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  • Writer's pictureRegina Trailweaver

An Ancient Template for Wholeness: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

The Yoga Sutras became popularized in the west during the 1960s when all the good stuff happened: the Beatles, the civil rights movement, feminism, and a general wave of anti authoritarianism. Consciousness raising was very much in vogue but the Yoga Sutras actually point out that the goal of humanity is to transcend consciousness completely. The Yoga Sutras were written down by Patanjali between 500-200 BC. And were likely handed down through a meticulous oral tradition believed to be well over 5000 years old. They were developed at the dawn of civilization, when writing and agriculture first began to flourish. Soon social, political, economic and religious structures began to be codified and power began to be consolidated by religious and economic elites. The yogis foresaw that the laws of nature would be dishonored and that the human race was in danger of becoming corrupt and unjust as they forgot the true purpose of human consciousness and confused the patterning of consciousness with true awareness. And so this concise set of 196 aphorisms was saved and passed down through the millennium. There are now numerous translations but until just two centuries ago, very few knew these sutras, even fewer here in the west. Below is my most humble attempt to summarize and explain the Yoga Sutras, relying for the most part on the sutras themselves.

Chapter 1gives an overview of the development of human consciousness and its title is often translated as INTEGRATION. It describes integration as the ability to distinguish between consciousness (which tends to be conditioned and patterned by cultural limitations and cognitive errors) and pure awareness.

1.1: Atha YogaNushasanam/Now the inquiry of yoga. ORNow the teachings of yoga.

1.2: Yogas citta-vritti-nirodha/Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. ORYoga is to still the fluctuations of the mind.

1.3: Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature ORThen the abiding of the seer in its own true nature

1.4: Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness OROtherwise, conformity and identity with the fluctuations.

There are five types of patterns, including both hurtful and benign:

Right perception, misperception, conceptualization, deep sleep and remembering.

1.12 Both practice (also translated as devotion) and nonreaction (also translated as the remembrance of the self) are required to still the patterning of consciousness.

1.13: Practice is the sustained effort to rest in that stillness.

Patanjali goes on to explain that nonreaction is fully achieved when you are no longer attached to anything at all. Then pure awareness can clearly see itself as independent from the fundamental qualities of nature. (For more on these fundamental qualities, see upcoming blog on the GUNAS.)

1.21: For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near.

1.22: How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate or intense.

He goes on to explain Ishvara as a concept of pure awareness existing beyond time and represented by the sound OM. (Here he is referencing the yogic concept that OM contains all of the sounds of universal consciousness.)

1.30 Sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sexual indulgence, delusion, lack of progress, and inconstancy are all distractions that, by stirring up consciousness, act as barriers to stillness.

1.31 When they do, one may experience distress, depression, or the inability to maintain steadiness of posture or breathing.

1.33 Consciousness settles as one radiates friendliness, compassion, delight, and equanimity toward all things, whether pleasant or painful, good or bad.

The great teacher Iyengar translates Sutra 1:33 as: Be friendly to those who are happy. Be happy for those who are virtuous. Be compassionate to those who are unfortunate. Do not engage with those whose actions oppose your values.

Patanjali is outlining and offering us the yogic template for social and emotional health.

He goes on to describe the process of stilling the fluctuations of the mind and increasing awareness until 1:47 “the nature of the self becomes clear”

1.48: The wisdom that arises in that lucidity is unerring.

1.49: Unlike insights acquired through inference or teachings, this wisdom distinguishes easily between pure awareness and consciousness.

The title of Chapter 2is often translated as THE PATH TO REALIZATION

Here is the practical application of yoga. Patanjali outlines the causes of suffering and the eight branches or limbs of yoga that offer freedom from suffering.

2.3 The causes of suffering are not seeing things as they are, the sense of “I”, attachment, aversion, and clinging to life.

