What can we learn from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?

Yoga is not only physical exercise. A big part of this ancient practice is spiritual and philosophical. Yoga philosophy is deeply woven into ancient Indian thought and ‘Yoga’ is in fact, the name of an ancient Indian school of philosophy. One of the most important yogic texts is the Sutras of Patanjali. Because the sutras were written in a very different context from what we experience in our everyday yoga practice, they can be difficult to understand and some could argue they don’t offer anything practical for our Western modern way of life. On the contrary, I believe there is still quite a lot that we can learn from this ancient text and in this month’s blog post I will explore this topic a little…

What are the Sutras of Patanjali?

The Yoga Sutras are sacred text about 1600 – 1700 years old, which explore how to deal with the process of suffering. The sutras are both a manual for practice but also offer a theoretical understanding. The exact purpose of the compilation of the sutras has been lost, but they date from an oral tradition passed from teacher to student.

The Sutras are attributed to a sage called Patanjali. There are in fact, three ‘Patanjalis’ who compiled significant manuals to emerge from ancient India.

What do the Sutras say?

The most widely recognised part of the sutras is Patanjali’s description of the eight-fold path to a life free from suffering. The first two limbs, the Yamas and Niyamas, outline ethical observances, preparing a yoga practitioner for the profound inner work that comprises the final limbs.

The next three limbs are more practical in their nature. Asana (physical discipline) is one of these limbs. It was originally created to help prepare the body to spend a long time sat in meditation, but it has now become the primary focus for our modern-day yoga practice. After Asana comes Pranayama (control of the breath) and Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses). Pranayama is often practiced in studios, on trainings and retreats, as well as accompanying yoga classes where emphasis is placed on combining movement with breath. Pratyahara, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to as “yoga’s forgotten limb” because of the general lack of research, knowledge and awareness surrounding it. Essentially, Pratyahara is the bridge between asana and meditation. To successfully enter a meditative state, the senses (which link the body to the mind) must first be controlled. By withdrawal from sensory impressions of the outside world, we can free our mind to move within, strengthening our immunity to negative external influences and enhancing our ability to resist the effect of environmental turmoil around us.

The sixth and seventh limbs – Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation) are about entering a deep meditative state, to prepare us for the final limb, Samadhi (bliss), in which we become one with our meditation.

The last chapter of the sutras explains how to achieve the complete separation of Spirit and Matter, claiming that in this state, the spirit has the power to extend everywhere, including travel through time and space.

Why are the Sutras still relevant?

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali gives us a picture of yoga as a practice that is so much more than just asana. Asana is a way to train the body, but it is through controlling our breath that we can experience the greatest benefits of yoga. By controlling our breath and practice meditation, we can then control our mental state. In this light, yoga is a physical-emotional-mental-spiritual practice, which has the power to deeply influence our way of living in a positive way.

In our Western world, we are not only used to multitask, sometimes we also “hypertask”. Going back to the ancient tradition of yoga, we can learn how to “unitask” – simply put as doing one thing at a time with full effort and attention.

What can we learn from the Sutras and how can we bring them into our modern life?

The sutras offer a practical guide to living harmoniously personally and within society. They teach us to be kind, compassionate, and to take care of others and ourselves. The limbs promote self-study, wakefulness and a disciplined practice (on and off the mat), as well as developing an awareness of the self and the inevitable wavering or see-sawing of our mind.

Patanjali teaches us that true yoga happens when the “fluctuating waves of the mind” cease, and we understand that we are “ineffable stillness, which is always present” and “independent of thoughts being present or absent”. In this perspective, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali gives us a powerful tool to set us free from the demands of modern day life, so that we can start living in tune with our true nature.

In the coming months, we’ll delve deeper into each limb and I’ll give you some real-life examples of what they actually mean.