Updated July 2021
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali are a condensed and systematic exposition of the essential philosophy and technique of Yoga in 196 sūtras (aphorisms). Because the text is inherently cryptic, it requires a great deal of unpacking and interpretation. It has therefore been recommended by my teacher Noah Williams not as a guide but as a resource for gaining familiarity with Yogic terms so that as certain experiences unfold, there is some context for what is occurring.
The Sūtras begin with a succinct definition of Yoga in no more than four terms — yogaś-citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ. The remaining one hundred ninety-four sutras are an explication of this declaration. Patañjali goes on to describe aṣṭāṅga (Eight Limbs) — yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi — and trimārga (Three Paths) — karma, jnana, and bhakti.
Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodhah
Yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind.1
yoga derived from yuj - To contemplate. Both a state and a mental process not of joining but of liberating the absolute from the worldly or puruṣa from prakṛti.
- yuj युज् - Concentration of the mind, in cessation of the modification of the thinking principle. (yujir samādhau not yujir yoge).2 3
- samādhau समाधौ - in the controlled mind.
- yoge योगे - work without fruitive result.
citta derived from cit - Consciousness, the mind. Later one of three aspects of patamārmā called sat-cit-ānanda 4
- sat सत् - Being, existing.
- cit चित् - Consciousness, absolute knowledge.
- ānanda आनन्द - Pleasure, bliss, ecstasy.
vṛtti derived from vṛt - Contextually means activities, functionings. (YS1.6-11)
- vṛt वृत् - To exist.
nirodhaḥ derived from niruddham: Restrained, controlled, inhibited. (YS3.9)
- ni नि - (a) Implying certainty, absoluteness, of an enhancing power. Frequently redundant. (b) Cessation, restraint.
- ruddha रुद्ध - Obstructed, stopped, blocked, suppressed.
The Eight Limbs
When people talk about the “eight limbs of yoga,” it is most likely the section of the Sūtras beginning at 2.29 to which they refer.
yama-niyamāsana-prāṇāyāma-pratyāhāra-dhāraṇā-dhyāna-samādhayo’ṣṭāv aṅgāni ॥29॥
- Yama (यम, yama) - abstentions
- Niyama (नियम, niyama) - observances
- Asana (आसन, āsana) - posture
- Pranayama (प्राणायाम, prāṇāyāma) - control of prana
- Pratyahara (प्रत्याहार, pratyāhāra) - abstraction
- Dharana (धारणा, dhāraṇā) - concentration
- Dhyana (ध्यान, dhyāna) - contemplation
- Samadhi (समाधि, samādhi) - absorption
- Ashta (अष्ट, aṣṭa) - eight
- Angani (अङ्ग, aṅgāni) - limbs, branches
Each constituent is elaborated upon in the following sutras but this one line reveals the systematic steps of the Yoga system that can take lifetimes to understand let alone perfect. There is a sequential relationship to the limbs and even if it doesn’t seem apparent at the outset, to become established in any step requires some level of mastery in those that precede it.
The first five limbs are considered bahiraṅga (external) and the last three are antaraṅga (internal). If we look pragmatically at the five external limbs of Patañjali’s system, we can see how the focus introverts. Yama and niyama address moral processes. Āsana and prāṇāyāma address the processes of the gross and subtle body. Pratyāhāra addresses sensory processes. The three internal limbs address purely mental phenomena which together are successive stages of a singular process called saṃyama.
Yama - abstention
- Ahimsa - nonviolence
- Satya - truthfulness
- Asteya - abstention from stealing
- Brahmacharya - continence
- Aparigraha - nonacquisitiveness
Niyama - observance
- Saucha - purity
- Santosha - contentment
- Tapaha - austerity
- Svadhyaya - self-study
- Ishvara pranidhana - devotion
Asana - posture
Even though it appears to be modern society’s primary infatuation with Yoga, Patañjali mentions āsana just once and devotes only three sutras to the topic of āsana in the entirety of the Yoga Sūtras. Regardless, several systems of āsana have been developed throughout history that view the body in different ways.
In an overly simplistic analysis, Hatha-Yoga identifies the physical body as a tool while Raja-Yoga identifies it as an obstacle.