Samskara, or patterns and practice of suffering, occurs when we do not see things as they are, when we forget that we are whole and part of a whole system. This forgetfulness leads to asserting one’s own ego needs over others; believing that happiness depends on striving after materialism, success, status, and power; avoiding the misery and suffering of the masses as well as one’s own pain and suffering; and clinging to life, unable to face the reality that life ends in death.

2.5 mistakes that which is impermanent, impure, distressing, or empty of self for permanence, purity, happiness, and self.

From the false sense of I and the fragile ego emerge the stories we tell about ourselves. In yoga, these stories are knows as ahamkara and they greatly filter our perceptions of reality. We see the world not as it is, but as we are.

2.10 In their subtle form, these causes of suffering are subdued by seeing where they come from.

2.11: In their gross forms, that is the patterns of consciousness, they are subdued through meditative absorption.

Suffering that has not yet arisen, can be prevented.

Patanjali then explains that the phenomenon of the material world as well as our bodies and senses which allow us to experience the material world are all here to reveal the truth of pure awareness. Prakriti is the Sanskrit word for the material world and purusa is the ability to see clearly and distinguish between patterns, fluctuations, samskara, ahamkara and what is real.

2.28: When the components of yoga are practiced, impurities are dissolved and the light of understanding can shine forth and illuminate the way to awareness.

8 branches and the ethics are introduced but before elucidating the ethics, Patanjali inserts this piece of advice:

Unwholesome thoughts can be neutralized by cultivating wholesome ones.

We ourselves may act on unwholesome thoughts, such as wanting to hurt someone, or we may cause or condone them in others; unwholesome thoughts may arise from greed, anger, or delusion; they may be mild, moderate, or extreme; but they never cease to ripen into ignorance and suffering. This is why one must cultivate wholesome thoughts

After going into detail about each ethic (stay tuned for future blog on THE ETHICS OF YOGA) and the almost magical benefits of practicing them, he give the very few instructions that were originally provided regarding asana, pranayama and the other four branches which focus on meditation. And, in fact, he only mentions asana as it relates to meditation:

2.46: Sthirasukhamasanam/The postures of meditation should embody steadiness and ease (or as some translations say: stability and comfort)

2.47: due to relaxation with appropriate effort

2.48: and from that, one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites

He goes on to describe some aspects of pranayama and how this results in a spacious and subtle breath which in turn leads to a luminous mind now fit for concentration and the withdrawal of the senses so that the senses now reside utterly in the service of realization.

Chapter 3: This title is often translated as THE EXTRAORDINARY POWERS

This is the most esoteric chapter which asserts that an accomplished yogin can perform acts of magic, walk on water, travel through space and basically gain complete mastery over one’s own senses and even over others. Using one’s yogic powers to manipulate others is adamantly advised against:

3.51: When one is unattached to this omniscience and mastery, the seeds of suffering withers and awareness knows it stands alone. (This brings to mind one of my favorite scenes in the Lord of the Rings when the elfin princess resists the ring.)

3.52: Even if the exalted beckon, one must avoid attachment and pride, or suffering will recur.

In Chapter 4, often translated as FREEDOM, Patanjali explains the science of birth from an energetic rather than biological point of view:

4.10: …the will to exist is eternal.

He then goes on to describe the experience of freedom from suffering:

4.18: Patterns of consciousness are always known by pure awareness, their ultimate, unchanging witness.

4.19: Consciousness is not seen by its own light but by pure awareness.

4.22: Once it is stilled, though, consciousness comes to resemble unchanging awareness and can reflect itself being perceived.

4.23: Then consciousness can be colored by both awareness and the phenomenal world, (purusa and prakriti) thereby fulfilling all its purposes.

(The purpose of consciousness is to serve awareness.)

4.25: As soon as one can distinguish between consciousness and awareness, the ongoing construction of the self ceases.

4.34: Freedom is at hand when the fundamental qualities of nature, each of their transformations witnessed at the moment of their inception, are recognized as irrelevant to pure awareness; it stands alone, grounded in its very nature, the power of pure seeing. That is all.

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