Yoga Sūtras: my favourite sūtra-s (1)

The above photo is from an 18th-century manuscript archived and preserved at the University of Pennsylvania, USA, and shows Yoga Sūtra-s II.1 and 11.2, which are highlighted with an orange-saffron powder. The Yoga Sūtra-s are said to be the work of the semi-divine sage, Patañjali.

About the Yoga Sūtra-s

The two sūtra-s shown in the picture are embedded within Vyāsa’s commentary, which is known as the Bhāṣya (commentary). The whole of the Yoga Sūtra-s is like this: sūtra and commentary alternating with each other in a stream of beautiful symbols and ideas that are logically arranged. Together they can be referred to as the Yoga teachings of Patañjali, or Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra.

The term sūtra, from the Sanskrit root (which is cognate with the English word sew), literally means a thread and basically refers to a pithy philosophical statement. The English equivalent for sūtra is probably “aphorism”. The intention of the sūtra format is to pack as much information as possible into the fewest number of words. And, the 195 succinct sūtra-s were constructed to be a teaching manual their various meanings to be explored and unpacked within the teacher-student relationship.

These opaque aphorisms of Patañjali’s may have been complied in the first few centuries after the Roman Emperor, Augustus Caesar (who died about 2,000 years ago). The Yogasūtra-s is the text that sets Yoga apart as one of the six orthodox philosophies (darśana-s) of the Indian wisdom traditions.

In this article, I select some of my favourite sūtra-s from the first part of Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra.

Yogasūtra I.2

This Yoga Sūtra is the crucial one (lakṣaṇa) because it sets out the quintessence of Yoga. The essential nature of Yoga, according to Patañjali, is:

yogaḥ citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ |

Yoga is the ability to direct and focus mental activity | [1]

In other words, the goal of yoga is to achieve a state of being where the Mind (citta) is such that it cannot be distracted either by itself or by external stimuli. The ever changing states of the Mind (vṛtti) – desires, emotions, thoughts, ideas, hopes, fears etc – are silenced (nirodhaḥ). When this happens, Patañjali says that our True Self (draṣṭā or puruṣa) separates from identifying with what’s been happening in the mind and finds itself in its own nature of pure unchanging conscious. This is the ultimate purpose and aim of the yoga practices of the Yoga Sūtra-s: to unjoin the Observer (puruṣa) from that which is Observed (prakṛti).

“But, I thought that yoga meant Union?” I hear some of you ask.

In other contexts, Yoga can indeed mean Union. In Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra, however, the end point of path of yoga is that the Seer (draṣtar) ceases to identify with the Seen (dṛśyam) and what follows is Liberation.

That said, there is a sense in which Yoga can mean “to join”, because to achieve this unjoining requires the yoking of the mind “exclusively toward an object and sustain[ing] that [purpose] without any distractions.” [4]

I like to think about this sūtra alongside two other really important definitions of Yoga found in the Bhagavad Gītā [VI.23; II.48]: (1) yoga is the separation from the union with pain – duḥkha-saṁyoga-viyogam; and (2) yoga is perfect evenness of mind – samatvam. [3]

I use this sūtra as my guiding star: is what I am practising or teaching taking us in the direction of YS I.2 (and its related sūtra-s YS I.1 and YS I.3-4)? If it appears to be doing that then continue, if not think again.

Yogasūtra I.7

It is the sūtra on thinking that I come to next. We live in a world where fake news, misinformation etc mushes along confusingly with truth and reliable information. This is a problem if we are trying to live better lives: how do we know what we know? Should we base our lives on right or wrong knowledge? How can I tell fact from fiction?

Patañjali reminds us in this sūtra that Right Knowledge (pramāṇa) has its roots in proper evaluation of sense perception, logic and testimony from honest reliable witnesses.

Right Knowledge is a particular way that the Mind (citta) functions (vṛtti).

The Sanskrit reads:

pratyakṣa-anumāna-āgamāḥ pramāṇāni |

Correct knowledge is the fruit of directly perceived experience, inference or reliable testimony | [2]

The modern Wellness industry, which includes all forms of activities branded Yoga, is very innovative and contradictory. Fame, power and money can drive these mutations as well as kindness and compassion.

How can we tell what is real yoga from pseudo yoga? How do I know what to practice?

T Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, gave this advice: if a yoga practice can be located in the Yoga Sūtras (which text is itself an āgama – reliable testimony that is based on proper evaluation of sense perception and good robust thinking), then it was safe to say that the practice was an authentic form of yoga.

However, the Yogasūtra-s, he also pointed out, were not a complete list of yoga practices. So, even if you can’t find the technique in the Sūtras it may still be good yoga, especially if it links us with the essence of Yoga discussed earlier.

This sūtra, it seems to me, invites us to engage intelligently with our practice and with the world. For instance, we would be less taken in if we understood common logical fallacies we make and hear every day. Think how much time would freed up to experience the world if we could spot bad thinking?

