patanjali yoga sutras

The Yoga Sutras on Practice

It is often assumed when we get into yoga that or development in practice is about increasing our ‘specialness’. Indeed, it’s hard to view it otherwise; there is so much to learn, and so many signs of change and progress, it appears that yoga is about developing ourselves and our lives to a god-like status.

However, although quite understandable, even helpful, as we are almost hard-wired through social conditioning to value progress and the future over the present (and hence, make the effort towards it), on the other hand, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the seminal text on the aim and method of yoga, states otherwise. Rather than increase our sense of self, add to our value in all the extra we are doing and its effects; the bulk of the emphasis of the text is aimed at the intention of seeing through the ego.

Evidently, this is quite the opposite of how yoga practice is construed in the modern day. Although, there may be a lot of talk as to losing our ego; there are very few that are actually happy to put aside the sense of ‘particular relevance’ that ego provides our life with. Without it, there is literally, nowhere to go, nothing to do; which is why, instead of facing this challenge, we would prefer yoga to be a challenging method that demands our continuous struggle with so as to preserve the sense that our life is consistently ascending in an increasingly attractive direction.

This is to miss the point of Patanjalis most famous utterance he makes at the very beginning of the text; yoga citta vritti nirodha (1.2); ‘yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind’. In contrast then to creating more excitement, fuss, complication, in our lives through the unceasing accumulation of stuff to add-on, to enhance our value; what is being suggested is that yoga is defined by less not more. The method is only involved in stripping away, not in enhancement. If this, however, the case  (and, indeed, yoga is an enhancement in peace), it is only in the kind of super-normality and accompanying relaxation that the relinquishing of all our striving to achieve suddenly brings into our orbit.

It is for this reason that the effort towards practise is immediately mitigated by detachment; abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodha (1.12); ‘yoga is achieved by effort and renunciation’ (of this very effort).  Which is, indeed, what Krishna continuously emphasises in The Bhagavad Gita, when he advises Arjuna to act, to engage in the war he is part of, yet, not become attached to any of his actions, their results – potential or actual – what he calls ‘the fruits’ of our actions. In this sense, yoga is calling for a very unique kind of effort to be made; one where all our efforts are towards the end of this need to make effort to go somewhere that we inherit with the ego.

Practice, in the light of this, is not towards any particular goal, but the goal of return – to ourselves- as T. S Elliot says  in The Four quartets;

“we shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive back where we started

And know the place for the first time” (Burnt Norton).

The Yoga Sutras mirror this, though in somewhat sparser language, when the define ‘practice’ as tatra sthitau yatnah abhyasa;(1.13);practice is the continuous effort to become firmly established in the stable sense of self’. In contrast then to our quite widely shared idea then that the practise of yoga has somehow something better to offer us, instead, all it is pointing at is giving back what is already with us, by getting rid of all the false ideas that we are all these others things in life that need attending to, protecting, worrying about.

Its more than ironic to this end, that a practice framed around getting rid of desire, actually ends up propelling us forward into further chasing it. Yet, that the aim of the practise is the cessation of desire is categorically clear;

‘non attachment

Is the mastery of consciousness,

Wherein one is free from craving

Objects of enjoyment,

Whether they have been perceived

Or imagined from

Promises in scriptures’ (1.15).

The only qualification we might now make, is that, perhaps, here we could now substitute the promises and advertising of yoga-teachers for scriptures. But, joking aside; the idea is crystal-clear. Yoga is a method towards the letting go of all intention towards our betterment; the modern-day ‘holy grail’ or our personal-development. Which is why,  indeed, yoga runs quite radically and contrary to society and our current humanistic beliefs to do with  locating our value in our evolution and progress.

Yoga, however, is not looking really towards any kind of movement. In fact, quite the opposite. Practice is only ever defined, qualified by Patanjali in the yoga sutras in terms of the engendering and building of stability, rest, not-moving. Indeed, the only line dedicated to yoga-asanas which we have become so fixated upon in recent times states; sthiram sukham asanam (2.46); ‘yoga posture is a steady and comfortable position’. This is quite contrary to the current assumption that our development in yoga is to do with making increasingly complicated, indeed, essentially, uncomfortable positions.

Although, there is something to be said for learning and practicing equanimity through purposefully putting ourselves into discomfort and learning to tolerate it, it is well to be aware that the purpose, the aim of yoga, is not struggle but rest. This is often forgotten in the modern era, where we have most widely inherited a mix of the spirit of struggle invested in the competition capitalism sets-up, as well as a kind of puritan or guilt-laden religious background, where we assume that the resolution we feel we need must come through our suffering. All this means that, when we arrive at the door of yoga, we take it in a very different attitude to the one in which it was originally conceived. All too often it is taken as some kind of willing form of self-punishment, rather than a system done for us and by us with our comfort, ease, indeed, happiness at heart.

To finish then, it is worth considering the only further refection Patanjali makes on yoga postures;

yoga pose is mastered

By relaxation of effort,

Lessening the tendency

For restless breathing,

And promoting an identification

Of oneself as living

Within the infinite breath of life’(2.47).

Of course, this does sound quite surprising to our ears, but it is most certainly worth bearing in mind that yoga is a method seeking balance, a ‘deep-normalisation’ of our lives so as we come back to our essential nature which is the peace involved in our very un-specialness. It Is on this note that Krishna again warns us in the Bhagavad Gita that;

‘yoga means not eating too much,

Nor eating nothing,

Not the habit of sleeping too much,

Nor, Arjuna, never sleeping’ (6.16)


‘those who suffer austerities,

Not prescribed in the scriptures,

Hypocritical and egoistic,

With desire, force, and passion,

Mindlesslessly torturing the body..

See their action as misconstrued’ (17.6).

Instead of the tendency towards extremes then, yoga is the much harder path of ego-cancelling by moderating our desires for achievement, for something more. This is the ‘narrow path’ of balance that Jesus also refers often to, which is to work on the acceptance of what is, as opposed to our habitual attempts at achieving what we feel we ought to be.

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