We began our journey here at the “Living Yoga Blog” with a look at the key principles of Yoga followed by an overview of each of the major branches. We then continued with a closer look at the primary techniques of Yoga, which we’ll continue this week with a look at one of the central philosophical works, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, including the primary themes and the background it can be helpful to understand in order to dive into this pivotal text.
What Are the Sutras & Why Should We Study Them?
Composed around 500 CE, The Yoga Sutras have long been considered one of the central consolidations of the teachings of Yoga. Written by the sage Patanjali, they are made up of 190 terse aphorisms that succinctly describe how our conventional view of life generates distress, how a different approach can allow us to transcend this, and specific tools and techniques we can use to make this shift. Along with these pivotal teachings, it also includes insights into stages of personal growth, common challenges on the path, how our world-view influences our evolution, and more – again, all is less than 200 verses.
Because it captures so much so briefly, it rightly holds a place as one of the primary texts of Yogic philosophy and psychology. But at the same time, that density can be a bit challenging to navigate. By understanding a little about the origin, the original audience and use, and finally a bit about the general structure of the Sutras, we can make our entry into this valuable work far easier and in turn even more rewarding….
Basic Background and Overview
The first thing to know is what a “sutra” is and how they were originally designed to be used. The word sutra literally means “thread” and refers to a work that was purposefully very terse to make it easier to memorize to serve as an aid in our study of a field. Traditionally, if we wanted to learn something like Yoga, we would go to a teacher and listen to the basic principles. We would then read sutras as a “recap” of what we had heard and memorize them so we could call the teachings back to mind throughout our day. Because of this purpose of “recapping & recalling,” they were purposefully extremely brief, much like notes we might take in class. This brevity makes the Sutras great for memorization but it can also make them quite “dense” and challenging to unpack. If we keep this in mind, we can be more patient with the process.
The second thing to understand is the audience for whom the Sutras were created. Originally, Patanjali was addressing monks – that is, people living a life of celibacy and simplicity and with a regular practice of study and meditation. As a result, there are many areas of “conventional life” that aren’t addressed, such as work or family dynamics, because they were no longer of concern to the average monk, while there are other topics such as the stages of meditation, that are explored in great detail because they constitute a significant part of monastic life. Again, the more we can stay aware of this “purposeful emphasis,” the more patient we can be, especially if we make a point of glossing over the parts that may not apply to us or “translating” concepts into examples that more directly fit our lifestyle.
Another thing it can be helpful to understand is the Sutras weren’t new teachings but rather a synthesis of what Patanjali considered the key concepts of Yoga. This is important for two reasons: first, because he draws from a variety of schools, Patanjali frequently shifts terminology, which can be jarring when we’re new and don’t realize he is using different words for the same idea; second, because he is synthesizing teachings and offering brief reminders rather than methodical development, the Sutras often jump from topic to topic without warning, following one school through a series of issues before repeating from the perspective of a different branch. Again, this can be confusing when we are new, but if kept in mind can be easily navigated: by simply reminding ourselves when we experience a sudden shift that Patanjali must have finished one approach and is starting again with a similar but different school, we can stay in touch with the concepts without being distracted by the frequently non-linear progression.
The Primary Themes
This leads us to a final part it can be helpful to know, which is the major themes on which the Sutras focus. By having a sense in advance of what the big topics are, we can better follow Patanjali in his discontinuous approach. In my experience, there are six primary topics in can be useful to keep in mind as we join Patanjali in his exploration:
“Ordinary Consciousness & Its Consequences” – Arguably one of the most important themes of the Sutras is the topic: “What is our traditional way of thinking about ourselves and the world, and what are the consequences in terms of quality of life?” Ideas covered within this category include our typical assumptions about ourselves and our world and how they create suffering; the relationship between these assumptions and egoism, attachment, aversion, and fear; the foundations of these misperceptions, how they grow, and how they manifest in the world or karma. By better understanding our more common mistakes in how we think about ourselves and the world and the pain those mistakes can bring, we can put ourselves in a better place for making genuine and lasting change.
