ASHTANGA YOGA SUTRA OF PATANJALI
The Yoga Sutras of acharya-patanjali is a foundational text of Yoga. It forms part of the corpus of sutra literature. In Indian philosophy, Yoga (also Raja Yoga to distinguish it from later schools) is the name of one of the six philosophical schools.
The foundation of all later Schools of Yoga go back to Patanjali. The word Yoga automatically calls to mind Sage Patanjali the founder and father of Yoga Sutras. (Yogic teachings covering all aspects of Patanjali Yoga are common in pre-Patanjali literature of the Puranas, Mahabharata andUpanishads.) He was a great philosopher and grammarian. He was also a physician and a medical work is attributed to him. However this work is now lost in the pages of time.
His best known work is Patanjali Yoga Sutras of Aphorisms on Yoga. The path outlined is called Raja Yoga or the sovereign path. It is so called because of the regal, noble method by which the self is united with the overself.
Patanjali’s Yoga has essentially to do with the mind and its modifications. It deals with the training of the mind to achieve oneness with the Universe. Incidental to this objective are the acquisition of siddhis or powers.
The mind or Chitta is said to operate at two levels-intellectual and emotional. Both these levels of operation must be removed and a dispassionate outlook replace them. Constantvichara (enquiry) and viveka (discrimination between the pleasant and the good) are the two means to slay the ego enmeshed in the intellect and emotions. Vairagya or dispassion is said to free one from the pain of opposites love and hate, pleasure and pain, honour and ignominy, happiness and sorrow.
The easiest path to reach this state of dispassion and undisturbed tranquillity is the path of bhakti or love. Here, man surrenders his all-mind, soul, ego-to the Divine Being and is only led on by the Divine will. Self-surrender the Diving Name. Such repetition must not be mechanical but one-pointed and full of favor. For this, concentration is necessary. concentration can be there only if man has practiced to fix his attention on a particular object without letting it dwell on anything else.
Concentration also calls for regulation of conduct if bhakti must develop. Good cheer, compassion, absence of jealousy, complacence towards the virtuous and consideration towards the wicked must be consciously cultivated.
There are also methods of regulated breathing which help reach concentration.
Yoga is an art and takes into purview the mind, the body and the soul of the man in its aim of reaching Divinity. The body must be purified and strengthened through various practices. The mind must be cleansed of all gross and the soul should turn inwards if a man should become a yogic adept. Study purifies the mind and surrender takes the soul towards God.
The human mind is subject to certain weaknesses which are universal. avidya (wrong notions of the external world), asmita (wrong notions of oneself), raga (longing and attachment for sensory objects and affections), dweshad (is like and hatred for objects and persons), and abinivesha (the love of life are the five defects of the mind that must be removed). Constant meditation and introspection eradicate these mental flaws.
The human body is a vehicle for journeying this life. It must be kept in proper form if the mind should function well. For this, there are practices too, but Patanjali does not elucidate on them.
The Four Padas
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, which outlines the sovereign path of Raja Yoga, is composed of a total of 195 sutras or aphorisms. These sutras are structured around four padas or chapters:
- Samadhi Pada,
- Sadhana Pada,
- Vibhuti Pada and
- Kaivalya Pada.
Unlike Western theoretical texts, which are often self-explanatory, Indian classical texts are mostly composed in the form of extremely terse and self-contained aphorisms or sutras. Sutras literally mean ‘threads’—the idea being that each individual blossoms of thought are bound together to form the eventual wreath of a complex philosophy. Such pithy aphorisms, by their very nature invite a host of commentaries and annotations for their appropriate comprehension by the average learner—and that has been the tradition of ancient Indian scholasticism.
In this case, the six basic commentaries on the Yoga Sutra are:
- Yoga Bhashya by Vyasa,
- Tattva-Vaisharadi by Vachaspati Mishra,
- Yoga-Varttika by Vijnana Bhikshu,
- Raja-Martanda by Bhojaraja,
- Bhasvati by Hariharananda Aranya and
- Patanjala-Rahasya by Raghavananda Saraswati.
