what are the yoga sutras

If you’ve ever done a Yoga Teacher Training or are looking to do one, you’ve most likely heard about the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali as part of the teacher training. 

Hey, maybe you’ve even heard me mention them once or twice in past posts! (I talk about them a lot.)

You may wonder “Why?” or even, “What in the heck are these Yoga Sutras?!”. Well, that’s what we’re going to explore in this post!

Anyone who has some sort of Yoga practice will find inspiration in the Yoga Sutras as these texts provide a very different perspective to the Yoga we know these days.

What Are The Yoga Sutras?

The Yoga Sutras are a collection of texts written by the sage Patanjali around 200 B.C.E. It is one of the most detailed guides towards a higher or pure consciousness. 

Patanjali wrote the text in Sanskrit, the ancient language of Hinduism. Don’t worry if you aren’t fluent in Sanskrit though — there are many translations of it that you can check out (three of the most common are from Swami Vivekanand, B.K.S. Iyengar, and Sri Swami Satchidananda). 

The majority of these translations also come with a complete commentary because many yogic scholars say the true meaning of the Yoga Sutras cannot be translated into another language.

As you may know, there are six philosophies in Hinduism and the Yogic system is one of them. In the Yogic philosophy, practitioners strive towards moksha (liberation) through consciousness. Yoga in its essence is the union of the body, mind, soul, and spirit.

This is where the Sutras come in. The Sanskrit word Sutra literally translates to ‘aphorism’. In context, it typically means teachings from spiritual masters in various traditions.

However, in modern language we often translate the word Sutra to ‘thread’. Patanjali wrote down 196 Yoga Sutras – each of these work like threads of knowledge to explore the true meaning of Yoga and ultimately lead to kaivalya or moksha (liberation).

Similarly, the Sanskrit language uses the word Yoga in multiple ways too depending on the context and historical setting. One of its more common translations in modern days is ‘union’, but that’s only one of its many meanings. 

Why am I telling you this when we’re supposed to be talking about the Yoga Sutras?

Because when Patanjali refers to Yoga in the Sutras, it’s more likely that he mean’s concentration or discipline. The Yoga Sutras can be seen as a guideline or philosophy on how to free our spirit and mind from suffering through discipline

However, Patanjali doesn’t mention physical postures as a foundational role of achieving this. That concept was introduced much more recently into the Yoga world. 

Basically, teaching and practicing Yoga today looks a lot different to what Patanjali outlines in his Yoga Sutras. So keep that mind if you decide to dig into the actual text of the Sutras!

Who Was Patanjali?

The sage Patanjali himself was from ancient India. His name derives from the original Sanskrit words pata (to fall) and anjali (joining the palms in prayer position, which is a well known Yoga mudra or hand gesture).

Aside from knowing that, we don’t have that much information available on who he actually was. 

Interestingly enough Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras kind of went into the background for several hundreds of years and only gained back prominence thanks to the efforts of theosophical leaders like Swami Vivekananda in the late 19th century

We don’t know exactly when Patanjali was born. Most scholars believe he lived around 2,500 years ago. 

history of yoga online yoga course

The Yoga Sutras and the Eight Limbs of Yoga

yoga on the beach sutras

Through Patanjali’s texts (specifically the Sutras), he built the systematized foundation of Raja Yoga or Royal Yoga.

You might have heard of this system as the eight limbs of Yoga, also known as Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs philosophy is a process of self-transformation leading to the ultimate state of bliss. 

Patanjali’s Sutras discuss this system or process as a guideline to live a peaceful and meaningful life. If you are a Yoga teacher or Yoga Student, you’ve most likely practiced parts of this path without even realizing it!

The eight limbs are:

  1. Yama — moral discipline
  2. Niyama — observances
  3. Asana — physical postures
  4. Pranayama — breathing techniques
  5. Pratyahara — sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana — concentration
  7. Dhyana — absorption or meditation
  8. Samadhi — enlightenment or bliss

You might be surprised to learn that the linking of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as a philosophy to the modern physical Yoga practice is quite a contemporary result through the work of T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) – the father of modern Yoga. He developed the foundation for what we now know as Hatha Yoga.

Nowadays, most Yoga teachers are providing classes for the third and fourth limbs that Patanjali writes about in the Yoga Sutras — Yoga Asana and Pranayama

A lot of Yoga classes incorporate Yogic teachings of Yama and Niyama (first and second limb of the eight limbs of Yoga). Yoga meditation is also very popular and an important part of the Ashtanga Yoga path.

So no matter where you are in your Yoga journey, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and, especially, the Eight Limbs of Yoga will be part of your practice. 

These teachings are what define the true meaning of Yoga. Each Yoga Sutra guides us to a more meaningful life and helps up become a better yogi — without having to be the most flexible person in the room! Everyone can use the Yoga Sutras as a guideline for their own life.

