Last updated on December 6th, 2023.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a text containing 196 sutras that can be followed like a guide for a yoga student to achieve enlightenment and final liberation. It is intended to educate anyone on the importance of discovering one’s true Self and highlight the importance of understanding the yogi’s place in the universe.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are further categorized into four main parts, each with an intention behind the selected sutras:
- Samadhi pada – defining what yoga is and enlightenment
- Sadhana pada – the connection between student and higher self
- Vibhuti pada – dedication to the practice and self-discipline
- Kaivalya pada – liberation or freedom from suffering
From these four primary categories, the yoga student is guided through the possible tribulations that may occur throughout the path towards enlightenment with different solutions that should keep them on track.
For a more detailed understanding of modern yoga’s founding texts and fathers, read about the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali!
What do the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Mean?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a collection of four books by Sage Patanjali to guide the reader through the trials and tribulations of self-discovery through yoga. The goal is to reconnect the mind and soul to the physical body through self-reflection, mantras, and spiritual practices.
Because the Yoga Sutras are more of a guide than an answer, they do not have a specific, universal meaning. Instead, they welcome the fact that each person will have their takeaways from the lessons and teachings. Regardless, one goal remains throughout the spiritual process: reconnection with the Self and liberation from stress caused by the disconnect between the spirit and the universe.
If you already have a foundation of the origin of Pajanjali’s teachings and want to dive into articles on the practice application of these teachings, click this link for great info on how to practice the yogic lifestyle.
“Sutras” are small teachings that help summarize the overall message someone is trying to teach. They result from hundreds of years of oral instruction and need a method to keep the morale short enough for memorization.
However, one prevalent issue is that there needs to be a foolproof way of knowing precisely what each sutra truly means. Author metaphors can be interpreted by the reader, especially if the author has been deceased for quite some time; it is up to the individual to create their meaning with each sutra.
One fun story from Chopra highlights this idea: “…Patanjali himself wrote down the sutras on palm leaves, but a goat ate half of them before he took the remainder to the Himalayas.”
Teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Although the underlying messages of the yoga sutras will be up to the individual to interpret, there are a few overarching teachings that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali will hopefully instill in all the students who wish to read and be guided.
These teachings are:
- Reason for yoga – The texts help to highlight the importance of yoga to reconnect with the universe. It details how, through poses dedicated to challenging your body and spirit, your mind will open to the possibilities and reconnect with the universal forces around you.
- In other words, it heightens your presence in your surroundings.
- Development of yoga – The teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are open to the fact that the process of yoga is not easy. Instead, it celebrates the challenges by guiding through the struggles and possible solutions.
- To the teachings, the heartache is part of the process.
- Liberation – One of the highest teachings from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the feeling of liberation from the stresses of not being connected across the body, mind, soul, and universe. The liberation of oneself from disconnect is the most significant teaching of the texts.
These thoughts and questioning of oneself are all credited with disconnecting your true Self from your body. Once the reconnection begins, these stressors slowly dissipate as you come closer and closer to discovering your proper form. It is only then that true happiness and enlightenment can start to be developed.
Who is the Founder of Yoga?
The founding father of yoga is credited to a man named Patanjali. It was his belief system and ability to take an acceptable, scientific thought process and turn it into a philosophical and spiritual guide towards understanding oneself better.
He took the ancient Indian philosophies of Sankhya (duality of matter and souls), and he used it to conclude that only by controlling your prana (life force) could you ultimately control the body, mind, and soul. From all of this, he wrote the 196 Yoga Sutras.
According to Chopra, the mythology behind Patanjali is that he came about as a reincarnation of Anantha, a multi-headed serpent that Vishnu (the Hindu Preserver God who protects humans and restores order to the universe) sleeps upon in between creations. Once Vishnu woke up again, Anantha asked him to make him a great teacher; Vishnu allowed this in the form of Patanjali.
History of Patanjali
First and foremost, the confusion on what Patanjali has and needs to be an influential presence should be made clear. Patanjali, who wrote the Yoga Sutra, is not the same Patanjali who wrote a commentary on Panini’s grammar. It is mistakenly assumed that Patanjali was the Master of Yoga, medicine, and grammar.
