I recently graduated from my 500-hour advanced teacher training. The experience was an intense and deep study not just of yoga but also of myself and my relationship with yoga. As I’ve shared with some of you in my classes, it seems that we are always just beginning our journey – the moment we identify an end-goal is the moment we stray from the very path that will help us achieve it.
Some of you have encouraged me to share some of what I wrote in my lengthy 7,600+ word final exam essays. As I went back and reviewed what I wrote, I found the perfect piece to share with you today. There are so many times I reference the Yoga Sutras in my blog posts, but I’ve never really talked through them in a full dedicated post, so now is the time!
I wrote an introduction to the Yoga Sutras in my free e-book that you receive when you sign up for my newsletter (If you haven’t signed up yet, you can enter your info at the bottom of this post, or at the top of the right-hand column on this page). Since that’s a special gift for my newsletter subscribers I don’t link to it in my blog posts. Whenever I’ve included any wisdom from the Yoga Sutras in my blog posts, I always try to set up a general understanding of what the Yoga Sutras are and why they are so foundational to the practice and philosophy of yoga. My hope is that the following post will be the most complete and succinct foundation I can provide to you to date so that both you and I can refer back to this post for years to come.
Here we go!
The underlying history and philosophy
The date and identity of the author of the Yoga Sutras is debated, but we know it was comprised thousands of years ago by someone or a group of people collectively referred to as Patanjali. The Yoga Sutras came about as a code of conduct for how to practice yoga in a time when there were a lot of different rituals and rules regarding the attainment of enlightenment. At this time, practicing these rituals to attain enlightenment was reserved for a select few people who were rich and of the upper castes.
Around the same time the Yoga Sutras was introduced (historically speaking), the Buddha was spreading his new philosophy of Buddhism, which was available to all people no matter what caste you belonged to. The intent behind the Yoga Sutras was to simplify (hah!) the practices to attain enlightenment so that it could be made available to all people regardless of caste or status. A key differentiation point from yoga and the Sankhya philosophy from which yoga is born is that the yoga practice empowers the individual to take matters into his or her own hands, whereas Sankhya philosophy instructs an individual to do a set of rigid practices regardless of whether or not they work for the individual. In Sankhya philosophy there is one way to attain enlightenment and everyone must take the same steps to get there. Yoga philosophy argues that there is a unique path for everyone and you have to find your own way through practice, reflection and informed decision-making (this was HUGE way back when).
To understand the different paths available to the independent yogi, Patanjali outlines three types of yoga. The three types of yoga presented in the Yoga Sutras are Kriya, Ashtanga, and Samyama. There is some debate surrounding the chronology of when these systems were added or explained in the Sutras because Kriya Yoga and Samyama are part of the overall Ashtanga system but also stand on their own as individual systems. You may have heard of Ashtanga, which in the West most commonly refers to a particular type of asana (posture) practice. In fact, there is much, much more to Ashtanga then jump-backs and Chatarungas.
Kriya Yoga is introduced first in the Yoga Sutras and consists of three steps: 1) Tapas 2) Svadyahya 3) Ishvara Pranidhana. These three principles are also part of the Niyamas outlined in the Ashtanga system (we’ll get there). Practiced together, the process of Kriya Yoga is meant to help you realize your true Self.
Tapas is a commitment to your practice as a discipline. When we commit to our practice no matter what stands in the way, we build a type of friction, or heat, in the mind and body. The Sanskrit word Tapas is most commonly translated as “heat.” This heat helps us overcome inherent laziness in the mind and is generated by our ego. The ego wants to hold us back from Self Realization to pursue worldly pleasures instead. Think of all the times you’ve wanted to practice but found an excuse for why it was better to do something else instead. Overcoming those excuses and rolling out your mat anyway is when you start to develop that Tapas.
Svadhyahya is the practice of self-study. Once we commit to an action, it’s important to give ourselves time and space to process that action. Savasana offers this space at the end of an asana practice as a representation of the quiet time we need to reflect and integrate the parts of the practice that can help us move forward with more peace and harmony. If you practice yoga asana over and over again but never take the time to reflect on whether or not the yoga asana is helping you, what’s the point of practicing!? This is where Yoga philosophy deviates from Sankhya philosophy and asks you to take ownership of your own path. One way I like to practice Svadyahya is to journal.
