The true meaning of Yoga is the union of body, mind, soul and spirit. According to Yoga, we suffer because of not knowing our true Self and because of the illusion of separation of our individual consciousness from Universal Consciousness or Brahman. The Yoga Sutras are a practical textbook to guide our spiritual journey of remembering.

The Yoga Sutras were composed by someone called Patanjali. However, we know very little about him, except that he was presumably Indian and lived somewhere between the 2nd and 4th 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 those 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 which would later remind him/her of the greater body of material. Somewhat the equivalent of modern day cue cards. The challenge we have now is that, even knowing the sutras, we 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 is a theoretical understanding which believes 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 in a form, which the average spiritual seeker could follow and use. A roadmap for our journey to enlightenment.

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 us of the pitfalls on our 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 simply in the first few sutras, giving us the essence of our spiritual practices.

“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”

Our spiritual practices should be to look within. Our true Self lies hidden in the silence between our thoughts, beyond all limitations. However, the doubts, chaos and confusion of our thoughts cause us to forget who we really are.

The obstacles to spiritual progress are stress which creates fatigue, leading to doubts, causing laziness, which brings sensory attachments, manifesting as delusions, causing us to forget who we are. By being committed to our practices we can overcome all of these.

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

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

The causes of our suffering are: forgetting who we really are; living from the ego; clinging to pleasure and pain; the fear of death. All of these are resolved when through meditation we remember our essential nature of unbounded consciousness.

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

  1. Yama, correct behavior towards others: non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, not wasting energy, abstaining from greed.
  2. Niyama, the principles by which we should live our own lives: 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 prepare the body for the next three, which take us 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 us knowledge of the laws of nature of an object and Yogic Powers (Siddhis) are gained.

There are lesser powers such as clairvoyance, knowledge of the stars, control of the body, refinement of the senses and greater powers such as becoming invisible, walking on water and levitation.

Becoming attached to these powers, using them to cause harm or for personal gain creates a great barrier to our spiritual progress.

Responding with pleasure or pride to “the alluring invitations of celestial beings” will obstruct our progress. We should settle for nothing less than Self-realization.

A rare few are born enlightened. We can have glimpses of it by taking substances or by accident but regular meditation is the only natural and lasting path.

Teachers and Enlightened Gurus may help to guide and clear our spiritual path but, ultimately we will have to complete the journey ourselves.

Our actions create memories and desires giving rise to our karma, which manifests as the situations and circumstances of our lives. Karma is rooted in ignorance and is dissolved by spiritual realization.

An object is only experienced when it colors the mind. Objects appear different because of the difference in the minds that perceive them. An object does not depend on a single mind for its existence. We create and co-create our universe.

When the mind begins to experience the Self it is naturally drawn toward Enlightenment.

All thoughts that arise to interrupt this are born of latent impressions that still exist (Leshavidya). These can be removed by meditation, purification, refinement, surrender.

The practice of Samadhi is only possible when meditation is perfected.

Samadhi has several levels:

Savikalpa Samadhi

– we gain knowledge of physical objects; we have an understanding the abstract nature of things; we move beyond objects until we are only aware of bliss; finally only the I-ness remains

Nirvikalpa Samadhi

– we 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 and 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.

As mentioned earlier, 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