However, according to Patanjali of Yogasutras by Chandramouli S. Naikar, Naikar states that “No known Sanskrit text before the 10th century states that the same Patanjali was behind all the three treatises.”
Now that there is an understanding of what Patanjali did, it is estimated that he was alive between the 2nd and 4th centuries BCE. Because of the large gap in time, it is still being determined what Patanjali did in his early days. Still, one can imagine they were filled with inner reflection and practicing the idea of reconnection through yoga.
History of Yoga
The teachings of yoga were only orally transmitted for hundreds of years before they were finally written down. Because of this, the natural history of yoga is consistent with that of the historical understandings based on scattered pieces of evidence. The following is the accepted history of yoga according to Yoga Basics.
The first sacred text to mention the word “yoga” was the Rig Veda. The Brahmans (or Veda priests) used these texts like a modern priest would use the Bible – to share stories, songs, mantras, and rituals with the followers.
Around 500 BCE, the Brahmans wrote an account of their practices and beliefs into a large text called the Upanishads. Inside was a collection of over 200 scriptures, and it quickly became regarded as the most renowned of the Yogic scriptures. It was entitled the Bhagavad-Gîtâ.
The Upanishads, with the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, taught the idea of releasing the ego to gain enlightenment through “…self-knowledge, action (karma yoga) and wisdom (jnana yoga).”
Then, around 400 BCE, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali were introduced in the form of writing on thin palm leaves. It was the first time someone attributed yoga as a direct way towards releasing the ego. Furthermore, it was the first collection that organized the oral teachings of yoga and spiritual rituals into a guide towards Samadhi (or enlightenment).
Closer to modern times (also known as the “Post-Classical Yoga Era”), yoga masters began to reject the idea that the path to enlightenment was only through the teachings of Vedas. Instead, they focused on cultivating the idea that enlightenment could be reached through the physical body.
It focused more on the connection between the physical body and the spiritual connection by removing the knots in muscles to reconnect with the universal force around us. This type of thinking was popularized in Western culture and gained the name “Hatha Yoga.”
How Old are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?
Yoga Journal reports that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are around 2,000 years old. That does not mean the teachings have any less impact on our modern lives than they did on our great-great-great-grandparents. The texts have withstood the sands of time, emphasizing reconnecting and living a happy life.
History of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
As far as the origin of the teachings that the sutras are based on, that remains a bit of a mystery. The assumption is that Patanjali collected all the thoughts, mantras, and teachings of yoga from generations before him.
He organized the knowledge from these understandings and applied his interpretation of the lessons he wished to instill in his students. From this knowledge gathering, the Yoga Sutras were written by Patanjali around 400 BCE in India.
Once the texts were complete and people began following their guidance, it quickly became the most influential teaching of yoga and self-discovery. It was translated into 42 languages in the medieval era, including Old Javanese and Arabic.
Unfortunately, the teachings fell out of popularity for about 700 years. It wasn’t until the 19th century that the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali gained fame once more thanks to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda, the Theosophical Society, and others. In the 20th century, along with the growing popularity of yoga as a practice of meditation and stress relief, it gained popularity once more and is now available to the general public. (source: Yoga In Practice 2012).
The Four Books of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Explained
The four books originate from the teachings of the sage Patanjali. Around 400 BCE, he wrote a collection of texts comprising 196 sutras (or texts of thinking). These 196 sutras were further categorized into the four books, now called the “Four Books of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.”
As a side note, these are excellent references for anyone diving into the Yogic Lifestyle, but especially for those pursuing their online yoga teacher training; these are great resources to help you understand what is behind the asanas.
According to yoga media, the four books of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are:
- Samadhi Pada
- Sadhana Pada
- Vibhuti Pada
- Kaivalya Pada
Each book works together to create a teaching guide towards a spiritual journey into understanding oneself better.
1. Samadhi Pada
The first chapter in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comprises around 51 sutras, all about enlightenment. Not only does it help define the goal of enlightenment using yoga, but it also explains what yoga is.