Finally, Ishvara Pranidhana is a surrender to the timeless teacher. It is the development and application of a deep trust in universal wisdom, a respect and reverence for something much greater than ourselves, and a willingness to move with the flow of that wisdom as we try our best to keep the ego from obstructing our path. Ishvara is unique to each individual; it is a recognition of all the teachers that have come before us, named and unnamed. Being open to receive, accept and apply timeless wisdom as we commit to our practice and take time for self-study gives us a consistent path to realize our true Self.
Ashtanga yoga is the 8-limbed path outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. It is a path for the householder (which just means you live in this world and not in an isolated cave) and can be embarked upon by anyone. The eight limbs are: 1) Yamas 2) Niyamas 3) Asana 4) Pranayama 5) Pratyahara 6) Dharana 7) Dhyana 8) Samadhi. The path is not necessarily chronological but does build upon itself.
Yamas are a set of principles that help us interact with the world around us. The Yamas are: 1) Ahimsa 2) Satya 3) Asteya 4) Aparigraha 5) Brahmacharya.
To practice Ahimsa is to commit to interacting with the world with compassion and abstaining from violence to any living being. Satya is recognizing, honoring, and speaking truth – but only when it does no harm. Asteya is exercising generosity and refraining from stealing, which includes both material and immaterial things like human beings, time, space, etc. Aparigraha is about simplicity and living with only what you need instead of hoarding. You can hoard immaterial things as well as objects. Brahmacharya is all about living in moderation and avoiding the excesses in any situation. Taken together, these principles allow an individual to live peacefully in relationship with the world.
The Niyamas are a set of principles that help an individual interact with his or her inner landscape. The Niyamas are 1) Saucha 2) Santosha 3) Tapas 4) Svadhyahya 5) Ishvara Pranidhana. Here is where you see the principles of Kriya yoga show up as the last three Niyamas. Practicing Kriya Yoga is also an aspect of building a relationship with your inner self.
Saucha is a practice of purity and cleanliness. It’s not just about hygiene, but also keeping a clean conscience and mind – staying true to your values and living them. Santosha is about practicing contentment and gratitude for EVERYTHING in your life. Tapas introduces discipline to your practice, no matter what. Svadhyahya asks we take time to reflect and study ourselves, our reactions, and our circumstances. Ishvara Pranidhana asks us to surrender to the wisdom of our teacher and let go of the illusion of complete control. Taken together and in conjunction with the Yamas, these first two limbs of Ashtanga yoga give us a framework for being in relationship with others and with ourselves. This is an important foundation to have before embarking on the other steps, at the same time that we are working with these principles on a daily basis.
Asana is the third limb of the Ashtanga path and is easily the most recognizable. This is the posture practice that so many people go to yoga studios for. Initially, asana prepared the body for the later steps that involved long sessions of meditation, or sitting. In other words, asana was originally designed to help you sit for long periods of time. Ironically, today we practice asana to move and stop sitting! The style of yoga asana called Ashtanga was developed by Krishnamacharya and refined by K. Pattabhi Jois and was originally designed as a practice to tire out teenage boys so they could focus on their studies. Many of the well-known yoga teachers today studied directly with K. Pattabhi Jois in India, which has led to the very aerobic, difficult posture practice you see today in yoga studios across the world. It should be noted however that the traditional Ashtanga style is VERY strict. You can still practice asana without practicing the formal Ashtanga style. While I draw some inspiration from the Ashtanga practice, I do not teach the Ashtanga style of yoga. I do, however, consider myself an Ashtangi on the 8-limbed path. Confusing, I know.
Pranayama is our breath practices. Engaging in the practice of Pranayama allows us to control the breath in order to prompt change in our energetic body. This practice also helps prepare the mind for meditation. While there may be some Pranayama introduced in your yoga classes, traditional Pranayama is a separate practice from asana. Ujjayi breathing is a nice breath pattern to pair with movement and helps bring us into a more meditative state. To move closer to clarity there are many different, targeted breath techniques you can practice before, after, or even separate from your asana. Just as we want to tone the body with our asana to keep it clean and pure, we want to tone our energy through the breath to stay clean and pure in our energy.
Pratyahara is a repurposing of the senses from an external focus to a more internal focus. It is the practice of selectively retraining the senses from their job to gather information from the external world to a focus of gathering information from the internal world at a much more subtle level. Yoga nidra is a good practice to help us bring attention from the outside world to our inner one. If you’ve ever been preparing for a yoga class and hear all the traffic and noises outside the studio, but then realize halfway through the class that you haven’t been hearing those noises even though the traffic is still out there, this is Pratyahara. Normally it’s the recognition of the noises again that makes you realize you hadn’t been hearing them previously. Pratyahara sets the stage for the next step, which refines our ability to focus.
