Yoga Sutra in a Nutshell (chapters 1&2)

Hi there everyone,
today, as promised, I am writing about the Yoga Sutras.
Some of you have asked questions about them and so I decided to give you an overview of what they are all about. There are many great books and commentaries but the three that I know and learned to love are by G.Feuerstein, BKS Iyengar and Swami Satchidananda. If what you are reading intrigues you and you want to read more, I recommend you get either of those three (the easiest to read and most accessable to anyone I believe is Swami Satchidananda’s translation & commentary but that’s just my own opinion.. )
I will go through some, but not all Sutras in a nutshell just to give you an idea of what it’s all about.
So I hope you will get something out of this, please feel free to comment on the actual blog post here!
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 Vedas. (For more about the history of yoga please read my previous blog post here.
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 classical sense.
He opens with the first Sutra
(Now begins the exposition of Yoga).
and then defines what Yoga is:
(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.
(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.
(At other times, the self appears to identify with the forms of the mental modifications.)
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 modifications.
Then Patanjali tells us what we should do to achieve this goal of Yoga:
(The restriction of these fluctuations can be achieved through practice and dispassion/non attachment.)
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 are.
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.)
(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 consciousness).
(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 one.
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 karma.
(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.
(In order to counteract these distractions, the Yogi should take up the practice of concentration on a single principle.)
And further:
(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 undisturbed calmness.)
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.
(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 everything.
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:
(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:
(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 meditation.
Patanjali also tells us about the consequences of allowing these obstacles to pervade:
(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 action.
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 later life.
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 physical existence:
(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 Yoga).
(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).)
(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 (aparigraha).)
These should be observed at all times, in this order of importance, no matter of any circumstances of your life.
(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:
(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).
(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.
(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 practice.
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!
I hope you enjoyed this so far and I really hope it may inspire you to read one of the many amazing books written about the Sutras.
If you would like to comment please go to my original blog post here. – your input is much appreciated!
And here again are my suggestions for further reading:

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