For the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, yoga is a physical means to detach the physical form from the sense of oneself or ego. It is used to vigorously practice concentration to separate (“vairagya”) through repeated practice (“ahbyasa”).
To obtain enlightenment, the physical body must first overcome the pain that comes with mental stillness. Because the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are designed like a guidebook, it outline almost every possible obstacle that one may encounter, especially in health, wealth (abundance), and relationships, while following the yoga instructions.
Along with outlining them all, it offers possible solutions to return to a state of dissolving the Self from the body. Without this disconnect from the ego, the yoga student will continue to suffer mental pain and suffering.
2. Sadhana Pada
The second chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the Sadhana Pada. This chapter highlights the importance of a connection between the yoga student (also referred to as “yogi”) and a divine or higher Self. This does not necessarily mean a religious figure such as a god or mystic being (though one is welcome to add such a meaning). It mainly focuses on connecting with the pure essence of one’s true Self.
Roughly translating to a “unit of spiritual practice,” the Sadhana Pada outlines the steps necessary to remove suffering and move towards enlightenment. This is further explained to be achieved through the Eight Limbs of Yoga, or the eight-fold path (Ashtanga yoga). All eight limbs are introduced in the Sadhana Pada, but only the first five are explained.
The eight limbs introduced in Sadhana Pada are:
- Yamas (ethical standards)
- Non-harming (Ahimsa)
- Truthfulness (Satya)
- Non-stealing (Asteya)
- Moderating the Senses (Brahmacharya)
- Non-possessiveness (Aparigraha)
- Niyamas (self-disciplines)
- Self-Purification (Shaucha)
- Contentment (Santosha)
- Self-Discipline (Tapas)
- Self-Study (Svadhyaya)
- Self-Surrender (Ishvara Pranidhana)
- Asana (physical poses)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
- The formal practice of controlling the breath, which is the source of our prana, or vital life force
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
- The goal is to clear the mind of all thoughts and leave the body in such a relaxed position that divine intervention seems possible.
- Warning: Many yoga students have passed out while practicing pratyahara. Please take caution with your surroundings!
- Dharana (concentration)
- The act of holding, bearing, wearing, supporting, maintaining, retaining, and keeping back a good memory
- Dhyana (meditation)
- This is the cliche you may think of when you hear “meditation,” but it is essential. This is especially true for reaching enlightenment. You must self-reflect to disconnect from ego and reconnect with the true Self.
- Samadhi (absorption into the object of focus)
- To focus only on one object and nothing else. It can be a physical object, but usually, in terms of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, it focuses on the true Self and complete liberation.
3. Vibhuti Pada
The third chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the Vibhuti Pada. With 55 sutras, it focuses on the power of enlightenment and manifestation. The Vibhuti Pada also highlights the mind’s ability to concentrate to almost supernatural levels (also known as “siddhis”). According to the Yoga Sutras, this power level can only be reached through absolute dedication to the Eight Limbs of Yoga.
The chapter’s primary focus is for the individual to dedicate their time and willpower towards the “…deeper progression of yoga practice, with a focus on the mind’s power to manifest” (Yogapedia, Vibhuti Pada). In other words, the guide tries to lead you towards a more mindful state of living, even outside the time dedicated to the yoga practice.
It also combines the importance of the final three limbs of the eight-limbed path. Dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment) need to be mastered before moving on to Kaivalya Pada so that siddhis can be executed.
Although siddhis may sound like a superpower, it merely removes the Self from the ego. It is a manifestation of healthy dissociation to reconnect and establish a relationship with the true Self, lost from the distractions of the modern world.
The goal is to reach enlightenment with good intentions and little to no ego. Without the separation of Self from ego, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali cautions that the feelings of enlightenment (once reached) will quickly hinder the yogi’s ability to cross towards final liberation (also known as Kaivalya).
However, Patanjali warns in Vibhuti Pada that one must practice without ego, or these powers may become an obstacle on the path to Kaivalya or ‘final liberation.’
