The Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras
Constance Pike, LICSW, RYT 500 

As in Buddhism, the true path of yoga is liberation from the ego and from suffering. “Yoga becomes a complete spiritual path when we join the familiar postures of Hatha Yoga with the meditative practices of Raja Yoga,” says Chip Hartranft, one translator of the Yoga Sutras. “Raja” means “the kingly path” and raja yoga is one of the original schools of yoga. Raja Yoga follows the Eight Limbs of yoga as described by Pantanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The major obstacle to this practice is the ego.  Hatha Yoga arose from of Raja Yoga, and the asanas, or postures, are expressions of rigorous discipline as outlined in the first four limbs of Pantangali’s practice philosophy.
Sutra means “thread” in Sanskrit. The sutra is the thread which strings together complex aspects of a philosophy. Pantanjali wrote the Sutras around 250 C.E. Though other yogic texts had been written before this time, most notably, the Bhagavad Gita (around 450 BCE) and the Pali Cannon (around 100-200 BCE), no text had so completely and succinctly described the goals of yoga and a prescribed series of practices to alleviate suffering and attain enlightenment.

Pantanjali begins the Yoga Sutras by defining yoga:  “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.  Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.  Otherwise awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness.”  (Chip Hartranft, Shambala Sun, July 2008).  Our thinking tends to be the result of habitual and conditioned patterns that leave us closed rather than open to awareness. Stilling the mind creates a space in which unconditioned awareness may be revealed to us.  Like the Buddhists, yogis felt that it is our conditioned patterns of belief that cause suffering in our lives.

It is through the Eight Limbs of yoga, that we have access to a quiet mind and body, open and receptive, fully alive and aware. The reader may notice that the Eight Limbs bear similarity to the Noble Eightfold Path in Buddhism. The two systems share a common history and culture and both claim that suffering is caused by attachment.  Students of these systems work to free themselves from grasping for, or clinging to external attachments in order to end suffering.

The First Limb of the Eight Limbs is called the Yamas, also known as wise characteristics or restraints.  These characteristics include ahisma, non-violence or non-harming; satya, right speech or truthfulness; asteya, not stealing, or appreciating without having. brahmacharya is the quality of using the senses wisely. The last of the yamas is aparigrapha, which means non-grasping, being non-covetous.  When we covet, we live with the delusion that “if I had this, all would be well,” without the realization that all life changes at every moment, and that our happiness comes from within, not from without. 

The second of the Eight Limbs is called the Niyamas, codes or observances for living soulfully. They include shaucham, purity or cleanliness of mind, body and environment; santosha, contentment with what is; tapas, burning desire for spiritual practice; svadyaya, self- study and study of the spiritual scriptures; and, lastly, ishvara pranidhama, surrendering the fruit of one’s actions unto God, or giving credit to the Divine.

The third of the Eight Limbs is asana, or posture.  Pantanjali mentions asana only twice in the Sutras, and he was speaking primarily about seated meditation.  The fourth limb is pranayama, the practice of conserving and moving prana, the life force, through breathing exercises. Pratyahara, the fifth limb, is withdrawal of the senses. In other words, one attends to the inner experience instead of to the outer, material world. The sixth limb, dharana, is a cultivating of focus without distraction.  The seventh limb, dhyana, is a natural outcome of dharana. By learning to focus without distraction, whether in seated or moving meditation, we are more able to tap into awareness. The eighth and final limb is Samadhi. Samadhi naturally follows dhyana and dharana. As we sit or move in stillness and focus without distraction, we achieve a place of divine awareness in which union with all things is experienced.

Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras focuses on the qualities of the fluctuating mind and how we are prevented from seeing what really is unless we learn to still the mind. When we live in delusion, we suffer. Pantanjali shares techniques by which we can see reality directly, and reduce our suffering. This is not a religious text. Anyone can practice yoga, and the eight Limbs whether s/he believes in god/s or not. 

In the words of BKS Iyengar, in the preface to his translation of the Yoga Sutras: “The knowledge that is acquired through the senses, mind and intellect is insignificant beside that emanating from the vision of the seer. This is the real intuitive knowledge. When the clouds disappear, the sky clears and the sun shines brilliantly.  When the sun shines, does one need artificial light to see? When the light of the soul blazes, the light of consciousness is needed no longer.”