Beside these, there exist a number of tikas or expositions on this exemplary text.
Isvara is the supreme Purusha, unaffected by any afflictions, actions, fruits of actions or by any inner impressions of desires.
In Him is the complete manifestation of the seed of omniscience.
Unconditioned by time, He is the teacher of even the most ancient teachers.
The word expressive of Isvara is the mystic sound OM.
—Samadhi Pada: Sutras 24-27.
The first chapter, which is composed of 51 sutras, contemplates on the absolute true consciousness or Isvara and delineates the problems an individual soul is likely to face in its quest to merge with this Divine Soul.
It begins with an understanding of human thought processes or vrittis, which deter us from realizing our true selves. The Samadhi Pada advises the restraint of such natural workings of the mind and discusses the problems encountered while trying to harness it. Then begins an elucidation of Isvara, the supreme consciousness and the various gradations of samadhis (a self-absorbed, detached state of being) one could enter into for attaining that highest level of spiritual awareness. Here again, the possible mental distractions are clearly stated and the best methods of conquering these impediments are also discussed.
By cultivating attitudes of:
• Friendliness toward the happy,
• Compassion for the unhappy,
• Delight in the virtuous and
• Disregard toward the wicked
the mind retains its undisturbed calmness.
Or that calm is retained by the controlled exhalation or retention of the breath.
Or the concentration on subtle sense perception can cause steadiness of mind.
Or by concentrating on the supreme, ever blissful Light within….
Gradually, one’s mastery in concentration extends from the primal atom to the greatest magnitude.
Just as the naturally pure crystal assumes shapes and colors of objects placed near it, so the Yogi’s mind, with its totally weakened modifications, becomes clear and balanced and attains the state devoid of differentiation between knower, knowable and knowledge. This culmination of meditation is samadhi.
—Samadhi Pada: Sutras 33-41.
In the end, the yogi gains itambhara prajna, which is true wisdom, whose means of knowledge are unlike any other—drawn solely from the awareness of the absolute. At this stage, the yogi becomes totally detached from all the four spheres of annamaya-kosha (gross materiality), pranamaya-kosha (physicality), manomaya-kosha (psychology) andvijnanamaya-kosha (intellect). His consciousness merely remains attached with the purely spiritual sphere of the anandamaya-kosha. This is the state, which is defined asnirbija samadhi, when all seeds of earthly impressions are erased from the yogi’s consciousness.
The karmas bear fruits of pleasure and pain caused by merit and demerit.
—Sadhana Pada: Sutra 14.
By the practice of the eight limbs of Yoga, the impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.
—Sadhana Pada: Sutra 28.
After chapter one describes the different kinds of thought forms, practices to control them and the different kinds of samadhis culminating in the highest experience of nirbija samadhi, the second chapter follows it up with practical ways of attaining that state.
In 55 sutras, the Sadhana Pada establishes the aim of yoga as being the control of the chitta vrittis (thought processes) to attain the highest union or ‘yoga’. It prescribes the practice of Karma and Ashtanga Yoga as a means of achieving this union. This Pada identifies ignorance (avidya) and other obstacles to meditation as a major cause of our inability to naturally merge with the Absolute, and to this end it advices the eradication of all such kleshas by practicing the eight limbs of yoga and benefiting from their advantages.
It might be relevant here to mention the fact that Indian philosophy involves more of perception and understanding as opposed to the Western ‘love of knowledge’ (philosophy). The Sanskrit word for philosophy, ‘darshan’ literally means ‘to see’ or ‘to perceive’. In such a case, the philosopher takes on the role of a ‘spectator’ and having perceived the patterns of the ‘spectacle’ before him, prepares to merge with it and obliterates the subject/object dichotomy between the ‘perceiver’ and the ‘perception’. And it is practices such as Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga, which forces the yogi or seeker into action. Thus, far from being a passive ‘spectator’, the true philosopher and yogi actually gains mastery over the Divine Spectacle, which is our entire existence!
The practice of these three (dharana, dhyana, and samadhi) upon one object is called samyama.
