This is a list of the most important Yoga Sutras in our opinion. It is a good place to start if you are a beginner to yoga philosophy. The Yoga Sutras is thought to be part of a larger work The Yogasastras. They include the commentary (bhasya) on The Sutras by Vyasa. (Whom most scholars now think to be Patanjali himself).
The meaning of sutras are quite cryptic. Patanjali’s meaning is also quite definitively spelled out in Vyasas’. (as well as a couple of other well respected commentaries). We are free to read The Yoga Sutras as we like. No one can control the way we relate to a text. However, there is a conventional meaning for this text. What the author intended to say is also important.
In the list below I make a distinction between the ‘classical’ meaning and my own interpretation. It’s helpful to understand the original context. However, this a starting point for our own relationship with the text. The importance of the Yoga Sutras is not in the answers. It is the fruitful questions that arise within ourselves that Patanjali’s genius and lasting values lies.
One: 1.2 yogah citta vritti nirodhah
‘Yoga is the ceasing of the fluctuations of the mind.’
This is the obvious place to start. Although there are many that would like to frame Patanjali’s words in a friendlier manner, this means the stopping of all thought. With it then, the ‘individual’ as we know ourselves. This rests on the traditional assumption that there are 3 parts to the mind; two thinking and one as pure awareness.
Consciousness still persists. But, not the individual. There is no getting around this as our personality is defined by thinking. So, whilst I don’t deny that it is possible to stop this mechanism, I think it throws down the gauntlet right from the start as to whether we’d really want to follow Patanjali’s method up to this point. For, there are degrees of mind pacification here that we can still benefit from.
Two: 1.12 abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan-nirodhah
‘The way to still the fluctuating mind is through practice and dispassion.’
How can we make a concerted effort towards life whilst at the same time being free from attachment to the results? This is truly the million-dollar question in daily life and one towards which the other seminal text The Bhagavad Gita devotes itself to tackling.
The answer presented there is dharma, the performing of action in life as ‘service’ to others, and, ultimately, in The Bhagavad Gita to god. However, The Yoga Sutras takes a different point of view. The object here is self-understanding as opposed to a relationship with god.
Practice then is solely about concentration. But, a certain kind of ‘object-less’ concentration that doesn’t simply further crystallise the thinking individual in their practice. Or, the attempt is not in wanting something, rather to understand the nature of the ‘wanter’
Three: 1.14 sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra-ādara-āsevito dr̥ḍhabhūmiḥ
‘That practice is indeed firmly grounded that is pursued consistently, over a long period and with the right attitude’
Consistency is really the key to the whole methodology known as yoga. For, to be consistent in a constantly changing world is to experience the world from a different perspective. One that is potentially free from the confusion of what is constantly changing.
Instead, what we are seeking is some objective view of our own existence by establishing a steady-point from which to look back upon it. Something which inevitably also takes time to cultivate. Moreover, a ‘right attitude’, which is more generally translated to be one situated in ‘devotion’. Not, again for the sake of god, but the giving away of our habitual ‘knowing’.
Finally, it is interesting that the intended quality of practice hoped for is to be ‘firmly grounded’. (actually, the text specifically says ‘rooted in the earth’) That is, we become grounded in our actual and honest experience, rather than in some metaverse or imaginary universe we can easily imagine.
Four: 1.20 sraddha virya smriti samadhi prajna purvakah itaresam
‘For most, higher knowledge is arrived at through faith, effort and reflection’.
That’s to say if you don’t naturally fall into the state as Patanjali suggests one can, a practice framed within the pursuit of these qualities is most likely to be effective.
Firstly, one must have some belief in what one is doing when the results aren’t yet self-verifying. Which is to say faith in another’s ideas as worth consistently pursuing. Motivation is everything, and without faith, the second quality of effort is going to be affected.
Finally, this effort can’t be indiscriminate; rather, it must be focused, thoughtful effort. In other words, coupled with what is actually directly translated as ‘memory’. For, it can only be through reflecting on past experiences that we can clearly come to see the mistaken ideas we have about the nature of our being.
Five: 1.33 maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha suhkka punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah citta prasadanam
‘By cultivating the attitude of friendliness towards happiness, compass towards suffering, delight towards virtue and equanimity towards vice, the mind remains undisturbed’.
This sutra needs a mention due to notably (and well acknowledged) Buddhist quality. Indeed, it is rare that we receive instruction in the Yoga Sutras (or, in Samkhya philosophy most generally), on how to work with emotional states.
Instead, it’s much more common to be simply told to detach from emotions altogether. However, here we find the unusual advise to actively engage with our emotions. On the other hand, what needs to be pointed out is that we are not asked to do this for the sake of ‘compassion’ as is the case for Buddhism. Instead, the only intention of Samkhya, and, indeed, Patanjali, is self-realisation.
To which end, it’s the quality of ‘upeksanam’, equanimity of our own minds that’s the only thing that counts. In other words, it’s not about how our emotional states effect others here, it’s solely about their implications for us.
Six: 1.43 smriti parisuddhau svarupa sunya iva artha matra nirbhasa nivitatka
‘The storehouse of memory completely purified, one’s own true-self shines forth beyond thought’
This is important as a sutra as it’s one of the few times that the principe of karma is directly discussed. Again, similarly to the previous sutra, good or bad karma is almost irrelevant in a way. Instead, the aim is to no longer have any mental-residue due to the imprints left by past action.
Indeed, these imprints having been atoned for, thus, erased, and no new imprints laid-down (due to a lack of attachment to current actions), all that we are left with is us. That is, a kind of us that has no form defined by a ‘personality’ born out of thoughts about past experiences.
Once again, we happen upon this idea here, that being can still happen outside the realm of thinking. Indeed, that thinking actually only obstructs the true experience of our being.
