How to read the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali
June 1st, 2021
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are practical guidelines to help your spiritual journey of remembering who you are.
Yoga means union. Union of the individual soul with the whole humanity, with nature, and back with oneself. According to the classical Yoga philosophy, humanity suffers because of the illusion of separation between the individual consciousness from Universal Consciousness, Brahman in Vedic Sanskrit. Reading and meditating upon the Yoga Sutras will guide you to embrace that union again.
It is said that the Sutras were written by a man named Patanjali. When they were composed is not certain, the author lived somewhere between the second and fourth century BC and was presumably Indian. Patanjali is a figure shrouded in mystery about whom many stories are told, one of those narrates that he fell from heaven in the form of a snake to bring Yoga to humanity.
The most likely version, however, is that he was a scientist who studied the human being and provided us with 196 aphorisms to learn more about ourselves and others.
In ancient times, most teachings were done orally and students learned by way of sutras. The word sutra comes from the same root as the medical term suture, meaning to connect or hold together. When the teacher expressed a concept, the students were given a short phrase that would later help them to grasp the greater point of that concept again.
The problem is that you can never be certain of the greater meaning behind the Sutras because Patanjali did not explain them. However, the aphorisms have been translated and commented on by many great Yoga teachers over the years. Each commentator emphasized their personal path towards Self-realization, be it karma (action), jñāna (wisdom), or bhakti (devotion) and weaved his thoughts based on his personal experience.
The version I read was commented by B.K.S. Iyengar
The book is divided into 4 chapters or pāda (part), dealing with the art, science, and philosophy of life. Each of them holds a different key to guide the sādhaja towards the complete liberation of the self.
- Samādhi pāda: The first book is about enlightenment;
- Sāhana pāda: The second book contains instructions for the practice of Yoga;
- Vibhuti pāda: The third book is about the progression of the practice;
- Kaivalya pāda: The fourth book is about total liberation.
A call to action
The Yoga Sutras is one of the fundamental books of Yoga. Each Sutra is infused with wisdom and precision, and the book is the basis for a life of practicing love and compassion. But it is not just philosophy, it is a real call to action.
Yoga is not Yoga without action, there is no union without movement. To experience Yoga, the practitioner has to practice, on and off the mat. Yoga is much more than a philosophy, it is a science of experimentation, a continuous and passionate practice that drives the yogi to know himself in every corner.
The Sutras are meant to help you progress and reinforce your yoga practice.
Classical texts, yoga but also religious texts, should not be read with our modern analytical eyes, like a mare listicle, nor should be read right before going to bed, like a novel. These books of wisdom should be studied through the guidance of our teacher. They can answer our questions to help us understand the deeper meaning of each Sutra, so that we can translate words into actions.
However, modern yogis have the opportunity to read the commentary of amazing teachers of the past, as I did.
Here are key suggestions on how to read the Sutras:
- Create a space consecrated to learning. If you are a religious person, treat it as you would read your sacred book.
- Find a companion to endeavor this journey, someone you can have an open discussion with.
- Do your Yoga practice before reading, this will help you to absorb and retain the teachings.
- From theory to practice. When you hold your discussion always focus on how to translate the thoughts into action.
Enjoy your studies!