Ask a Yogi: What are Patanjali's Yoga Sutras?

Ling Beisecker
Ask a Yogi: What are Patanjali's Yoga Sutras?

Many sacred ancient texts, including the Vedas, Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita, mentioned yoga. However, none of the other sacred ancient texts specialized in the philosophy of yoga like the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali.

Lord Shiva, the Adiyoga or first yogi, shared yoga with the Sapta Rishis, seven sages, who then created seven basic schools of yoga. These schools disseminated into hundreds of forms of yoga.

Patanjali brought back and connected the pieces so the authentic meaning of yoga could shine by channeling his talent of Sanskrit and creating the Yoga Sutras. While the sutras are often associated with classical Raja, or royal, yoga, the philosophy and teachings are a source of inspiration and elevate the spirit of all yogis.

atha yogā 'nuśāsanaṃ - “now, the teachings of yoga” ~Yoga Sutras 1.1

History of Patanjali

Even though he is considered the father of modern yoga, Patanjali appeared to prefer anonymity. The history surrounding his life is mostly speculation.

Patanjali may have lived in the first century BCE, or maybe in the 100s and 200s CE. There is some debate as to whether the Yoga Sutras are a collaborative effort between multiple “Patanjali” authors or not. However, Patanjali was likely a yogi who lived in the mountains of Northern India roughly two thousand years ago. (Interestingly, in the bhakti, or devotional, era in India about 1000 years after his birth and creation of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali started being worshipped as a Hindu saint.)

Legend story short -- while meditating, Lord Adisesa (the Lord of Serpents) had a vision of Gonika, a devoted yogini who prayed for a worthy son to impart her knowledge and wisdom. At this time, Gonika, believing she was nearing the end of her life, took a handful of water and prayed to the Sun God for a son. When she opened her eyes, there was a tiny snake moving in her palms who took on human form. She named the tiny human Patanjali; Pata, for falling down, and Anjali, for joining the palms in prayer.

Patanjali was represented by a snake because it is the symbol for un-manifested energy; for until a snake moves, you do not realize it is there.

The Sutras

The sutras, meaning threads, are elegant, succinct threads of knowledge that allow you to explore the essential core meaning of yoga. There is some debate around if yogis can obtain the same benefits from English translations of the sutras, or whether they should be read in the original Sanskrit. Additionally, there is some controversy as to whether chapter three, sutra 21/22 is redundant, and if there should then be 195 or 196 sutras.

The sutras are divided into four chapters, or padas: samadhi, sadhana, vibhuti, and kaivalya.

Samadhi Pada

The first chapter is about enlightenment, focusing on concentration and meditation.

The 51 sutras discuss the process to become One. The sutras define yoga, obstacles to achieving yoga, the purpose of yoga, the importance of abhyasa (constant practice), and vairagya (detachment from material experiences).

Sadhana Pada

The second chapter is about the practice. The Yamas and Eight-Limbed system of yoga are introduced.

The 54/55 sutras outline Karma, Kriya yoga, Ashtanga yoga, and the first six parts of the Eight Limbs of Yoga are discussed in-depth.

Vibhuti Pada

The third chapter is about the results, power, and manifestation once union is achieved.

The 56 sutras clarify the last two Limbs, dhyana and samahdi, as well as introduce the power of simultaneously activating the last three limbs. The chapter begins to highlight the ability of yoga to empower the mind.

Kaivalya Pada

The last chapter is about liberation, or moksha. The 34 sutras clarify liberation and what is achieved by the mind. This final chapter is devoted to complete, unconditional, and absolute liberation.

While reading all of the sutras is suggested, reading and making one sutra pure in your life is enough. The sutras are tools to foster the inner experience and elevate the spirit. Practice leads to wisdom and the ability to allow the inner light to guide the present moment, or atha.

What are your favorite sutras? What have Patanjali's Yoga Sutras taught you? Share with us below!