The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali are a collection of 196 Sanskrit aphorisms that are organized into four padas, or volumes. A pada is a unit of Sanskrit meter used to organize and measure a volume of text. Traditionally, these teachings were handed down orally, and it’s possible the meter length, tone, and depth of the language helped with communicating and memorizing the instructions. The closest thing we have to Sanskrit meter in the west is poetic meter or traditional hymnal meter, which follows a similar pattern. Together, these padas provide a framework for developing a relationship with the Self through Raja Yoga.
Raja Yoga, or Royal Yoga, is a system of yoga intended to help with controlling the thought-waves of the mind through subtle and physical practices, primarily meditation. It is one of the six schools of yoga one studies as a Tantra Yoga practitioner and allows one to become adept at understanding one’s own mind. If it seems an overwhelming topic get started with a quick introduction to Tantra Yoga and go from there. Continuing on Raja Yoga, Raja yoga combines multiple elements of yoga philosophy from much older traditions (Young & Cruz, 2022) and is most famous for its reference to Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbed path.
Ashtanga Yoga, as we know it in the west, is typically understood as a physical practice. Originally sequenced by K. Pattabhi Jois, Ashtanga Yoga Asana is composed of a set six series of sequences intended to replicate the journey to the center of the Self through the physical body. Most practitioners spend their entire lives working with a single series, before progressing to the next. While this is true, it is also a misunderstanding. Ashtanga Yoga, according to The Sutras, is first and foremost, the means to achieving yoga, or union, and can be divided into eight limbs, or facets, each one informing the other. Ashta translates to “eight” and “anga” to part or piece (Lanman, 1984). As far as we know, the yoga sutras are the first written documentation of said path and are the inspiration for many 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training programs in the west and around the world.
The Yoga Sutras were compiled in the early centuries CE, some 2500 years ago, by the ancient sage Patanjali. It is unclear if Patanjali was one or many teachers, however we do know they were in India at that time and that they organized The Sutras from multiple, much older traditions. When you begin to study The Sutras, you begin to realize that compassion, kindness, non-attachment, self study, concentration, and a present state of awareness are truly at the forefront of achieving Self realization. Ultimately, by creating less tension in the body and learned stillness of the mind (citta), we enter into a meditative state of being, that leads us to samadhi, or absorption with the Self and all things. While this sounds like a daunting task, by simply getting started with The Sutras we have entered into a conscious state of Yoga. Patanjali tells us upfront and immediately with the first sutra in the first pada, Samadhi Pada.
The Sutras begin with Samadhi Pada which essentially explains why Yoga is important for the human experience. The first sutra, 1.1 ATHA YOGA ANUSHASANAM, can be translated to mean “And now, the sacred study of Yoga…” Nischala Joy Devi in her book The Secret Power of Yoga, adds a delicate and crucial note that, until published, was possibly only realized upon beginning a practice. As we begin the sacred study of Yoga, it’s imperative that we do so “With humility and an open heart…” as it prepares us for what the sutras will ask of us as we endeavor to accept the teachings as an integrative way of life. Without skipping a beat we receive the second sutra 1.2 YOGASCHITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH “Yoga quiets the mind through cessation of thoughts”. Here, it’s possible Patanjali knew that the first sutra would inspire the question “What is Yoga?” So they tell us. The rest of the first pada goes on to describe the nature of human reality, inner workings of the mind, and how Yoga will help us realize our true nature.
The second pada, Sadhana Pada, provides a general framework for purifying the physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual bodies through Ashtanga Yoga, Kriya yoga (daily purification), and Karma Yoga (the yoga of action). It is here we are also given the gift of Yama and Niyama, the foundations on which all Yogas should be built. The first five limbs are to be practiced while the final three are to be experienced. The eight limbs of Yoga in their entirety are Yama (golden rules of conduct), Niyama (self observances), Asana (a physical practice that results in comfort with being- asana literally translates to ‘comfortable seat’), Pranayama (awareness or control of the breath), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (union with the Divine in all things). It’s important when choosing a yoga school to study with, that you become aware of their lineage and how they implement the eight limbs into their teaching.
The third pada is Vibhuti Pada, which discusses the siddhis or psychic abilities that can be developed or refined through certain meditative practices. Patanjali is sure to warn here that while psychic abilities are intriguing, they are certainly not the aim of endeavoring to absorb Ashtanga Yoga into one’s life. The fourth pada, Kaivalya Pada, discusses liberation and the reality of the seer, or student.
The Yoga Sutras are meant to be implemented, studied, and meditated on one at a time. It does no good to read them as if they were a book in succession. Rather, we recommend reading them one or few at a time over and over with the intention of reflecting on what they mean to you as a person. When selecting a translation, it’s important to start with the one that has been made available with and without commentary so you can decide for yourself, without projection, what the sutras mean to you before reading someone else’s thoughts. There are many translations available and we love The Secret Power of Yoga by Nischala Joy Devi for its modern, relatable, authentic translation that is available with and without commentary.