Yoga Sutras

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The Yoga Sutras are a collection of Sanskrit aphorisms attributed to the Indian sage Patanjali sometime around the 3rd or 2nd centuries BCE, and are generally regarded as the first identifiable codification of Yoga into a system of spiritual practice. The aphorisms themselves were drawn from several existing sources, and were compiled over many years. Some historians maintain that the final chapter was added after the collection attributed to Patanjali.


Each of the schools of Hinduism has its own set of sutras, or aphorisms. The sutras help to systematize the philosophy of the writer, while facilitating memorization and transmission by students. The brevity of the sutra created the need for commentaries based on them, the first of which is believed to have been written by Vyasa in the 6th or 7th century CE. The sutras have the goal of making the mystical experience of Yoga understandable, and more importantly, accessible. Thus Patanjali's Yoga is very systematic, even "scientific". (Indeed, it seems to attempt a unification of ethics with the scientific discipline of physics.) The sutras penetrate the mystery of yoga in an organized and methodical fashion, as science does, and although the author does not say they are based directly on empirical evidence, the aphorisms do constitute a formula by which anyone can test the reliability of Patanjali's approach. (Furthermore, while it might seem that the observer and the observed in Yoga are the same, Patanjali claims that the "I" of our everyday lives is different from our true self, and can be observed using objective 'thought waves'.)


Yoga is an idea that existed long before Patanjali, and the Yoga Sutras present themselves merely as a revision of the doctrine. The term yoga literally means 'union' or 'yoke' (between the personal and impersonal self, or between the individual and the universal). Yoga also has the object of escaping sorrow, and of controlling passion and mental processes. The philosophy of Yoga, formalized in the Yoga Sutras, is related to other schools, or darshanas, of Hinduism, including Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Mimansa (based on the early Vedas), Vedanta (based on the last Vedas), and Sankhya. Each of these schools, born between the sixth and second centuries BCE, draws heavily from the Upanishads, and shares basic notions like karma (innate tendencies), dharma (duty or morality), the cycle of rebirth, and liberation. New forms and interpretations have in turn arisen from these schools; Yoga has branched into forms that include Laya, Mantra, Tantra, and Hatha, while the essence of Patanjali’s instruction has been retained in a form known as Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path. (Modern Yoga is based on Hatha Yoga, which, dating to 1000 CE, has developed special breathing exercises and posture, such as the familiar lotus position.) Raja Yoga is the most composite approach to yoga, not concentrating on one element like chanting or physical training.

The Books (Pada)

The Yoga Sutras are divided into four books (Sanskrit pada), containing a total of 195 sutras. These books include: the Samadhi Pada (concerning the Theory of Yoga), Sadhana Pada (the Practice of Yoga), Vibhuti Pada (Attainments), and Kaivalya Pada (Emancipation).

I. Samadhi Pada (51 sutras)

Samadhi refers to a blissful state where the yogi is absorbed into the One. The author describes the theory of yoga and then the means to attaining samadhi. Much of the theory presented is shared by the older Sankhya school of Hinduism philosophy. The belief in the endless process of creation and dissolution is explained in terms of three gunas, or qualities: sattwa (the essence of a form), tamas (the obstacle in a form’s realization), and rajas (the constructive force and manifest form). In equilibrium, these qualities compose a universe that exists only in potential. But when they become unbalanced (through mahat, 'the great cause'), Prakriti - the elemental matter of the cosmos - becomes differentiated. This leads to a consciousness which includes five powers of perception, five organs of action, five tanmatras (the inner essences of sound, feel, sight, flavor, and odor), and the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether).

In this evolved universe, Patanjali saw chitta, the mind, as composed of manas (sensation), buddhi (discrimination), and ahamkar (ego). However, only the real self, the Atman (Reality) or Purusha (the cosmic soul), is conscious. The mind is merely an object of perception, seen through vritti, the "thought waves" of knowledge (which arise from the interaction of the gunas). There are five principal thought waves (right knowledge, wrong knowledge, verbal delusion, sleep, and memory) which are either painful (bringing greater ignorance, addiction, and bondage), or not painful. Through the discipline of practice and the discrimination of non-attachment, a person can direct their thought waves away from the objective world and desire to true self-knowledge and liberation.

