Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: A Beginner’s Guide

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The Yoga Sutras were composed nearly 2,000 years ago and have become one of the classic yogic texts. You may have seen it on the bookshelf at your local studio, on the reading list for teacher trainings, or heard it alluded to in class. But it can often remain shrouded in a certain mystery. So, what’s it all about? Are Patanjali’s sutras still relevant to modern yoga? And can following its principles make a difference?

What are Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?

The Yoga Sutras is a compilation of short and instructive sentences. Each is designed to explore and explain what yoga is, how it works, how it might be practiced and what the benefits are to the practitioner. It is attributed to Patanjali, about whom little is known.

We do know that he was a philosopher who lived between 100 BC and 200 AD. Essentially, the Yoga Sutras organises the philosophical ideas of the day into a central structure. Sutra means ‘thread’, and each sutra represents one thread in the rich and complex tapestry that is yoga.

The threads are drawn together through four chapters: Contemplation, Practice, Accomplishments, and Absoluteness. They take the reader through an explanation of the theory of yoga, the practical methods for achieving enlightenment, the development of supernatural powers as a result of practice, and the nature of final liberation and the transcendental self. You may already be reaching for your pinch of salt, but if you allow your mind to remain open, there are some valuable insights to be gained…

What do Patanjali’s Sutras tell us?

You might think the Yoga Sutras would lay out a series of poses designed to free the body and the mind, but in fact the only reference to asana, or physical practice in the entire text is just that you ought to be sitting comfortably. Not what you might expect from a yoga textbook! So, if this text is explaining the essence of yoga, how can it omit poses or postures? In order to answer this, it’s best to look at the second sutra of the first book, where Patanjali tells us what yoga is.

Yoga is “citta vritti nirodhah”.

This translates as: ‘the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga’. Not perhaps what you might have been expecting. What this means is that yoga is a practice which disarms the (often powerful) fluctuations of the mind. It is a common principle in Eastern philosophy that mental fluctuations, driven by attachment to things, ideas, people, are the cause of suffering, and that enlightenment is a release from suffering.

So by limiting the impact of these mental ripples, or by calming the tempestuous, noisy nature of the thinking mind, we may be able to see more clearly. By seeing more clearly we may develop a more accurate view of the nature of reality and ourselves within it, and in doing so, find a deeper sense of peace.

So according to Patanjali, yoga is a science of the mind. First and foremost, yoga’s history falls within the scope of psychology and philosophy before it developed into anything physical. In its oldest form, yoga enables us to ask deep questions as to the nature of consciousness.

Patanjali’s yoga believes that by learning to develop a certain introspective awareness – not to the point of neurosis, but with a commitment to making objective observations of oneself – we can begin a journey away from the pressures and pains of daily life. We become able to see things as they are, with a greater sense of perspective. It is not escapism, but instead a kind of ‘waking up’.

“We are not going to change the whole world, but we can change ourselves and feel free as birds. We can be serene even in the midst of calamities and, by our serenity, make others more tranquil. Serenity is contagious. If we smile at someone, he or she will smile back. And a smile costs nothing. We should plague everyone with joy. If we are to die in a minute, why not die happily, laughing? (136-137)” –  Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras

How can we apply the yoga sutras to our practice?

This is all very well, but does it mean anything to modern yoga? Can it enhance your experience of your favourite flow class or your side plank? The Yoga Sutras are there as a mental guide to what can happen when we begin any kind of meditative practice.

Whether or not you are into the spiritual or philosophical dimensions of yoga, the chances are that your enjoyment of physical practice has some kind of meditative quality to it, whether that be the union of breath with movement or just a general feeling of getting ‘into the zone’.

By examining the potential pitfalls of a meditative practice, the Yoga Sutras can guide us towards a more earnest and honest practice as we learn how to overcome the stumbling blocks. And who knows, maybe in doing so, finally accomplish that Eka Pada Koundinyasana…

The Yoga Sutras outlines such problems as misconception (seeing things in a false light, mistaking) and verbal delusion (creating thoughts out of words alone and without a truthful dimension). In modern life, these might look like anxiety caused by misplaced negative beliefs about oneself or a situation, or blindly following someone or something because it looks or sounds good, rather than because it means something to you.

The Yoga Sutras also explores the negative influence that the ego can have on a person and the dangers of pursuing things for the sake of prestige or power rather than for their own sake.

So to apply this, if you find yourself always pushing and reaching to the point of pain in your forward fold, ask yourself why? What are you really doing? Are you striving for the image of a pose, instead of listening to your body’s natural expression of it?

Until you let go into non-attachment from a perfectionist’s approach to practice, you will not experience the true freedom of yoga. It might be interesting to wonder what Patanjali would make of Instagram, though that’s a separate line of inquiry.

At heart, Patanjali encourages us as yogis to identify things we are attached to, dependent upon, or mentally enslaved to – and then to let those go. In order to be able to, we must understand what the nature of practice really is, however.

What is yoga practice?

According to the Sutras, a big part of practice is effort. Yes, we aim to minimise the exertions of the ego, but this does not mean it will be a walk in the park. We must be prepared to have to work long and hard towards steadiness of mind.

Practice also involves patience, because it’s a slow process; dedication, because we can only achieve our true potential in something when we commit wholeheartedly to it, and faith, because we will need to continue to believe in ourselves and in our practice when the going gets tough.

As practice becomes stronger and more firmly grounded, we can begin to move towards non-attachment, gaining freedom from cravings, or aversion, because those patterns start to become more visible to us. The more we can see of ourselves and our lives, the more we become empowered to lead our lives in a more conscious and more awake way.

Sounds like common sense, right?!

Perhaps one of the reasons The Yoga Sutras has endured as a classic text is because it is based on an accurate and detailed observation of human tendencies. And though life has sped up considerably since the Sutras were composed, the essence of the mind remains fundamentally the same, we just know it in different ways and in different language.

The practice of clinical psychology nowadays deals with many of the problems the Sutras outlines – cravings, addictions, compulsions, aversions and misconceptions in thinking, amongst other things, all of which can cause great suffering.

So can practicing with an understanding of the Sutras improve your yoga practice? The answer is that it is up to you: should you wholeheartedly wish it to – with patience, dedication and faith – it may well change your experience of life on and off the mat.

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