Dharana is the practice of developing one-pointed focus. After the senses have been reined inward and are no longer distracting the mind, the mind must be trained to focus on one thing so that the internal senses and thoughts are not distracting us on our journey to the true Self. The internal senses are considered the bodily processes that happen without our direct control (digestion, heart beat, etc.). Mantra is a great example for how we develop one-pointed focus. You may also have heard your teacher talk about Drishti in balancing postures – training the eyes to focus on one spot to help you find stillness amidst all the chaos.
You may notice that as we get farther down the path, the previous stages must be set aside. The practice of yoga is a gradual letting go – letting go of the posture, letting go of the control of the breath, letting go of the senses that keep us stuck in the external world, even letting go of the internal senses, trusting that we know what we need to know to get where we want to go.
Dhyana is also known as meditation and is the process of letting go of the tools that have come before. Instead of concentrating on focus, or actively trying to bring the senses inward, we release the effort and allow ourselves to integrate with the universe around us. It’s important to understand that meditation cannot be taught or “guided.” Meditation is a personal experience. I can’t teach you how to let go, but I can teach you how to relax and focus to get you to the point where you can make the leap to let go. The actual leap is truly a leap of faith. You probably have experienced meditation before when you weren’t even actively trying. In fact, the more you “try” to meditate, the less likely you are to get there. If you’ve ever had a moment where you recognized the awe of the workings of the universe (for me it happens in nature), and felt like everything else around you has disappeared and you’re just engrossed in the clouds, the stars, the trees, the water, the mountains – that full acceptance of the mystery of the universe and your part in it is meditation.
Samadhi is the final step in the Ashtanga path and is when we permanently live in an enlightened state. It is a realization and understanding of our oneness with everything. To reach this state is rare and requires an intense amount of discipline, practice, consistency, faith and surrender.
The practice of Ashtanga as a whole is a complete process of getting to know yourself, developing discipline and then letting go, having faith, and trusting in something greater than yourself.
Whereas Kriya yoga is an active practice and Ashtanga has many pieces and parts, Samyama is a practice that is even more subtle and constitutes the last three limbs of the Ashtanga 8-limb path. Samyama is the concentrated integration of Dharana, Dhyana, and Samadhi. I have the least to say about this technique because it is very much a personal experience and beyond words.
As mentioned above, Dharana is a practice of intense focus. To achieve this focus, you can use tools such as mantra to protect the mind from wayward thoughts. This focus must be released to reach Dhyana, or meditation. Once meditation is “achieved” even the meditation must be released to dissolve into Samadhi. An example of this is when you are meditating, the moment you recognize that you are meditating, you are no longer meditating because a thought has occurred. Samyama is a practice of moving more and more into the subtle realms and becoming less and less attached to our physical being. At this stage we align our individual energy with the collective energy of the universe.
Bringing it all together
The three types of yoga presented in the Yoga Sutra give an individual soul lifetime’s worth of work to do in order to reach the highest level of realizing that we are all the same. The path of yoga requires and builds an immense amount of courage and discipline.
Even thought the journey is an individual one, it is nice to come together with likeminded souls to practice. Whether we are practicing asana, breathing together, meditating, or just chatting about philosophy and life, the systems of yoga outlined in the Yoga Sutras offer us a framework for how to live our life. The practice of yoga is both our own and everyone’s at the same time. The more we are able to realize that we are all in this together, the more peace we will find in our own hearts and in the hearts of others all over the world. How we choose to find that peace is up to us.
I hate to compare the Yoga Sutras to the Bible because YOGA IS NOT A RELIGION but just as Christians read the Bible for answers and inspiration, when yogis are lost on the path they can always turn to the Sutras to find answers and inspiration to stay on the path. Trusting in the wisdom of the timeless teachers is always a good idea 🙂 And super hard.
If you’re interested in reading the Yoga Sutras for yourself, here are my favorite translations:
- The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary by Georg Feuerstein
- The Unadorned Thread of Yoga by Salvatore Zambito
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda
You can find the first and third book on Amazon – click here to view my curated Amazon store with my favorite yoga books!
The second book is hard to find and is expensive – you can buy it directly from the author’s website, though I know some people have had trouble receiving their copy after purchase, so beware. I didn’t have a problem when I bought mine.
I hope this post has given you some clarity on the foundation of yoga philosophy, some more clarity as to why you practice, and some inspiration to continue on your journey!
Happy reading 🙂