By the mastery of samyama comes the light of knowledge.
Its practice is to be accomplished in stages.
—Vibhuti Pada: Sutras 5-7.
The 56 sutras of the third chapter focus on the achieved union and its result. The term ‘vibhuti’ denotes manifestation or residue and this Pada delineates all the accomplishments, which come as the result of regular yoga practices. They are also sometimes called the siddhis, or powers, which have become matured with practice. The practices, which have been stressed in the Vibhuti Pada are the final three limbs of Ashtanga Yoga: dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (contemplation), the amalgamated practice of which is known as samyama.
This chapter deals with the subtle states of awareness and advanced techniques of practicing samyama. The various kinds of knowledge or siddhis that might be obtained by practicing this yogic technique are also described. The Pada brings home the fact that knowledge is power and states the techniques of utilizing such potency for the best possible results.
The discriminative knowledge that simultaneously comprehends all objects in all conditions is the intuitive knowledge, which brings liberation.
When the tranquil mind attains purity equal to that of the Self, there is Absoluteness.
—Vibhuti Pada: Sutras 56-57.
Only the minds born of meditation are free from karmic impressions.
—Kaivalya Pada: Sutra 7.
Since the desire to live is eternal, impressions are also beginningless.
The impressions being held together by cause, effect, basis and support, they disappear with the disappearance of these four.
—Kaivalya Pada: Sutra 11-12.
Kaivalya, which is the ultimate goal of yoga, means solitariness or detachment. The 34 sutras of the fourth chapter deals with impressions left by our endless cycles of birth and the rationale behind the necessity of erasing such impressions.
It portrays the yogi, who has attained kaivalya, as an entity who has gained independence from all bondages and achieved the absolute true consciousness or ritambhara prajna described in the Samadhi Pada.
…Or, to look from another angle, the power of pure consciousness settles in its own pure nature.
—Kaivalya Pada: Sutra 35.
” The Eight Limbs of Yoga “
The core of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is an eight-limbed path that forms the structural framework for yoga practice. Upon practicing all eight limbs of the path it becomes self-evident that no one element is elevated over another in a hierarchical order. Each is part of a holistic focus which eventually brings completeness to the individual as they find their connectivity to the divine. Because we are all uniquely individual a person can emphasize one branch and then move on to another as they round out their understanding.
In brief the eight limbs, or steps to yoga, are as follows:
- Yama — The yamas can be thought of as the ethical restraints that are necessary for achieving harmony with other beings.
- Niyama — The niyamas are the actions necessary for achieving balance within oneself.
- Asana — These are the ashtanga yoga poses (or postures) so commonly made the focal point of many yoga styles today…
- Pranayama — Pranayama is the practice of breath control, a fundamental aspect of the ashtanga yoga system…
- Pratyahara — Pratyahara is the stage of withdrawal of the attention into oneself. It is the state of re-sorption into the self of all the senses…
- Dharana — Dharana is the act of concentration of the mind. It can be said that it at this stage where ‘real yoga’ actually begins!
- Dhyana — Dhyana is meditation, an unbroken stream of consciousness whereby very little sense of the ‘Self’ remains…
- Samadhi — This is the stage of ‘mystic absorption’, where knowledge of the ‘essential Self’ is attained. It is the state otherwise referred to as jivana mukti.
Yamas and Niyamas
” Universal Morality and Personal Observances “
The first two limbs that Patanjali describes are the fundamental ethical precepts called yamas, and the niyamas. These can also be looked at as universal morality and personal observances. Yamas and niyamas are the suggestions given on how we should deal with people around us and our attitude toward ourselves. The attitude we have toward things and people outside ourselves is yama, how we relate to ourselves inwardly is niyama. Both are mostly concerned with how we use our energy in relationship to others and to ourselves. Ahimsa (non-injury), Satya (truth), Asteya (non-covetousness), Brahmacharya (continence) and Aparagriha (abstinence from avarice) come under Yama. These five austerities are universal and absolute. Under no condition should they be deviated from.
