRANAYAMA PRATYAHARA DHARANA DHYANA
(Practices of restraint (how to act in harmony with your surroundings – Yama),
Practices of observances (how to act in harmony with yourself -Niyama), Physical
Postures (Asana), Breath control (Pranayama), sense-withdrawal (relaxation & inward
focus of the senses – Pratyahara), concentration (Dharana), meditation (Dhyana) and
the bliss of complete absorbtion in the self (Samadhi).)
AHIMSA SATYA ASTEYA BRAHMACHARYA APARIGRAHA YAMA
(The Yamas (practices of restraint) are
Non-harming (Ahimsa), truthfulness (Satya), non-stealing (asteya), continence
(brahmacharya – preserving one’s energy, particularly sexual energy) and non-greed
These should be observed at all times, in this order of importance, no matter of any
circumstances of your life.
SAUCA SAMTOSA TAPAS SVADHYAYA ISVARAPRANIDHANANI NIYAMAH
(The Niyamas (practices of observance) are purity/cleanliness (Sauca), contentment
(Samtosa), discipline/austerity/zeal for practice (Tapas), self-study (Svadhyaya), and
the surrender to the absolute consciousness/the highest goal (isvarapranidhana).)
Patanjali also tells us that negativity is only overcome by positivity and further
explains the 8 limbs and the consequences of their practice. About physical postures
(asana) he advises us:
2.46 STHIRA SUKHAMASANAM
(Physical postures should be steady/stable/strong and comfortable/balanced/relaxed.)
In our physical posture practice we are bringing the Gunas into balance.
We need to find a balance between dynamic effort (rajas), strong, grounded stability
(tamas) and expansion, lightness and ease (sattva).
2.47 PRAYATNA SAITHILYA ANANTA SAMAPATTIBHYAM
(Perfection in Asana (physical posture practice) is achieved when the effort to perform
it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.)
When we begin to relax our bodies and minds in a posture, when we stop trying too
hard in trying to compete with ourselves but instead become fully conscious and feel
the balance of all our qualities, the mind can become still and undisturbed and we
begin to experience the timeless consciousness of our inner self.
2.49 TASMIN SATI SVASAPRASVASAYORGATIVICCHEDAH PRANAYAMAH
(When the posture is achieved, the movement of inhalation and exhalation should be
controlled. This is pranayama.)
Correctly practiced pranayama will relax the nervous system and lead to the senses
becoming relaxed and detached from outer temptations (pratyahara). They turn
inwards and the mind becomes focused and ready for concentration and mediation
These inner practices of Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi and the consequences of
their practices are then described in the next Chapter, Vibhuti Pada.
So far, in Sadhana Pada, Patanjali described the yoga of action (Kriya Yoga), what
we can actively do in our lives to achieve the ultimate goal.
In the next chapter he describes the inner, more passive practices (samyama yoga)
and tells us – and warns us – about our minds potential.
However this will be for another day!
Yoga Sutra in a nutshell Chapters 1&2
An indian Sage named Patanjali, who lived some time between 200 and 500BC and