Besides providing a structured description of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, Patanjali divides the Sutras into four chapters or padas. These are: samadhi, sadhana, vibhuti, and kaivalya. We’ll get into these in a moment.

Why Are the Yoga Sutras Important to Your Yoga Practice?

In Yoga practice, every Yogi learns from a teacher. Many well known Yoga mentors still keep up the oral tradition of passing on knowledge. 

Even if you have one of those mentors, studying foundational texts such as the Yoga Sutras is a great way to gain a better understanding of Yoga practice and its history. When we understand the history behind Yoga, we can practice, teach, and learn from a more authentic foundation.

While the Yoga Sutras hardly mention anything about moving your body on a mat, they are a wonderful opportunity to incorporate more Yoga practices into your daily life.

The Four Chapters of the Yoga Sutras

Phew! I know that was a lot. But now that we have a solid understanding around the Yoga Sutras, we can get into the structure and content of them. (It’s more straightforward, I promise!)

Patanjali divided the Yoga Sutras into its four chapters or padas:

  • Chapter I (51 sutras) — Samadhi, what Yoga is
  • Chapter II (55 sutras) — Sadhana, the Yoga practice and obstacles to it
  • Chapter III (56 sutras) — Vibhuti, the benefits of Yoga
  • Chapter IV ( 34 Sutras) — Kaivalya, how to achieve liberation or freedom from suffering

All of the four padas have different levels of depth. As you progress on your spiritual journey, you’ll go deeper into each pada, which eventually leads to an ultimate feeling of liberation.

Ready to dive deeper into each chapter? Let’s go!

1. Samadhi Pada

warrior 3 pose

The first pada explains what Yoga is. 

The first few Yoga Sutras (1.1 – 1.4) are a definition of Yoga and its link to mental purification. Patanjali then continues (Yoga Sutra 1.5 – 1.11) to talk about five different mental fluctuations or vrittis, which are the ways of how our mind experiences thought patterns. 

In Yoga Sutras 1.12 to 1.16, Patanjali introduces the concept of balancing persistence and serenity as an essential foundation to reach the state of Yoga.

He then outlines various kinds of samadhi (Yoga Sutra 1.17 – 1.18). Patanjali also mentions different kinds of seekers and roles of devotion. It’s here where he talks about the importance of the devotion to Ishvara (God or the Divine) along the Yoga journey (Yoga Sutra 1.19 – 1.29).

The Samadhi Pada closes with nine obstacles one can face during their spiritual practice and how to overcome these obstacles in order to achieve Samadhi (Yoga Sutra 1.30 – 1.51).

When breaking the word Samadhi in half, we understand that this final stage of Yoga is made up of two words: sama meaning ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and dhi meaning ‘to see’. The ability to ‘see equally’ without the fluctuations of the mind; that is bliss.

Key Principles

  • Yoga Sutra 1.2: Yoga citta vritti nirodha = Yoga is restraining the activities/fluctuations of the mind.
  • Abhyasa (constant practice) and Vairagya (detachment from the material experience). These are two essential qualities during the Yoga journey to achieve the stilling of the mind chatter.
  • Sabija (with seed) and Nirbija (without seed). These are the two main types of Samadhi. ‘With seed’ refers to achieving Samadhi through an object, thought, or feeling of meditation. ‘Without seed’ means there is no object, which allows for the most advanced form of Samadhi – this eventually leads to kaivalya or moksha (liberation).
  • Samskara. In Hindu and Yoga philosophy, Samskara are mental impressions, recollections, or psychological imprints. Vrittis are the result of these samskara creating fluctuations or chatter in our mind.

Key Practices

  • Dirgha-kala or long-time. Patanjali writes about how anything you undertake needs commitment for a long time to get lasting results.
  • Nairantarya or no interruption. Your commitment to your actions needs to be constant and wholehearted – in other words: practice makes perfect!
  • Satkara or belief/trust in what you do. If you don’t trust or believe in yourself, your efforts are set up for failure. The Yoga Sutras point out that you need to believe in order to achieve.
  • Adara or joy in your actions. Without some sort of motivation and joy in what you’re doing, the Yoga Sutras state that you will struggle continuing to commit over time.
  • Asevita or attitude of service. Patanjali argues everything we do should be meaningful and satisfying.

Key Terms

  • Citta. In Sanskrit this refers to the (higher) mind, thoughts, or emotions.
  • Vrittis. These are disturbances or fluctuations of the mind, which affect our perception of experiencing reality.
  • Ishvara.  The concept of a higher power or Absolute Reality, but can also refer to the Supreme Consciousness or a personal god. Many Yogis choose their own Ishvara to focus on in their practice.
  • Shraddha. Your inner strength or deep inner trust, which can be developed through the right support (e.g. a great teacher, friend, or mentor) to help you keep moving forward to connect to your true Self.