A yogi, one who practices Yoga, engages in bhakti, the purification of body, heart and mind, and the mental process of concentration, with its four stages of examination, discrimination, joyful peace, and simple awareness of individuality. Beyond this, there is only concentration without object, upon consciousness itself, for the yogi has entered into union with the Atman (which is Brahman). Yoga can be considered evolution in reverse, seeking always the cause behind an appearance, until finally the original condition of Purusha is regained. This is a state of samadhi, liberation from Prakriti (matter), and moksha, liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth. It is also a liberation from suffering (which includes any temporary moods or states, even those that might normally be considered joyful), leaving eternal bliss.

This book contains the most famous verses: "Atha yoga anusasanam" ("Yoga begins with discipline") and "Yogas citta vritti nirodha" ("Yoga is control of citta vrittis" - i.e., thoughts and feelings).

II. Sadhana Pada (55 sutras)

Sadhana is the Sanskrit word for "practice". This section lists and describes the Sadhana ("practice") designed to purify the mind from false knowledge and afflictions (including attachment, aversion, egoism, love of life, and especially ignorance). The author outlines two forms of Yoga: kriya (the yoga of action) and ashtanga (eight-limbed yoga).

Kriya yoga, sometimes called karma yoga, is reflected in the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, where Arjuna is encouraged to act without attachment to the results of action. The yogi must similarly take to certain restraints (non-violence, non-theft, continence, truthfulness, and non-avariciousness). It is the yoga of selfless action or as some have observed, of service.

A definition of ashtanga

To control the senses and the mind, the yogi must also conform to eight ashtanga. Ashtanga yoga (also known as the Great Vows) consists of the following aspects:

1. *The five yamas (abstentions; the word means "restraint"). These are also found in Jainism; Buddhism has a similarly-conceived list.

(1) Ahimsa (abstention from violence, himsa)
(2) Satya ("truth", abstention from lying)
(3) Asteya (abstention from theft)
(4) Brahmacharya (abstention from sexual activity)
(5) Aparigraha (abstention from possessions)

2. The five niyamas ("observances"):

(1) Shaucha ("{purity")
(2) Santosha ("contentment")
(3) Tapas ("heat", i.e., austerities, self-mortification)
(4) Svadhyaya ("self-contemplation")
(5) Ishvarapranidhana "surrender to the Creator")

3. Asana ("seat"). The term which is now generally translated as "physical postures" originally referring to seated postures.

4. Pranayama (control of prana, the vital breath or "life force")

5. Pratyahara ("withdrawal" of the mind from the senses, or the senses from objects)

6. Dharana (concentration, i.e., fixing the attention on a single object)

7. Dhyana (meditation, or contemplation)

8. Samadhi (equipoise, or trance)

III. Vibhuti Pada (55 sutras)

This book describes the higher states of awareness and the techniques of yoga to attain them. Through the practice of Yoga, a person comes to possess samyama, the three attainments of concentration, meditation, and samadhi. The book further describes Vibhuti ("powers" or "manifestations") that arise from the attainments, including omniscience, heightened sensation, discriminative knowledge, and perfection of the body.

IV. Kaivalya Pada (34 sutras)

The final book of the Yoga Sutras describes the nature of the Kaivalya ("emancipation") attained by the yogi. While the powers described in the third book can also arise by birth, by the use of drugs, incantations, or purificatory action, only through the active process of Yoga can people realize their true self. This involves removing ignorance and destroying innate tendencies, or karma, which have carried over from previous lives. (The karma of a yogi is described as neither black nor white, while those of ordinary people are either black or white, or both black and white.) The three gunas (qualities) of rajas, tamas, and sattva then become powerless, and the yogi achieves Kaivalya, or absolute freedom within Purusha (the cosmic soul).


  • Dasgupta, S.N. Hindu Mysticism. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Pvt Ltd., 1977.
  • Rajneesh, Bhagwan Shree. Yoga: The Science of the Soul, Volume 1. Rajneeshpuram, Oregon: Rajneesh Foundation International, 1976.
  • Dvivedi, M. N. The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali'. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1980.