” Body postures “
Asana is the practice of physical postures. It is the most commonly known aspect of yoga for those unfamiliar with the other seven limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. The practice of moving the body into postures has widespread benefits; of these the most underlying are improved health, strength, balance and flexibility. On a deeper level the practice of asana, which means “staying” or “abiding” in Sanskrit, is used as a tool to calm the mind and move into the inner essence of being. The challenge of poses offers the practitioner the opportunity to explore and control all aspects of their emotions, concentration, intent, faith, and unity between the physical and the ethereal body. Indeed, using asanas to challenge and open the physical body acts as a binding agent to bring one in harmony with all the unseen elements of their being, the forces that shape our lives through our responses to the physical world. Asana then becomes a way of exploring our mental attitudes and strengthening our will as we learn to release and move into the state of grace that comes from creating balance between our material world and spiritual experience.
As one practices asana it fosters a quieting of the mind, thus it becomes both a preparation for meditation and a meditation sufficient in and of itself. Releasing to the flow and inner strength that one develops brings about a profound grounding spirituality in the body. The physicality of the yoga postures becomes a vehicle to expand the consciousness that pervades our every aspect of our body. The key to fostering this expansion of awareness and consciousness begins with the control of breath, the fourth limb – Pranayama. Patanjali suggests that the asana and the pranayama practices will bring about the desired state of health; the control of breath and bodily posture will harmonize the flow of energy in the organism, thus creating a fertile field for the evolution of the spirit. “This down-to-earth, flesh-and-bones practice is simply one of the most direct and expedient ways to meet yourself. … This limb of yoga practice reattaches us to our body. In reattaching ourselves to our bodies we reattach ourselves to the responsibility of living a life guided by the undeniable wisdom of our body.”viii To this B.K.S. Iyengar adds: “The needs of the body are the needs of the divine spirit which lives through the body. The yogi does not look heaven-ward to find God for he know that He is within.”
” Breath Control “
Pranayama is the measuring, control, and directing of the breath. Pranayama controls the energy (prana) within the organism, in order to restore and maintain health and to promote evolution. When the in-flowing breath is neutralized or joined with the out-flowing breath, then perfect relaxation and balance of body activities are realized. In yoga, we are concerned with balancing the flows of vital forces, then directing them inward to the chakra system and upward to the crown chakra.
Pranayama, or breathing technique, is very important in yoga. It goes hand in hand with the asana or pose. In the Yoga Sutra, the practices of pranayama and asana are considered to be the highest form of purification and self discipline for the mind and the body, respectively. The practices produce the actual physical sensation of heat, called tapas, or the inner fire of purification. It is taught that this heat is part of the process of purifying the nadis, or subtle nerve channels of the body. This allows a more healthful state to be experienced and allows the mind to become more calm.x As the yogi follows the proper rhythmic patterns of slow deep breathing “the patterns strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and reduce craving. As desires and cravings diminish, the mind is set free and becomes a fit vehicle for concentration.”
” Control of the Senses “
Pratyahara means drawing back or retreat. The word ahara means “nourishment”; pratyahara translates as “to withdraw oneself from that which nourishes the senses.” In yoga, the term pratyahara implies withdrawal of the senses from attachment to external objects. It can then be seen as the practice of non-attachment to sensorial distractions as we constantly return to the path of self realization and achievement of internal peace. It means our senses stop living off the things that stimulate; the senses no longer depend on these stimulants and are not fed by them any more.
In pratyahara we sever this link between mind and senses, and the senses withdraw. When the senses are no longer tied to external sources, the result is restraint or pratyahara. Now that the vital forces are flowing back to the Source within, one can concentrate without being distracted by externals or the temptation to cognize externals.
Pratyahara occurs almost automatically when we meditate because we are so absorbed in the object of meditation. Precisely because the mind is so focused, the senses follow it; it is not happening the other way around.
No longer functioning in their usual manner, the senses become extraordinarily sharp. Under normal circumstances the senses become our masters rather than being our servants. The senses entice us to develop cravings for all sorts of things. In pratyahara the opposite occurs: when we have to eat we eat, but not because we have a craving for food. In pratyahara we try to put the senses in their proper place, but not cut them out of our actions entirely.