4. Kaivalya pada
The final chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is Kaivalya pada. Translating to the “unit of isolation,” this chapter focuses mainly on the complete separation of the individual with their “…relationships, egoism, attraction, aversion and the cycle of birth and death” (Yogapedia Kaivalya). If the yoga student can achieve this complete separation of Self from ego and surroundings, they are called a “Kevalin.”
The final liberation is an idea that is well-defined throughout the chapter, as well. It is the liberation from rebirth and freedom from suffering through realizing the true Self. With a focus on Samadhi (enlightenment) being the absence of an ego, the Kaivalya pada celebrates peaceful minds through compassion.
Through the 34 sutras written by Patanjali, the yogi can achieve this peaceful mind only through the following mental practices:
- Attitudes of friendliness – There should be no envy towards joyful people, especially when you feel lower than them.
- Compassion – It should extend beyond those who are kind first and incorporate people who are unhappy and less fortunate.
- Encourage virtue – With no ego, the yogi should encourage acts of kindness in the name of higher beings (or of the true Self) and take joy in supporting these acts.
- Resist the impure – Through dedication and self-discipline, the yogi should avoid any acts or thoughts that would otherwise lead them towards people with ill intentions.
Once a yoga student has reached this level of enlightenment and Kevalin, they can get a final liberation from the internal and outside forces that keep the body and mind from the connection of the true Self.
Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga
With so much talk about reaching the divine and connecting to a higher being, you may ask yourself: Is yoga a spiritual exercise? Although it can be for some yoga students, it does not have to be. Yoga focuses on the seven spiritual laws taught to all yogi followers, on which the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are based.
According to Chopra, the seven spiritual laws of yoga are:
- Law of Pure Potentiality – Your true Self has unbound potential for creativity and eternal life. It is the idea that you are part of the more extensive system that moves and flows with the universe.
- Law of Giving and Receiving – The universe has an energy source constantly flowing in and out of everything, a part of itself. Because you are a part of this universe, there is a balance of giving and taking for everything you want (such as love, inner peace, etc.).
- Law of Karma – Like a cause and effect, everything you do will have an equal amount of intention behind it when it returns to your presence. It’s almost like a “pay it forward” type of deal. If you do good actions with no ego behind them, your kindness is rewarded in positive karma later in life.
- Law of Least Effort – This does not mean you can’t go to work! Instead, this law focuses on not resisting any obstacles you may face while trying to complete your goals. If the goals are motivated by love and kindness, the universe’s energy is in your hands and will.
- Law of Intention and Desire – In a quiet state of mind, making your intentions and desires clear to the universe without malice can help grant you access to the universe’s infinite organizing power. This is the idea of “speaking it into existence.”
- Law of Detachment – This practice can be harder to follow in our modern society, but the idea is not to force situations to go your way. Rather than work yourself sick to achieve a goal, know that things will work out as intended by the universe. However, it would be best to try acting as much as possible to achieve your goal.
- Law of Dharma – A Dharma is a purpose in life. This law brings comfort in knowing that everyone has a purpose that can be exposed through service to others. You are given unlimited love, abundance, and true fulfillment as a reward for your kindness and willingness to show yourself.
As the building blocks for the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and all yoga practices after it, it is essential to understand the seven laws of yoga practice. Knowing the seven laws will keep you grounded as you think over sutras as you move through the poses during the session.
The seven laws of yoga practice can be combined with the teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to help cultivate a better living situation outside of the yoga studio! They can serve as an excellent foundation for furthering your well-being and your positive impact on others. After all, the Law of Karma is a powerful force!
If you are interested in taking yoga or training to be a Yoga Therapist but are unsure where to start, reading the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a great place to begin. It will help give a foundation of the terminology you will most likely hear in class (if you so choose to take one), and it can also guide your self-improvement.
Not only does the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali help guide students towards enlightenment through yoga, but it can also be the groundwork for a better understanding of one’s purpose and standings in the universe. We also highly recommend our articles on the yogic lifestyle as a great starting place for practical application and perhaps a more accessible study.
All with the tone of a helping hand, the sutras guide the reader and yogi through the trials of life and hardship that come with reflecting inward.