Seven: 2.1 tapah svadhyaya isvara-pranidhanani kriya yoga
‘Discipline, self-reflection and devotion are the qualities involved in the method of yoga’.
‘Kriya’ stands for technique. In other words, an active, that is, personally- referencing yoga. Instead of, for example, opposed to, the devotional yoga of bhakti.
Especially with its primary mention of tapas, and the first term on the list is always the most important in Sanskrit. Patanjali’s kriya is pretty much a synonym for the term hatha (forceful) yoga, which he never mentions.
Tapas actually means to heat. It’s a metaphor then for more or less any action that is undertaken consistently, come rain or shine. And, indeed, the earliest yogis were simply ascetics who adopted various penances for the sake of self-mastery.
The term ‘svadyaya’ is fairly straightforward as ‘self-study’. On the other hand, the final term ‘isvara pranidhanan’ is not. Patanjali’s (and, again, the philosophy of Sankhya), is said to be atheistic and here is Patanjali advising devotion to god.
The key confusion here is that Samkhya does not deny god. Rather, does not see the ultimate principle as something to workshop. Instead, something to use, to devote to, in order to escape our own habitual sense of ourselves and achieve self-realisation.
Eight: 2.3 avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah klesah
‘Mistaken thinking, ego, desire, aversion and clinging to one’s own life are the obstacles’.
The term ‘avidya’ is usually taken as ‘ignorance’, though it’s more directly translated as ‘a-vidya’, (not) perceiving. Hence, there is no pejorative context to the term, it’s just that, simply by being born, we enter life inherently confused about our own state of existence.
Where this comes from and how it happens is another debate. However, mistaken perception always lies in having a wrong idea about ourselves (ego). Or, put another way; to see ourselves as separate, unique and distinct beings from the general life-force itself.
It is from this fundamental mistake that all our other problems arise. Namely, once we have mistook ourselves for this separate being, this idea is nurtured by the establishment of reference points around it to preserve its uniqueness. This is where our likes and dislikes (desire and aversion) come in.
Finally, a word needs to be said about the idea that ‘clinging to life’ is an obstacle to self-knowledge. Indeed, this seems impossible not to engage in for a being that wants to preserve its existing. On the other hand, we might reflect that – If there’s no separate Individual and only existence, potentially at least, we might not need to cling to our perceived individual one.
Nine: 2.17 drastri drishyayoh sanyogah heheh-hetuh
‘The close association of the ‘seer’ with the ‘seen’ is what needs to be overcome’.
There are many sutras that emphasise this kind of ‘duality’. Indeed, because this is the very crux of Samkhya; that the world is essentially split or divided into two. That is, into subject and object, material and spiritual, true and false. This is then our fundamental problem; that we mistake the real for the unreal. Or, to say it another way, the material world as a valid representation of what we *are*.
On the other hand, being pure consciousness only, we are nothing to do with what we see. The aim of the ‘jnana’ (That of using our reasoning faculties) yoga of Samkhya then, is to discriminate between what is us (purusha) consciousness, and, what is not us, which is the world of matter (prakriti).
Ten: 2.29 Yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara dharana dhyana samadhayo astavangani
‘The eight-limbs of yoga are the social precepts, personal precepts, yoga postures, breathing exercises, sense-restraint, concentration, meditation and realisation-state’.
Here we find Patanjalis’ famous ‘Ashtanga Yoga’; the eight-point method for transcending our mundane consciousness to abide in a higher-state of reality. Immediately of note then, Patanjali’s system is highly dualistic. Indeed, we find here a kind of ladder whereby we can ascend from the lower to the higher.
That is to say, there is no mention of finding meditation in asana or relating asana to pranayama. Instead, the method appears separate and clearly hierarchical in its progression. It is also worth noting that this framework presents a kind of second methodology to Patanjali’s other one (‘kriya yoga’); a fusion of raja (meditation) and hatha (some physical techniques.
Also, that the Yamas and Niyamas, in comparison to their relatively small mention in the Yoga Sutras, seem to now constitute the greater part of the modern focus with this text. This balance needs to be re-addressed I feel, for a greater interest in the metaphysical implications of what Patanjali proposed.
Bonus: 2.46 sthira sukham asanam
‘Yoga posture is a steady and comfortable position’.
Needless to say, we probably don’t simply aspire in our asana practice simply towards steadiness and ease. On the other hand, this is the only thing Patanjali writes about the practice of asana. Indeed, asana here is clearly solely a stepping-stone in the grander picture of Rana-yoga; that is, that the final, ultimate, method of yoga is meditation.
So; at this point in time, we find yoga asana, postural-practice only prescribed for the sake of being able to stay still and concentrate. Or, along the same lines, for the sake of ‘tapas’, discipline, also for the sake of the ability for self-control and hence concentration.
Then again, I don’t necessarily see why Patanjalis qualification of asana practice couldn’t inform our modern-day notions, stability and ease in the body being no small feat and demanding, in all probability, a great deal of practice to achieve.
Bonus: 2.47 prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam
‘Yoga postures are mastered through the effort to overcome one’s natural state of restlessness, then one is able to relax into one’s original form’.
This is the only further explanation we have as to yoga asana. One that, like most Samkhya instruction, is qualified in the negative-sense. In other words, it is not by doing something extra we arrive at the state of self-recognition. Instead, by not doing what we’re currently engaged in doing.
That’s to say, we are devoted to the task of constantly differentiating our separate sense of self, essentially against the presenting circumstances of the world. To which end, once this, unnecessary action, is dropped, we arrive back (simply by removal of the mistaken and superfluous) to our natural state.
Wherein, we must assume that, due to the fact that it is our original and natural state it is found satisfactory and sufficient as an experience of ourselves.