Much of our emotional imbalance are our own creation. A person who is influenced by outside events and sensations can never achieve the inner peace and tranquility. This is because he or she will waste much mental and physical energy in trying to suppress unwanted sensations and to heighten other sensations. This will eventually result in a physical or mental imbalance, and will, in most instances, result in illness.
Patanjali says that the above process is at the root of human unhappiness and uneasiness. When people seek out yoga, hoping to find that inner peace which is so evasive, they find that it was theirs all along. In a sense, yoga is nothing more than a process which enables us to stop and look at the processes of our own minds; only in this way can we understand the nature of happiness and unhappiness, and thus transcend them both.
” Concentration and cultivating inner perceptual awareness “
Dharana means “immovable concentration of the mind”. The essential idea is to hold the concentration or focus of attention in one direction. “When the body has been tempered by asanas, when the mind has been refined by the fire of pranayama and when the senses have been brought under control by pratyahara, the sadhaka (seeker) reaches the sixth stage, dharana. Here he is concentrated wholly on a single point or on a task in which he is completely engrossed. The mind has to be stilled in order to achieve this state of complete absorption.”
In dharana we create the conditions for the mind to focus its attention in one direction instead of going out in many different directions. Deep contemplation and reflection can create the right conditions, and the focus on this one point that we have chosen becomes more intense. We encourage one particular activity of the mind and, the more intense it becomes, the more the other activities of the mind fall away.
The objective in dharana is to steady the mind by focusing its attention upon some stable entity. The particular object selected has nothing to do with the general purpose, which is to stop the mind from wandering -through memories, dreams, or reflective thought-by deliberately holding it single-mindedly upon some apparently static object. B.K.S. Iyengar states that the objective is to achieve the mental state where the mind, intellect, and ego are “all restrained and all these faculties are offered to the Lord for His use and in His service. Here there is no feeling of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.”
When the mind has become purified by yoga practices, it becomes able to focus efficiently on one subject or point of experience. Now we can unleash the great potential for inner healing.
” Devotion , Meditation on the Divine “
Dhyana means worship, or profound and abstract religious meditation. It is perfect contemplation. It involves concentration upon a point of focus with the intention of knowing the truth about it. The concept holds that when one focuses their mind in concentration on an object the mind is transformed into the shape of the object. Hence, when one focuses on the divine they become more reflective of it and they know their true nature. “His body, breath, senses, mind, reason and ego are all integrated in the object of his contemplation – the Universal Spirit.”xv
During dhyana, the consciousness is further unified by combining clear insights into distinctions between objects and between the subtle layers of perception. “We learn to differentiate between the mind of the perceiver, the means of perception, and the objects perceived, between words, their meanings, and ideas, and between all the levels of evolution of nature.”xvi
As we fine-tune our concentration and become more aware of the nature of reality we perceive that the world is unreal. “The only reality is the universal self, or God, which is veiled by Maya (the illusory power). As the veils are lifted, the mind becomes clearer. Unhappiness and fear – even the fear of death – vanishes. This state of freedom, or Moksha, is the goal of Yoga. It can be reached by constant enquiry into the nature of things.”xvii Meditation becomes our tool to see things clearly and perceive reality beyond the illusions that cloud our mind.
” Union with the Divine “
Thus, samadhi refers to union or true Yoga. There is an ending to the separation that is created by the “I” and “mine” of our illusory perceptions of reality. The mind does not distinguish between self and non-self, or between the object contemplated and the process of contemplation. The mind and the intellect have stopped and there is only the experience of consciousness, truth and unutterable joy.
The achievement of samadhi is a difficult task. For this reason the Yoga Sutra suggests the practice of asanas and pranayama as preparation for dharana, because these influence mental activities and create space in the crowded schedule of the mind. Once dharana has occurred, dhyana and samadhi can follow.
These eight steps of yoga indicate a logical pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, and psycho-spiritual health. Yoga does not seek to change the individual; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to become a reality.