“The Goal of Yoga” – Once we have a better awareness of our conventional approach and the results it brings, the next question is: “What is the alternative?” In these sections, Patanjali explores the greater goal of Yoga including enlightenment and learning to live a productive but peaceful life, as well as topics such our relationship with the divine, pointing toward a better way of approaching life and also reinforcing the many benefits this shift can provide….
“Techniques & Tools” – Once we have a clear sense of our typical approach and a healthier alternative, the next question is: “How do we get there?” In these passages, Patanjali describes the concrete practices developed by different schools of Yoga, including meditation, self-study, the physical practices of Yoga (asana and pranayama), as well as ethical guidelines. It is worth noting that, again, as the Sutras represent a compilation of varied teachings, it is not necessary for us to master all of these techniques, just like it isn’t necessary to master everything in a cookbook. By finding and focusing on the tools that work for us, we can dramatically accelerate our movement toward peace and contentment and in turn support those around us in doing the same.
“Stages of Development” – Any time we embark on a new endeavor, it can be helpful to have an idea what the journey might entail. For this reason, a significant portion of the Sutras is devoted to describing stages of development. Again, because it is geared toward a monastic audience, much of this is focused on stages of meditation and varying levels of inner growth, which may be less relevant to us at the start. For this reason, it can be helpful to keep the intended audience in mind, reminding ourselves much of the guidance can simply be “book-marked” so we can return to it later when we’re ready for that stage.
“Challenges on the Path” – Continuing the analogy of a journey, another thing it can be helpful to know before a trip is the obstacles we’re likely to encounter. For this reason, a significant portion of the Sutras is devoted to describing difficulties often encountered on the path as well as ways to overcome them. Elements within this topic include the challenge of losing momentum or sliding backwards, becoming attached to our spiritual practices, and the challenge of being distracted by powers that can be developed as we learn to focus the mind.
“Yogic Metaphysics” – This leads to our final major category within the Sutras, which is what can be referred to as Yogic metaphysics. Metaphysics is of course the branch of philosophy which describes the fundamental nature of reality and our relationship to it, and within the Sutras this includes topics such as the relationship between body, consciousness, and soul, how karma manifests in current and future incarnations, and at least briefly, the Yogic perspective on the ultimate purpose of life.
An Invitation to Begin
Now that we have a sense of the basic background and elements of the Sutras, we’re almost ready to dive in. Of course, a more detailed introductory workshop can be helpful for providing a greater sense of what to expect as well as further motivation to dive in, but that much said, like many thousands before you, you really can start from here. To get the most from your exploration, here are a few final guidelines you might want to keep in mind:
Find a Translation That Speaks to You – There are of course a wide range of versions available, some very technical and precise, while others are very welcoming and practical. Allow yourself time to compare different versions and find one that resonates both with your personality and also your current goals.
Go Slow & “Personalize…” – Again, the Sutras are very dense, which means they can take both time and effort to unpack. Also remember that they are very non-linear, which means we don’t need to be in a big hurry to “see where it all ends up.” As a result, you’ll get the most from them if you take your time with each sutra, and especially if you think about how it applies to your own particular issues and challenges. Basically, the more time we spend “personalizing” the teachings, the more we will get from them and the more readily they will come to mind when we need them. In fact, for this reason, if there are passages that especially resonate for you, you might even consider memorizing them as originally intended.
…But Don’t Hesitate to “Note and Move On” – At the same time, it’s good to again remember the Sutras include a wide range of techniques and issues derived from a variety of schools and meant for a wide range of people. For this reason, if you find a specific approach doesn’t resonate for you or if the details of a portion of the journey still ahead of you begin to get overwhelming, remember it’s fine to simply make note and allow yourself to move forward, knowing you can always return later when the time is right…
Information is taken from: oldtownyoga.com/the-yoga-sutras-of-patanajali-an-introduction-invitation/