The Yoga Sutra is a practical textbook to guide your spiritual journey with the purpose of reminding you of who you really are.
The true meaning of Yoga is the union of body, mind, soul and spirit. According to Yoga, one suffers from not knowing the true Self and from the illusion of separation of the individual consciousness from the Universal Consciousness or Brahman.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is based on a collection of 196 short verses that serve as a guide to achieve wisdom and self-realization through yoga. Many consider this text to be the basis of yoga philosophy.
The 196 sutras (which are translated as ‘threads’ or ‘discourses’) are separated into four padas (chapters): Samadhi, Sadhana, Vibhuti and Kaivalya.
The text itself is open to interpretation by the practitioner, but in essence, the Yoga Sutras are intended to provide profound and practical wisdom to help yogis explore the central meaning of yoga.
History of the Yoga Sutra
The Yoga Sutras were composed by a man named Patanjali. However, not much is known about him, except that he was presumably an Indian and lived somewhere between the 2nd and 4th centuries BC.
Patanjali is also credited with writing the Mahabhasya, a treatise on Sanskrit grammar that comments on Charaka Samhita, the basic text of Ayurveda. Whether they are the same people or different remains a scholarly argument.
In those days, most teachings were given orally and students learned through sutras. The word Sutra comes from the same root as the medical term suture, which means to connect or to hold together.
When the teacher exposes a piece of knowledge, the student is given a short phrase that will later remind him of the greater amount of material. This was something equivalent to today’s reference cards. The challenge now is that, even if you know the sutras, you can never be sure of the ultimate meaning.
Another story says that Patanjali wrote the sutras on palm leaves, but a goat ate half of them before taking the rest to the Himalayas. Perhaps this is the origin of modern ‘goat yoga’.
The Sankhya, which is one of the ancient systems of Indian philosophy, is also noteworthy. It is a theoretical understanding that holds that knowledge is the path to enlightenment.
Patanjali’s great gift to the world was that he took this profound yet purely intellectual philosophy and presented it in a form that the average spiritual seeker could follow and use. In short, a roadmap for your journey of enlightenment.
Chapters of the Yoga Sutra
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra consists of the chapters explained below:
– Samadhi Padas: The first chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra discusses the meaning of yoga. The message of the 51 sutras in this section speaks to those who have already adopted yoga in their daily lives, and focuses on themes of enlightenment, concentration and meditation.
– Sadhana Padas: Moving forward in the book, but perhaps backward in philosophy, chapter two of the Yoga Sutras explains how to achieve a yogic state. The 55 sutras in this section discuss the practice of yoga and introduce the eight limbs of yoga, which are
– Yama: five ethical principles.
– Niyama: Five principles of conduct and discipline.
– Asana: Physical practice of yoga.
– Pranayama: Regulation of breathing
– Pratyahara: Sensory abstinence
– Dharana: Concentration
– Dhyana: Meditation
– Samadhi: Self-realisation
The chapter also delves deeply into the first six of the eight limbs of yoga, making it possibly the most important chapter for ‘newcomers’ and those seeking the yogic tradition in their daily lives.
– Vibhuti Padas: The 56 sutras included in chapter three focus on the benefits of practicing yoga regularly. Here, Patanjali explores the power and manifestation that result from yoga, and delves more deeply into the two endpoints: Dhyana and Sadhi.
– Kaivalya Padas: The final chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras contains 34 sutras that focus on liberation and freedom from suffering. Here, the text explores the ultimate goals of yoga and provides a reflective insight into the unconditional and absolute liberation that yoga offers.
Interpretation of the Yoga Sutra
The Yoga Sutras are aphorisms about a philosophy that was called Yoga at that time. It is important to note that the word ‘Yoga’ has been used for multiple purposes in different historical contexts and settings and has a variety of meanings in Sanskrit. The most common contemporary definition, union, is only one possibility.
Patanjali’s Yoga is more accurately translated as concentration or discipline. As a philosophy, yoga examines the relationship of the human spirit to the material world and how the spirit might be freed from suffering through discipline and introspection. It has very little to say about postural practice.
The sutras are dense and abstruse, both in their language and content, so they are often accompanied by an explanatory commentary.
This was true even in antiquity. The first commentary, credited to Vyasa (meaning editor), was possibly written by a close contemporary of Patanjali, suggesting that his verses were not much clearer to readers in his own time than they are now.
Vyasa’s interpretation introduces some vocabularies and themes that are not present in the original work, in particular, several belonging to a philosophical system of the time, Samhya. This commentary has had a strong and lasting effect on the interpretation of the Yoga Sutras to this day.
The Yoga Sutra Today
Various types of yoga today have applied the Yoga Sutras to their development. The marriage of Patanjali’s philosophical work with the asana is considered to go back to T. Krishnamacharya, who has been called the father of modern yoga.
Krishnamacharya’s legacy has been profound, as he was a teacher to three of the most prominent disseminators of contemporary yoga: the founder of Ashtanga Yoga Patthabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar and Krishnamacharya’s own son, T.K.V. Desikachar, who founded Viniyoga.
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