There are hundreds of books available about Yoga. Some of these books address the How of yoga, explaining to you the mechanics of poses, transitional movement and basic anatomy. There are also books that the attempt to explain the why. Ancient philosophies about man, spirit and our abilities to transcend suffering are at the foundation of the Why of Yoga. These ancient practices & philosophies were first recorded in approximately 3000 BCE – 1500 years before the first recorded Bible Stories from the times of Moses. Now 5016 years later people are still looking to these texts as a tool for self-discovery, personal growth and internal reflection. The question becomes, of the Ancient Sacred Texts on Yoga which one is the most accessible to anyone looking to explore the ancient origins Yoga philosophy? The answer is undoubtedly, Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras.
Pantajali’s Yoga Sutras has been the most translated text on Yoga since the medieval times. The Sutras are comprised of 196 aphorisms that endeavor to help one understand the Why of Yoga. Broken up into 4 chapters, each chapter is said to address the four archetypal yoga students, on four distinct paths to Enlightenment.
The First Chapter describes the path of the Humble Student, the one who wishes to be absorbed in Spirit through Devotion. Here, the focus is on how one who is interested in achieving Enlightenment through surrender to the inner Lord of all. In essence, chapter one provides (1) insight on the obstacles to self-knowledge (i.e. separating your identity from your thoughts), (2) developing the ability to concentrate, and (3) the method to know the Divine Energy which envelopes all things. One of the most valuable sutra’s in this chapter speaks to behavior we should implement to promote our enlightenment. Sutra I, 33 states, “By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards happiness, compassion towards suffering, delight toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice, thoughts become purified, and obstacles to self-knowledge are lessened.” This sutra’s guidance is invaluable; simply put it asks one to be open to happiness, utilize compassion, rejoice in people’s good will and refrain from judgment of others. The Sutra further indicates that if you are able to hold these general attitudes you will be more able to connect with and know yourself because your mind will not be clouded by judgment, negativity, or anger. Makes sense, right?
The Second Chapter speaks to the Seeking Student, the one who wishes to achieve Enlightenment but is plagued with impurities that must be removed. Here Pantajali focuses on the practices one can implement that will help to purify the spirit. He introduces two central concepts in Yoga Philosophy: 8 Fold Path of Yoga & Kriya Yoga, both of which are avenues to purification of the spirit. In the Modern era, many of us fall into this category of Student. The Sutras in this chapter resonate with me a great deal. I was hard pressed to choose just one sutra that captures this chapter; however as I read it over one jumped out. Sutra II, 44 states “From self-study comes communion with ones chosen personal deity.” The message here is an important one, regardless of your religious affinity. We are all divine. Many spend years seeking means outside of themselves for an opportunity to connect with a higher power. However, Pantajali counsels us that it is through looking within, examining our own divinity and learning about ourselves, that we will truly gain a direct connection with a higher power, a divine energy, called by whatever name we chose.
The Third Chapter discusses the Alchemically Transformed Student, one who has mastered the physical body & diligently nurtured her ability to concentrate. For this type of student there is a discovery of new supernatural abilities that begin to unveil the full capabilities of the mind and consciousness. The central tenant here is Samayama, which is the combined simultaneous practice of Dhārana (concentration), Dhyāna (meditation) & Samādhi (union). Samyama is a means through which to receive deeper knowledge on the qualities of an object, circumstance or perception. Sutra III,24 reveals that “By the practice of Samyama and on friendliness and other virtues, one gains their full power.” Thus through meditation, concentration and union of thoughts on those qualities one finds desirable one can not only integrate those qualities into their behavior, but could also unlock their full power. This ancient wisdom pairs well with the modern adage, “you become what you focus on,” so focus on positive, spiritually uplifting things that will encourage your Enlightenment.
The final Chapter of the Yoga Sutras speaks to the most advanced student, one who is in her final phase of preparation for Enlightenment. It is made clear here the ultimate goal of Yoga is integrating yourself as a spiritual and physical being through freedom from all limitations and attachments. It is “solely from the sense of individuality [that] mental fabrications [are] produced” Sutra IV, 4. Therefore the final obstacle to Enlightenment is one’s attachment to her individual beliefs and perceptions. Since our perceptions are colored by desires and residual impressions, it is through release of the need for others to see it ‘my way’ that one can be truly free and reach Enlightenment.
Its my hope that this brief discussion of the Sutra’s has given you a window into the Why of Yoga and the Ancient Philosophies at its foundation. Until next month, Namaste!
- Yoga Sutras of Pantajali as interpreted by Makunda Stiles
- Yoga Sutras of Pantajali: The Meaning of Yoga Sutras Pantajali/Charles Jonston