“Hatha-Yoga is based upon the principle that changes in consciousness can be brought about by setting in motion currents of certain kinds of subtler forces…in the physical body. The first step in contacting the deeper levels of consciousness is…to make the physical body perfectly healthy and fit for the influx and manipulation of these forces.”5
“In Raja-Yoga…the method adopted for bringing about changes in consciousness is based essentially on the control of the mind by the Will and the gradual suppression of the Citta-Vṛttis…So the Yogi must eliminate completely the disturbances which arise from the physical body before he tries to tackle the problem of the mind itself.”6
And the Tibetan Yogi Milarepa explains, “I have understood that this material body, made of flesh and blood along with mental consciousness, is gathered together by the twelve chains of cause and effect—one of which is volition—originating from ignorance. This body is the blessed vessel for those fortunate beings who wish for freedom, but it also leads sinners into the lower realms. I understand that in this body lies the vital choice between enormous profit and loss, relating to eternal happiness or misery on the border between good and evil…”7
B.K.S. Iyengar comments that perfection of āsana brings about the divine union of puruṣa and prakṛti through the unifying of the various sheaths of body and self.8
Pranayama - prana control
Prāṇāyāma is often seen translated as “breath control.” This is fine as an elementary explanation but lacks the depth of its intent. The breath is merely our most visceral experience of prāṇa in the body and therefore the most effective mechanism for accessing it.
Prāṇa is a word that has no definitive equivalent in English. It can be conceptualized as “the infinite and omnipresent manifesting power or energy in the universe.” In a dualistic framework, it is the counterpart to ākāśa—the infinite, omnipresent material of the universe.
Āsana is prāṇāyāma when done correctly. If you cheat in āsana, then prāṇāyāma will cause lots of anxiety. — Noah Williams
On February 10, 2020, I spoke with my teacher Noah Williams about the best time to do prāṇāyāma. Noah said that Guruji taught to wait 20 minutes after āsana—no sooner—and that prāṇāyāma is only to be practiced during Brahma Muhūrta—approximately one and a half hours before sunrise when the air is coolest and most oxygenated since the trees and plants “exhale” at this time. Noah added that prāṇāyāma before āsana is also an option. When I asked if he teaches prāṇāyāma, Noah responded that he makes people practice 20 years of āsana before teaching prāṇāyāma. After 30 years it can become a focus and after 40 years it can take priority over āsana. For the first 40 years, āsana should be priority. He said, “Āsana is prāṇāyāma when done correctly. If you cheat in āsana, then prāṇāyāma will cause lots of anxiety.”
Pratyahara - abstraction
Pratyāhāra means something along the lines of “the withdrawal of the senses.” Because the senses follow where the mind leads, logically, when the mind is directed externally, internal phenomena is inaccessible; when the mind is directed internally, external phenomena is inaccessible. Whereas substances, physiological trauma, as well as hysteric and suggestible temperaments can manifest a sort of involuntary pratyāhāra like state in individuals, the Yoga system advocates for a completely self-regulated state of pratyāhāra.
Development of pratyāhāra makes perception subject to the individual’s will rather than the individual being subject to involuntarily mutations of the senses. For a mind not established in pratyāhāra, the smallest distraction will attract the senses.
It should also be noted that Yoga is not a proponent of aversion to sense objects. In a state of pratyāhāra, sense objects are no longer perceived consciously resulting in the dissolution of effort required to subjugate their influence.
Dharana - concentration
Holding the mind on a single point.
Dhyana - contemplation
A state of meditation.
Samadhi - absorption
A merging with the object of meditation.
The Three Paths
“On hearing that excellent story that heightened devotion, knowledge and detachment and yielded liberation, she became greatly blessed.” — Śivapurāṇa-māhātmya 4.32
Patañjali posits three mārgas—literally meaning “paths.”
- karma-mārga - path of action (YS 2.30-45)
- jñana-mārga - path of knowledge (YS 2.46-55)
- bhakti-mārga - path of devotion (YS 3.1-4)
- Patañjali , Hariharānanda Āraṇya, Swami , Mukerji, P. N. , & Vyāsa . (1983). Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali: Containing His Yoga Aphorisms with Vyāsas Commentary in Sanskrit and a Translation with Annotations Including Many Suggestions for the Practice of Yoga. State University of New York Press. pp. 6.↩
- Maehle, Gregor. (2007). Ashtanga Yoga: Practice & Philosophy. New World Library. pp. 141.↩
- yuj. In sanskritdictionary.com. Retrieved March 21, 2020, from sanskritdictionary.com↩
- Missing citation↩
- Taimni, I. K. The Science of Yoga. The Theosophical Publishing House, 2007, pp. 252.↩
- Taimni. The Science. pp. 253.↩
- Heruka, Tsangnyön. (1992) The Life of Milarepa. Penguin Books. pp xix.↩
- Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. North Point Press, 2009, pp. x.↩