Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras”

Rajasthani temple in Uttar Kashi, India
Rajasthani temple in Uttar Kashi, India

“If all the vast traditions of India’s philosophies and literatures were to vanish

 and the Yoga-sutras of Patanjali alone were to be saved,

each of those philosophies and literatures could in time be created again.”

˜Pandit Usharbudh Arya

In the Saturday class, we have begun a study of a text called the “Yoga Sutras”. Here is a little background on this text and its context, and some recommended commentaries if you’d like to follow along. I hope you come to like reading them as much as I do!

The yoga sutras are not authored by Patanjali Maharishi; he was putting into print what was at the time being passed down from guru to disciple in an oral tradition. The sutras date from about the 3rd century BC (roughly 400 BC); about the same time as the Buddha lived (500 BC). So we can say that they are roughly 2,500 years old. There is certainly a sharing of many of the ideas presented in the yoga sutras with those of Buddhism. A student of Buddhism had once asked me, “Where are the ethics in yoga?” Here they are, in the system described within the yoga sutras.

The word “sutra” means thread. In this context a sutra is a short, dense expression in Sanskrit which conveys the teachings in a compact manner. The yoga sutras describe a system to develop the mind, cultivate psycho-physical evolution, and inner freedom – called “yoga”. Traditionally the student would memorize the sutras, and over time would come to understand them properly through contact with and the elucidation of the teacher. Today we can find many different commentaries on the yoga sutras by various teachers; some more spiritual, some more academic, some aiming to place the teachings in a more modern context. Translations of the sutras themselves vary greatly from one text to another. Choosing which to read is really a matter of connection or affiliation, or simply choosing a commentary that resonates with you.

It is said that in order for the purification of the soul to occur, there has to be what the Greeks call “metanoia”, a total and radical change of mind. That means, everything we think we know has to be turned on its head, a difficult task perhaps. We need practices in order to help us do this. So we can also say that the yoga sutras describe the system of practices that help us to change the mind. All of the modern practices of yoga trace themselves back to the yoga sutras, though it should be noted that there is very little written about asana in the yoga sutras. The system presented is referred to as “Raja Yoga” or “Ashtanga Yoga”, which is one of the four main paths of yoga. Asht-anga means “8 limbs” which are:

1.       Yama (restraints, social code)

2.       Niyama (observances, private code)

3.       Asana (steady, comfortable seat)

4.       Pranayama (control or restraint of prana)

5.       Pratyahara ( withdrawal of senses)

6.       Dharana (concentration)

7.       Dhyana (meditation)

8.       Samadhi (superconscious state)


The yoga sutras are not particularly intellectual, however more practice –oriented. There are 196 sutras. They are divided into four chapters:

1.       Samadhi Pada – general theory of yoga and the mind and how to reach Samadhi

2.       Sadhana Pada – eight limbs and how to practice

3.       Vibhuti Pada – cultivation of psychic powers (and pitfalls of such)

4.       Kaivalya Pada – path to liberation


To give you an example of how the same sutra can be variously translated.

Atha yogānuśāsanam

Has been variously translated as:

Now, therefore, complete instructions regarding yoga.

(“now”, suggesting that there were previous instructions)

Thus proceeds Yoga as I have observed it in the natural world.

In the present moment is the teaching of yoga.

(“now” meaning, literally “NOW”…yoga only existing in the present moment)

I will now review for you how we become whole.


So you can see what I mean. Here are my favourite commentaries:

  • Swami Venkatesananda (Divine Life Society), “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” (brilliant, but hard to find)
  • Swami Satyananda Saraswati (Bihar School), “Four Chapters on Freedom” (solid understanding)
  • Geshe Michael Roach & Christie McNally, “The Essential Yoga Sutra: Ancient Wisdom for Your Yoga” (from a Tibetan Buddhist approach)
  • Swami Vishnu-devananda (Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centres), “Meditation and Mantras” (good, shorter commentary included in book about meditation)
  • Dr. Rammurti S. Mishra, “The Textbook of Yoga Psychology”

I also like what Michael Stone has to say about the yoga sutras in his book (though it is not a commentary), “The Inner Tradition of Yoga”.

Enjoy! I look forward to seeing you on Saturdays!




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