The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is considered one of the most acclaimed and celebrated texts on the Yoga tradition. And despite having practiced Yoga for 15 years before embarking on my teaching training, I was aware that I had not read it. What could such a small book hold that was so essential to Yoga?
What I found once I opened the book, and read the concise introduction written by Alistair Shearer followed by the sacred sutras, was a new perspective and richer understanding of Yoga. All that I thought, or thought I understood about Yoga, are only fragments of a whole.
Yoga encompasses a great deal more.
There are many points made in the Yoga Sutras worthy of further study but I would like to focus on three that I believe are at at the heart of this ancient text — the Purpose, the proper Technique, and the Benefits of Yoga.
Why does Yoga exist and what purpose does it serve? Yoga, as I understood, was a moving meditation. By putting one’s attention and practicing a series of asanas, the mind is brought to focus, and can achieve greater clarity and peace. Although my understanding was not incorrect, it felt oversimplified.
Yoga is in fact a path.
It is not merely an hour-long class one does a few times a week to relieve stress or experience a temporary state of bliss — instead it is a life-long journey to reach an eternal one.
The quest for the meaning of our existence and purpose has been humankind’s greatest driving and creative force. According to Buddhist beliefs, life is suffering and full of distractions that impede the way to knowledge of our true Self or “absolute consciousness” (Shearer, 2002: 12). “Only when we realize our true nature, and the individual mind becomes infinite, shall we be satisfied” (Shearer, 2002: 13)
Yoga exists because it gives us a way to connect with our higher Self, and to become closer to the Truth. The Sutras offers us a path that each one of us can choose to follow because it’s practical and created for everyone.
The most significant revelation I experienced comes in this next main point, illustrated so clearly in the Yoga Sutras. My previous understanding of technique was limited to the physical instruction of Yoga such as entering and exiting an pose properly without injury.
In fact, asana is only one part of a larger system.
“The techniques of yoga are methods of purifying the nervous system so that it can reflect a greater degree of consciousness and our lives can become an increasingly positive force in the world.” (Shearer, 2002: 26) The central method for this is not merely following a fixed sequence or a doing a particular style of Yoga, but is described in the eight limbs.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali describes ashtavangani, or the eight limbs of Yoga as; “yama– the laws of life, niyama– the rules for living, asana– the physical postures, pranayama– the breathing exercises, pratyahara– the retirement of the senses, dharana– steadiness of mind, dhyana– meditation, samadhi– the settled mind.” (Shearer, 2002: Sutras 2.29)
Ultimately, the Sutras describes a process to provide a way to ‘settle the mind’ and achieve ‘unbounded awareness’ — that is not just held momentarily but sustained at all times and in every state — awake, sleep, dreaming, in motion.
The Sutras offers a map and if we follow the steps, we can hopefully reach the state of samadhi and fulfill our greatest potential as living, natural, conscious beings.
We practice Yoga because we want to become closer to our true Self. “Its [Yoga] goal is a state of completeness in which the body, mind, and heart are fully coordinated, and as a result all activity becomes as effortless as ripe fruit dropping off a tree.” (Shearer, 2002: 59)
The benefit or perhaps the true spirit of Yoga, practiced regularly and consistently, is Transformation — physical, intellectual, practical and emotional.
Through Transformation comes Freedom.
“If these techniques are correctly practices, the whole nervous system is revitalized—the body enjoys better health and more energy, the rested mind is freed from the burden of past experiences, and perception is restored to its primal freshness. Thought and activity become coherent and integrated, life becomes richer and more fulfilling.” (Shearer, 2002: 26) But we must hold no expectations, and instead practice with a pure heart and devotion. It is only in this way, that one benefits from Yoga. (Mittra, 2003: 17)
In the third part of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali touches upon the siddhis. Perhaps this is the most incredible and literally mind-blowing part of the text — a mind that is removed from the limitations of experience, and not ruled by desire is free — therefore it is unbounded and infinite, and can transcend time and space.
To us, this sounds almost super-human, but it is quite possible when one practices with intention and devotion, and all boundaries between the Self and other collapses and we enter into a collective, infinite consciousness. And who wouldn’t want that?
In the past twenty years of practice, I’ve experienced Yoga in myriad ways; through the guidance of experienced teachers, week-long retreats, community classes, sharing perspectives and styles, in yoga studios across the world. All have contributed to my path, and have lead to here to where I am now.
With so many voices, perhaps what has struck me most about reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, is a sense of return to the origins of Yoga. Written beautifully in short, concise lines of prose, its words and ideas enabled me to take a deeper look and see Yoga as a lifelong path to be fully embraced, enjoyed and experienced in all its forms.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Translated and Inroduced by Alistair Shearer
Random House, New York, 1982. US Edition, 2002.
Asanas 608 Yoga Poses, Dharma Mittra, New World Library, California, 2003
Images: Beatrice Lee