Yogasūtra I.12

If YS I.2 answers the question “What is Yoga?” then this sūtra answers the question “How do we attain the state of Yoga?”

Patañjali’s answer comprises just two words: (1) practice and (2) dispassion.

abhyāsa-vairāgyābhyāṁ tat-nrodhaḥ |

The mind can reach the state of Yoga through practice and detachment | [4]

The Mind (citta) can take us to two basic directions. The first and most common one is towards the prison of endless pain caused by our attempts to satisfy all our bodies’ desires in the form of its pleasure seeking and pain avoidance demands. Patañjali describes this in YS I.4 and other places in the Yoga Sūtras.

But the Mind can also flow in the opposite direction towards its elevation as described by Patañjali in YS I.2 to 3.

We should practise (abhyāsa) yoga with all seriousness every day and for a long time with the best teachers in your locality if we are to make progress on the path of Yoga, because unless we get lucky and win the equivalent of the True Happiness lottery (with odds of several billion to one) we’ll never make it.

Practising in this way is not enough, though. We need to practise with the right attitude: vairāgya or (in English) dispassion, renunciation, detachment etc.

When we practise we should learn to give up everything that could be an obstacle on the path of Yoga. For instance: illness, apathy, anger, greed, delusion, etc.

All of us have skipped our early morning practice at some point or other because the desire to do something else (for example, to stay in bed, drink coffee, cuddle our partner etc) wins out over our desire to work on ourselves through the practices of yoga.

Yogasūtra I.33

Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra does not envisage us having to live outside society to make progress along the yoga path. My next choice of sūtra is about the development of our character and certain virtues. To be a yogi means to have a tranquil mind (citta prasādanam) and to be kind and compassionate no matter the circumstances.

maitrī-karuṇā-muditā-upekṣāṇāṁ sukha-duḥkha-puṇya-apuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātah-citta-prasādanam |

In daily life we see people around who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude toward such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate toward those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our mind will be very tranquil. [4]

TKV Desikachar’s combination of translation and commentary expresses the meaning of YS I.33 perfectly.

Each aspect of this sūtra can be cultivated or practised. One suggestion could be to sit and visualise how we would feel, think and behave in each of the situations described by YS I.33. Can we imagine how we would maintain a tranquil mind no matter how the people around us are behaving?

Yogasūtra I.37

It is only quite recently that I have come to the view that yoga is also about the refinement of our characters. There are a number of sūtras that suggest this. We have already discussed YS I.33, and we can add YS II.30, which list the yamas (the principles of respect for others) many of us already know about.

vītarāga-viṣayaṁ vā cittam |

When we are confronted with problems, the counsel of someone who has mastered similar problems can be a great help [in calming the mind] | [4]

It is an interesting and fruitful exercise to think about what our own values might be as we become more accomplished yogi-s. The more we know what they are and align them to the way we live and conduct our lives the greater our sense of wellbeing and mental stability; the better our relationships.

One way to start with working with this sūtra is to think about other people, whether living, dead, real or fictional, that you admire and list their virtues. Can we imagine what someone would be like if they were successful in practising yoga? Next we could list the things that we desire for ourselves. These two list often don’t start off as be the same. However, over time and through contemplation we find that the two lists get better and merge.

Finding a personal teacher can be very helpful in this regard. I can tell you that I am very grateful for my own – very patient – teacher, who has helped my cultivate patience and calmness among other qualities.

Yogasūtra I.38

Most of us will turn to our mats and practise āsana-s (postures) and, maybe, prāṇāyāma (breath control), to bring stability to our minds. Some of us go further, and use mantra (sound) and dhyāna (reflection or meditation).

Patañjali makes several other suggestions aimed at calming and stabilising the way the mind twists and turns from one thing to the next.

I’ve picked YS I.38 as one of my favourites because everyone seems to be yawningly tired all the time and that can’t be good for our sense of wellbeing nor our ability to live life to the full. Without adequate sleep practising yoga, like any other endeavour, becomes harder and less effective.

svapna-nidrā-jñāna-ālambanaṁ vā |

Mental stability also flows from the consciousness in dream and deep sleep | [1]

It is from sound restful and naturalistic sleep that insight into some of our problems can come, and from that arises mental stability and the sense of wellbeing.


For this article, I could have picked any or all the sūtra-s from the samādhi pāda of the Yoga Sūtra-s because they are so good. I trust that my little selection from the first part of the Patañjali’s Yogaśāstra was of interest. We need to know what Yoga is and how to get there. This is no easy task and compassionate Patañjali offers insight and many varying practices, suitable for different personality types, that actually work. Yoga practice is so much more than āsana (yoga’s system of postures).


[1] From Bernard Buanchaud’s The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sūtras, translated from the French by Rosemary Desneux

[2] From Frans Moor’s Liberating Isolation: the Yogasūtra of Patañjali

[3] From Edwin F Bryant’s The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali

[4] From TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga: developing a personal practice

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