by Tina Samuels | June 16, 2019 11:20 pm
The Yoga Sutras, sacred texts written by the scribe Patanjali, have become the centerpiece and critical reading for practicing and studying Yoga worldwide. The sutras describe the “path, means, description, and realization” of our essential nature as human beings, allowing us to join with our true nature (Miller).
While Patanjalis true identity has been lost to time, the sutras remain as a unique text on “human psychology, spiritual self-inquiry and practice, and the realization of freedom and embodiment of our highest potential as human beings” (Miller). According to the sutras, the end goal of a yoga practice must be liberation from the fluctuations of the mind, and the unity of body, mind and spirit.
In total there are 196 sutras. Each presents us with a way of realizing our true nature by understanding the difference between that which changes (prakriti – nature) from that which does not (purusha – essence). These 196 one-line verses are divided into four chapters and discuss the difference between consciousness and mind, the stages of enlightenment, the eight limbs of yoga, and the powers of meditation. The sutras essentially aim to answer larger-than-life existential questions that people have been asking for millennia. Edwin Bryant, translator and commentator on the sutras, states that they will always remain relevant, as “even if culture changes, consciousness doesn’t” (Avery).
Sutras and Your Yoga Teacher Training
The Sutras are a required reading in every yoga teacher training. All students at some point will find themselves chanting, reading, and studying, the same scriptures as those students who lived almost 2000 years before. Just like it was then, as it is now, yoga works towards easing suffering. Both the minds of the people of today, and those who were first practicing yoga, are subjected to fear, anxieties, and stress. The sutras address this by teaching us how to move beyond the mind, and access a place of stillness, peace and serenity, free from the constraints of thought.
However, the main difference between ancient yoga and yoga in the modern world, is that now the word “yoga” is applied mainly to physical activity. Many use yoga as a way to maintain and improve levels of fitness, as physical therapy, and even to reduce stress. Though yoga may attract a wide variety of people primarily for its physical benefits, Patanjali made it very clear that if an individual’s asana practice is not part of a greater intention of working towards stilling the mind, they are simply not practicing yoga. In fact, of the 1200 words in the sutras, only 12 relate to asana – the physical practice we call ‘Yoga’.
Many modern-day yogis are simply not receiving the teachings of the sutras. Due to the commoditization of yoga, many studios and teachers are only offering what will sell, which manifests mostly in promoting changes to the physical form. Although this can be looked upon in a positive light; those who come to yoga for the asana practice may then be encouraged to look at the sutras as a consequence.
Eight Fold Path and the Sutras
Patanjalis description of the eight-fold path is the most widely recognized part of the sutras. Although it only makes up 31 of the 196 original verses, the attraction of the eight limbs is its clear and practical explanation of a route to a life free from suffering. The first two limbs – the Yamas and Niyamas – outline ethical observances, preparing a yoga practitioner for the profound inner work that comprises the final limbs.
The next three limbs are more practical in their nature. Asana (physical discipline) is one of these limbs, originally created to help prime the body to spend ample amounts of time sat in meditation, has now become the primary focus for a modern-day yoga practitioner. After asana comes Pranayama, control of the breath, and Pratyahara, withdrawal of the senses. Pranayama is often practiced in studios, trainings and retreats, as well as accompanying yoga classes where emphasis is placed on combining movement with breath. Pratyahara, on the other hand, is sometimes referred to as “yoga’s forgotten limb” (Frawley).
As it stands, pratyahara is the limb with the least amount of research, knowledge, or awareness surrounding it. Essentially, Pratyahara is the bridge between asana and meditation, without it, the jump would be almost impossible. To successfully enter a meditative state, the senses (which link the body to the mind) must first be controlled. By withdrawal from sensory impressions of the outside world, we can free our mind to move within, strengthening our immunity to negative external influences and enhancing our ability to resist the effect of environmental turmoil around us.
Sutras and the Modern Yogi
In the modern world, pratyhara is undoubtedly one of the most difficult aspects of yoga to follow. Even if we express extreme care over the food we eat, and the people we come into contact with, our senses are still overloaded most of the time with advertisements, television programs, and music. The Yoga sutras state that sensory impressions are the main food for our mind, and we can’t ignore the effect of our physical environment on making us who we are – both consciously and subconsciously.
Fortunately, pratyahara gives us many tools to tackle the overload of information constantly bombarding our senses. The simplest way is to cut off completely through spending time in meditation with the eyes closed or heading out into nature. The sutras tell us that the mind is the 6th sense organ, and we can control what information it receives. By placing our attention on one thing, we block other influences from entering it.
The next two limbs – dharana (concentration) and dhyana (meditation) are about entering a deep meditative state, to prepare us for the final limb, samadhi (bliss), in which the person becomes one with their meditation. According to Patanjali, there is a further state beyond samadhi – nirbija-samadhi, described as the complete separation of Spirit and Matter. The last chapter of the sutras explains this in more detail, claiming that in this state, the spirit has the power to extend everywhere, including travel through time and space. In other words, this is the complete realization of Purusha and Prakriti, and the transcendence of the material world.
The west can continue to embrace the sutras because of their non-religious nature. There are other texts on yoga such as Karma Yoga, and Bhakti Yoga, that are far less popular in modern times due to their inclusion of deities. The sutras however, are purely metaphysical, and are much more relatable to those who are cautious when it comes to religious connotations.
The eight limbs of yoga gift the practitioner with a practical guide of living harmoniously within society. They teach us to be kind, compassionate, and to take care of yourself and others by understanding personal ethics. The limbs promote self-study, mindful focus, and a disciplined practice, as well as developing an awareness of the self and the fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali teaches us that true yoga happens when the “fluctuating waves of the mind” cease, and we understand that we are “ineffable stillness, which is always present” and “independent of thoughts being present or absent” (Miller). With this perspective, the modern-day yogi can begin to live free from demands of modern day life, and in tune with their true nature.
Avery, Helen. “Edwin Bryant: Why Read the Yoga Sutras” Wanderlust. https://wanderlust.com/journal/edwin-bryant-why-read-the-yoga-sutras/
Frawley, David “Pratyahara: Yogas Forgotten Limb” Yoga International. https://yogainternational.com/article/view/pratyahara-yogas-forgotten-limb
Miller, Richard “Flowering of Freedom: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” 2015, http://www.sutrajournal.com/the-flowering-of-freedom-the-yoga-sutras-of-patanjali-by-richard-miller
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