2. Sadhana Pada

sat kriya position practice

In the Sadhana Pada Patanjali offers guidelines and principles to follow to achieve the state of liberation in your spiritual journey. 

Sadhana in Sanskrit means ‘practice’. This pada is where Patanjali outlines the Eight Limbs of Yoga and describes Kriya Yoga (Yoga of action).

The chapter begins by explaining what Kriya Yoga is (Yoga Sutra 2.1 – 2.2). Patanjali then introduces the five kleshas – psychological afflictions or causes of suffering. He not only points out how to eliminate this suffering, but also where the suffering comes from in the first place. Hint: karma (our own actions) play a big part in the origin of Klesha (Yoga Sutra 2.3 – 2.26).

In the second part of this pada, Patanjali teaches the Eight Limbs of Yoga or Ashtanga Yoga. After a brief introduction (Yoga Sutra 2.27 – 2.29), he provides a detailed explanation of the first two limbs Yama and Niyama (Yoga Sutra 2.30 – 2.45). Next, he digs into the third limb — Asana or Yoga postures (Yoga Sutra 2.46 – 2.48).

The pada finishes with an explanation of Pranayama (Yoga Sutra 2.49 – 2.52), and Pratyahara (Yoga Sutra 2.53 – 2.55).

Key Principles

  • Yoga Sutra 2.1: ‘Austerity, Self-inquiry, and devotion to god is Kriya Yoga.’
  • There are five kleshas according to Patanjali:  avidya (ignorance), asmita (egoism), raga (attachment), dvesha (aversion), and abhinivesha (clinging to life).
  • ‘sthira sukham asanam’ is the only alignment instruction that Patanjali gives for the asana practice i.e. the posture should be steady and comfortable. In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali speaks of only one posture: the seat you take for meditation!
  • In the Yoga Sutra 2.23 it says that our cause of suffering is the inability to distinguish between the Self (drashtr) and the mind (drshyam). The clear distinction between these two is the goal of Yoga.
  • The mistakes one makes trying to distinguish the mind from the Self, provide an opportunity to understand the true nature (svarupa) of these two entities.
  • Practicing Yoga can bring you closer to satya (ultimate Truth or truthfulness). Everything in the world depends on truthfulness.

Key Practices

  • Yama – moral codes of conduct or the Golden Rule (do unto others what you want them to do unto you).
  • Niyama – inner disciplines one should live by.
  • Asana – Yoga posture(s) or physical posture(s), which include the Yogi seat of consciousness as well as other postures to prepare the body for meditation.
  • Pranayama – breath control or exercises to expand prana (life force).
  • Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses or turning the senses inwards to still the mind.

Key Terms

  • Kriya Yoga. In the Yoga Sutras three types of kriya (action) are defined: tapas (asceticism), svadhyaya (recitation), and pranidhana (devotion).
  • Kleshas. The psychological obstacles that prevent you from attaining the goal of Yoga – the union with the Divine (Ishvara).
  • Karma. Translated from its Sanskrit root, it means ‘action’ (everything we do, say, or think). Yoga philosophy makes it clear that all our actions have consequences.
  • Ashtanga Yoga. In Sanskrit it derives its meaning from ashta meaning ‘eight’ and anga meaning ‘limb’. This eight-fold path is a guide for personal growth by living a peaceful and purposeful life.

3. Vibhuti Pada

In the third pada, Patanjali dives into the benefits of Yoga. The Sanskrit term Vibhuti translates to ‘power’ or ‘manifestation’. The Sutras in this chapter explain the last three limbs of the Ashtanga Yoga path (Yoga Sutra 3.1 – 3.3).

This pada also introduces the notion of samyama in Yoga Sutra 3.4 to 3.9, which is the simultaneous practice of Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. Samyama are the foundation to obtain the powers of Yoga (also known as siddhis). In the next few Yoga Sutras (3.10 – 3.16), we learn about Parinama (transformation) that comes with the practice of Yoga.

For the majority of this pada (Yoga Sutra 3.17 – 3.49) Patanjali teaches the variety of Siddhis one can obtain e.g. knowledge of the future, or of previous births. He closes off this pada with an introduction to Kaivalya.

