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What are the Yoga Sutras and how do they relate to modern yoga?


An introduction to the Yoga Sutras

Credit: Eneko Uruñuela

We discover the relevance of ancient wisdom to modern yoga through Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

An estimated 2000+ years ago, the person who became known as Patanjali described a blueprint for understanding the true nature of Self: the Yoga Sutras. These 196 aphorisms (concise sentences) describe a profound contemplation of the absolute, which is still used as the foundational philosophic text for most modern yoga practices. Furthermore they are an important link in reading the far vaster encyclopaedia of sacred yogic texts such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and the Puranas.

Although the world is dramatically different from when these sutras were first written, what stays the same is that we humans have this deep yearning to understand who we are and where we came from. We look for context, meaning and purpose in its words as a way of tracing the river back to its source and treat its time-tested wisdom as a guide back home.

Below are the first four verses of the Yoga Sutras followed by my own interpretation of each. This commentary is by no means definitive. Take on what resonates with you and pass them on as you like. Thank you sincerely for reading.

PYS 1.1: “Now then, continuing from what you know, a teaching on Yoga.”

The teachings of yoga are eternal since truth has no beginning. Or end. This particular quest for the truth is just one path of many that expanded from that one original mega-blast of creation. For the individual, yoga is a journey backward through time. Here, Patanjali presents the point from where we’ll start, now, to the unfolding, yet to come.

What yoga teaches us is a set of practices designed to allow the mind to settle back into its natural state. Our thoughts, ego and attachments will still be there, but now we can see them more clearly for what they are: phenomenon of the mind, and who we are: a soul witnessing the mind.

In the next sutras he explains where this unfolding leads: realising that beneath all these layers covering our consciousness, we’re just a beautiful, innocent baby. Maybe a 30- or 40-year-old baby, maybe a stubborn 70-year-old baby with many layers caked on. Maybe many lifetimes accumulated. But that seed of consciousness is who we really are. Beyond time, thought, space and totally indestructible. It’s love. Now then, we go on a quest to merge with that love.

PYS 1.2: “Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind.”

When I was in Grade 4 we did this experiment where we shovelled some dirt into an empty fish tank, filled it with water and then left it to sit by the windowsill. Everything was churned together and you couldn’t see through to the other side, but even in those first few minutes some of the larger gravelly bits sunk to the bottom and twigs floated to the top. After a couple of hours some distinct layers of soil had formed at the bottom in pretty layers. After a few days the substratum contained even the finest layers of silt. The murkiness had completely dispelled and the sun shone clearly through the water.

When we get caught up in our thoughts, obsessed with our ego or attached to things outside of ourselves, we disturb the water and churn everything up again. And then it takes some time for the water to resettle. For most people it never really settles at all. What yoga teaches us is a set of practices designed to allow the mind to settle back into its natural state. Our thoughts, ego and attachments will still be there, but now we can see them more clearly for what they are: phenomenon of the mind, and who we are: a soul witnessing the mind. If we can manage to perform these practices regularly, correctly and with the right intention, the clear prism of the soul eventually reveals itself and the sunlight pours through uninhibited.

PYS 1.3: “Then, the seer abides in their true nature.”

The nature of the soul is nothing short of utter brilliance. Inside us lies an unfathomable and unbounded source that the enlightened sages have described as: Truth. Consciousness. Bliss.

The reason why we can’t see this straight away is that the soul itself is pure perception. And being perception, it projects itself outwards to see a mind, an intellect, an ego, a body, a job title, a social status and anything else in the material world it can attach itself to. We’re a diamond covered in soot.

Our thoughts and identity became so entangled with the world around us that, like the man who cried poor, we forgot the treasure buried in our own backyard: the indestructible ecstasy emanating from within.

Yoga teaches us to trace our perceptions way back to their source through controlling the body, the breath, the mind and the senses to see clearly that we are an eternal, infinite, loving awareness who is simultaneously one and differentiate from the Universe, or what some would call God.

PYS 1.4: “When not abiding in our true nature, the seer appears to be the modifications of the mind.”

We are not who we think we are. We are not our bodies and not even our minds. But in an effort to understand the world through our thoughts, we begin to believe that those thoughts are who we actually are. We create an identity based on the way the world reflects itself back to us which, in one way, is absolutely necessary so that we can navigate through this beautiful material plane. But it’s not as helpful in navigating our way towards the absolute deep inside of us.

The vastness of the soul seems too huge to comprehend so we settle for binding ourselves to the knots in the mind, believing ourselves to be these tangles rather than an infinite thread weaving its way through time. The important word in this sutra is “appears”. The seer only appears to be the modifications of the mind; the seer itself is something far more magnificent.