Yoga Sutras 101: Everything You Need to Know

Yoga Sutras 101: Everything You Need to Know
The Yoga Sutras are a practical textbook to guide your spiritual journey of remembering who you really are. Here are some important takeaways that every Yogi should know.

The true meaning of Yoga is the union of body, mind, soul, and spirit. According to Yoga, we suffer because of the illusion of separation between our individual consciousness from Universal Consciousness or Brahman. The Yoga Sutras are a practical to guide your spiritual journey of remembering that union.

The Story of Patanjali

The Yoga Sutras were composed by a man named Patanjali. There is not much known about him, except that he was presumably Indian and lived somewhere between the second and fourth century BC. Patanjali is also credited with writing the Mahabhasya, a treatise of Sanskrit grammar and a commentary on Charaka Samhita, the basic text of Ayurveda. Whether they are the same or different people remains a scholastic argument.

Mythologically, Vishnu the maintainer of the Universe, sleeps between creations, resting on the great multi-headed serpent Anantha, floating on the Ocean of Consciousness. When Shiva Nataraj woke Vishnu with his dance of creation, Anantha asked to be born as a great teacher. Shiva granted his wish and he was born as Patanjali in the palm of the great Yogini, Gonika.

In ancient times, most teaching was done orally and students learned by way of sutras. The word sutra comes from the same root as the medical term suture, meaning to connect or hold together. When the teacher expounded on a piece of knowledge, the student would be given a short phrase that would later remind him/her of the greater body of material. This was somewhat the equivalent of modern-day cue cards.

The challenge now is that, even knowing the sutras, you can never be certain as to the greater meaning. A further story says that Patanjali himself wrote down the sutras on palm leaves but a goat ate half of them before he took the remainder to the Himalayas. Perhaps this is the origin of modern day “goat yoga.”

Sankhya is one of the ancient Indian systems of philosophy. It teaches that knowledge is the path to enlightenment. Patanjali’s great gift to the world was that he took this profound—and yet, purely intellectual—philosophy and presented it in a form that the average spiritual seeker could follow and use. A roadmap for your journey to enlightenment.

We cannot be sure exactly what Patanjali meant to tell us. His Yoga Sutras have been translated and commented on by many people over the years. The three versions which I like and use as a reference are:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Alister Shearer
  • How To Know God by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda

The Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras contain 196 Sutras, divided between four chapters, discussing the aims and practice of yoga, the development of yogic powers and finally, liberation. Like a gentle guiding hand, the Yoga Sutras warn you of the pitfalls on your spiritual journey and offer the means to overcome them. While there is a teaching in each Sutra, we’ll look at a few here and leave the remainder for future exploration.

In Vedic texts, it is common to encapsulate the whole teaching early in the discourse. Patanjali does this in the first few sutras, giving you the essence of what’s to come:

“Yoga is the progressive settling of the mind into silence.

When the mind is settled, we are established in our own essential state, which is unbounded consciousness.

Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind”

This means: Your spiritual practice should be to look within. Your true Self lies hidden in the silence between your thoughts, beyond all limitations. However, the doubts, chaos, and confusion of your thoughts cause you to forget who you really are.

The obstacle to spiritual progress is stress, which creates fatigue, leading to doubts and causing laziness, which brings sensory attachments manifesting as delusions, which causes you to forget who you are. By being committed to your practices, you can overcome all of these.

To have a peaceful mind, you should cultivate attitudes of friendliness without jealousy toward those who are joyful; have compassion toward those who are unhappy and less fortunate; delight in and support the acts of the virtuous; and be impartial to and avoid the dramas of the impure.

The fruit of wrong action is sorrow, the fruit of right action is joy. You must take responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions by living consciously. The Yoga Sutras are a path of purification, refinement, and surrender.

The causes of your suffering are the following:

  • Forgetting who you really are
  • Living from the ego
  • Clinging to pleasure and pain
  • Fearing death

All of these are resolved through meditation when you remember your essential nature of unbounded consciousness.

The 8 Limbs of Yoga

The Yoga Sutras contain a set of observances and practices to guide your spiritual journey. These are known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

1. Yama: Correct behavior toward others.
  • Nonviolence
  • Truthfulness
  • Not stealing
  • Not wasting energy
  • Abstaining from greed

2. Niyama: The principles by which you should live your own life
  • Purity
  • Contentment
  • Spiritual observances
  • Study
  • Devotion

3. Asana: The seat of consciousness; the yogi’s seat and postures to prepare the body.

4. Pranayama: Expanding the life force through breathing exercises.

5. Pratyahara: Turning the senses inward to explore the inner universe.

6. Dharana: Effortless focused attention; training the mind to meditate.

7. Dhyana: A continuous flow, meditation perfected.

8. Samadhi: Lost or found in the Divine; unity.

The first four yamas prepare the body for the next three, which take you to the doorway of the eighth.

Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi practiced together is known as Sanyama. Settling the mind, having a subtle intention, and releasing it into the field of Infinite Organizing Power gives you knowledge of the laws of nature of an object and Yogic Powers (Siddhis).

The Practice of Samadhi

The practice of Samadhi is only possible when meditation is perfected. Samadhi has several levels:

Savikalpa Samadhi

  • You gain knowledge of physical objects.
  • You have an understanding the abstract nature of things.
  • You move beyond objects until you are only aware of bliss.
  • Only the I-ness remains.

Nirvikalpa Samadhi

  • You become one with the Soul—no mind—only infinite peace and bliss.
  • The heart feels bigger than the universe.

Sahaja Samadhi

  • The constant experience of Nirvikalpa along with daily activity.

Dharma Megha Samadhi

  • The highest Samadhi, the state of Unclouded Truth (Cloud of Virtue)—“All beautiful qualities are there.”
  • All desires, even the desire to know God, have dissolved.
  • All that affects the mind, the causes of suffering, and the bondage of action disappear.
We will all eventually reach the state where Pure Unbounded Consciousness remains forever established in its own Absolute nature.

Learn the foundations of Primordial Sound Meditation to strengthen your mind-body-spirit connection in the Chopra Meditation Enrichment Program.