Key Principles

  • Yoga Sutra 3.16: ‘Meditation gives knowledge of past and future.’ It is a great tool to grow your understanding of your true Self as well as of Yoga practice.
  • Yoga Sutra 3.49: ‘With mastery over the senses, thoughts, and actions comes quickness of mind and perception.’ When having control over body and mind, yogis are given the gift to lead a content life.
  • One must practice without ego to overcome these obstacles. Otherwise, these superpowers as mentioned in the Yoga Sutras of the third pada, can become an obstacle to the path of Kaivalya.
  • Follow your heart – Patanjali explains that gazing directly at the heart brings complete understanding of the true nature of the mind.
  • Samyama on the Samskaras brings freedom – one achieves greater clarity about their Samskaras and how they have obscured self-realization. Hence, the last three limbs of the eight-fold path provide an opportunity to let go of past identities and allow for detachment.

Key Practices

  • Dharana – effortless focused attention in preparation for meditation.
  • Dhyana – meditation or contemplation as in the uninterrupted flow of concentration.
  • Samadhi – self-realization; a state of ecstasy or supreme bliss. In this state, you merge with your point of focus and transcend the Self. This is when you connect to the Divine, an interconnection with all living things.
  • In order to explore the inner world, which is the ultimate goal of Yoga, you must use the spiritual superpowers (siddhis) to move further and further inwards. We start with our focus on the external world and throughout our journey move this focus to the inner layers of our being.

Key Terms

  • Siddhis. The supernatural powers Yogis can achieve in the higher levels of their spiritual journey. The Yoga Sutras define eight of them.
  • Samyama. The self-control and thorough dedication, which is achieved through Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi.
  • Parinama. The transformation or change (both on philosophical and practical levels) that takes place once the Yoga practitioner has detached from dukha (‘suffering’). It’s also an essential concept of the Sankhya philosophy, in which everything is a projection of what has already been.

4. Kaivalya Pada

The last of the four chapters of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras explains the concept of liberation or kaivalya. Some other translations of the Sanskrit term kaivalya are ‘isolation’ or ‘detachment’. 

In its essence, the last chapter describes the end achievement of Yoga, which is freedom and what it means to detach from the physical world.

In the Yoga Sutras 4.1 to 4.3, Patanjali outlines how to attain Siddhi. He further explains the potential power and ability of citta (the mind) (Yoga Sutra 4.4 – 4.6). 

The chapter then dives deeper into our actions and karma — how they link to our desires and their consequences (Yoga Sutra 4.7 – 4.11).

The Yoga Sutras 4.12 to 4.14 introduce the concept of the tri-gunas or qualities of nature. About halfway through this pada, Patanjali explains in detail the methods to remove all obstacles in order to achieve liberation (Yoga Sutra 4.15 to 4.28).

The chapter finishes with a description of what changes once reaching this state of enlightenment and what it feels like to have achieved Kaivalya (Yoga Sutra 4.29 – 4.34).

The Kaivalya Pada concludes with the Yoga Sutra 4.34: ‘Kaivalya is that state in which the gunas merge in their cause, having no longer a purpose in relation to purusha (pure consciousness).’

In this final stage of enlightenment that a Yogi can reach, also called moksha, you become completely fearless and free (sounds pretty good, eh?!). 

In Sanskrit, the word Kaivalya comes from kevala meaning ‘alone’ or ‘isolated’. So, in this end state of freedom you achieve separation or isolation of purusha (Self or Soul) from prakriti (primal matter). 

Key Principles

  • Yoga Sutra 4.15: ‘Although individuals perceive the same objects, these objects are perceived in different ways […]’. Everyone has a unique perception of the world and it’s important to respect such differences.
  • Yoga Sutra 4.26: ‘Character is deepened to show man the way to liberation’.
  • The liberation or enlightenment is the realization of immortality – achieving freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

Key Practices

  • It is through the practice of compassion that we incur good karma, which ultimately leads the way to enlightenment.  Hence, kindness and empathy towards others and ourselves are essential in a Yogic practice.
  • In Yoga Sutra 4.11, Patanjali defines four ways to eliminate Samskaras, also called vasanas: hetu (cause), phala (effect), ashraya (support of an experience) and alambana (object of an experience). Throughout the Yogic journey removing these mental impressions allows citta (mind) to become pure and capable to reflect both the observer and the observed.

Key Terms

  • Tri-gunas. The three qualities of nature are: sattva (balance, preservation), rajas (activity, creation), and tamas (inertia, destruction). Every living thing contains characteristics of the gunas.
  • Purusha. The Soul or true Self, which gives life to that which is primal and created.
  • Prakriti.  The natural or original intended state of something or of an individual’s being.

A Quick Summary

Feeling like an expert on the Yoga Sutras now?! 

Then now might be the perfect time to tell you that unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on how you see it), you still have a lot to learn! 

To sum up: The Yoga Sutras are a collection of texts written by Patanjali way back when and they cover a huge amount of essential Yoga wisdom including the eight limbs of yoga.

Now that you get the gist, if you’re still hankering for more Yoga Sutra knowledge, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the book itself or getting a translation if your Sanskrit is a bit rusty 😉.

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