Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

The practices of yoga and meditation were developing and taking shape over a period of a thousand years and much more prior to the start of the Common Era. Two thousand or so years ago, a key text was written by a largely unknown figure named Patanjali. The Yoga Sutra consists of nearly 200 terse aphorisms that outline the process of a meditation practice designed to bring to light our true identity and nature, which in turn liberates us from entanglement in “maya” or the illusionary life of identifying oneself with a separate “I” and transient experiences. Even though this text is often associated with the dualistic philosophy of the Samkhya school, it has been identified as the primary work systemizing yoga and meditation practices that developed over many preceding centuries and has further been adopted by a wide range of traditions and schools without difficulty.

The Yoga Sutra is a terse systemization of the practice of meditation and covers all necessary aspects from the foundational practices of negative behavioral patterns to abandon, positive behavioral patterns and attitudes to cultivate to the “fruits” of practice in the awakening of identification with the sole, undefinable, nameless Source or Self of all that is. In between, are hatha yoga postures, pranayama (breathing practices affecting life force), sensory inhibition or withdrawl of attention on sensory perceptions, concentration on a single object of focus, meditation, and samadhi (the ecstatic states maturing to a full glimpse of our true nature and identity, unobscured by the “fluctuations” of the mind or the ordinary waking state.

The outlined process describes how old habitual thought and behavioral patterns (vasanas), based on the imprints of the past impressions created by past experiences (samskara), are uprooted or dissolved over time through the practice of meditation and the samadhi states.

The Yoga Sutra lays out this in a very methodical and concise way and I have chosen as the translated reference to use for this article the simplest or easiest to understand with terminology best suited for those previously unfamiliar with the Sutra: Chip Hartranft’s 2003 version published by Shambhala Classics. I will cross reference some of the vocabulary that Georg Feuerstein uses in some cases (in his translated version), in order to note the more traditional words used in the Advaita Vedanta context. Chip is using more Buddhist flavored terminology.

This text begins by defining Yoga as the means “to still the patterning of consciousness (citta)” so that “pure awareness can abide in its very nature”. Feuerstein translates all of this (lines two and three of the Sutra): “Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness (citta)” and “then the Seer [ie the transcendental Self] abides in [its] essential form”.

Before proceeding to line four and beyond, it should be clarified that “citta”, translated as “consciousness” in most cases, refers to the whole complex of the “mind”: thoughts, emotions, images, memories, conceptualizing, perceptions, etc. Normally, these patterns (or fluctuations) of consciousness (citta or “mind”) obscure “pure awareness” (our ultimate nature as the Self or Seer to use Vedantic terms). Without the stilling of the patterns or fluctuations, “awareness takes itself to be the patterns of consciousness” (Chip H) or as Georg F translates the fourth aphorism: “at other times [there is] conformity [of the Self] with the fluctuations”.

These patterns or fluctuations are then described in the next seven aphorisms. They are right perception, distorted percerption, conceptualization and imagination, deep sleep, and memory or remembering.

The 8 limbed system of Yoga begins with basic behavioral and moral conditions to live by in order to begin reversing the storing of more “seeds” of future adverse conditions and actions in the practitioner’s life. Then, the practice of hatha yoga helps establish the conditions for a settling of the mind and energies of the body by physical positions that further help set the foundation for the practices in the subsequent limbs. Pranayama, breathing exercises, helps create the settling of a practitioner’s life force when in a restless and hyperactive condition or to energize the life force (called “prana” and dependent on breath) when the practitioner experiences sluggishness and dullness. Turning one’s attention inward and withdrawing from a focus on sensory perceptions coming from “outside” is the next “limb” or aspect of the Yoga process of stilling the “patterns” or “fluctuations” of consciousness. Turning one’s attention inwards in this fashion, the practice then proceeds with the next “limb” of concentration on a single object. That single object, especially in Buddhist systems, can be simply one’s breathing. Or, it can be on what Georg Feuerstein refers to as a “psychospiritual center”, or one of the “chakras”. Or, perhaps some external object or even an external object that is focused on internally via a visualization of that object. Or, the object to focus on could simply be the sound Om, voiced or as a “silent” thought (perhaps in rhythm with the inhalations and exhalations). Concentrating in this fashion begins to quiet the incessant chatter though at the start of practice it’s typical to find oneself overwhelmed by thoughts, emotions, and internal perceptions. Thus, the practice at this point is to return attention to the single point of focus.

“Meditation” is the next (and seventh) of the limbs (numbering 8 altogether). And, it proceeds from the concentration practice of the sixth limb, which Georg Feuerstein describes (from The Yoga Tradition, page 250):

As a direct continuation of the process of sensory inhibition, concentration is the “holding of the mind in a motionless state”, [as an old upanishad] describes this advanced practice. Concentration…is the focusing of attention to a given locus…”

Feuerstein then describes the development of meditation, the next limb in the Yoga practice (page 251):

Prolonged and deepening concentration leads naturally to the state of meditative absorption, or dhyana, in which…the object or locus [focused on] fills the entire space of consciousness. Just as one-pointedness of attention is the mechanism of concentration, “one-flowingness” is the underlying process of meditation. All arising ideas gyrate around the object of concentration and are accompanied by a peaceful, calm emotional disposition. There is no loss of lucidity, but, on the contrary, the sense of wakefulness appears to be intensified, even though there is no or little awareness of the external environment.

Meditation (to use again Chip Hartranft’s terminology) “stills the patternings” of consciousness, the five basic types identified above. (Feuerstein, instead of stilling, refers to a process of a restriction of these patternings, which he calls “fluctuations”.) These fluctuations and patterns of course feed the deep storehouse of accumulated impressions based on our experiences and actions. These “samskaras” (or impressions) serve as “activators” for future actions and feeling states.

Feuerstein describes the final (eighth) limb of Yogic practice, “samadhi” or ecstasy (page 252):

In the same way in which concentration, when sufficiently acute, leads to meditative absorption, the ecstatic state (samadhi) ensues when all the “whirls” or “fluctuations” of the ordinary waking consciousness are fully restricted through the practice of meditation. Thus concentration, meditation, and ecstasy are phases of a continuous process of mental deconstruction or unification…

There are a lot of misconceptions casually assumed by many regarding the nature of samadhi. It is not a self hypnotic trance state or or a falling into unconsciousness. It is a profoundly super awake condition that is deeply at rest at the same time. In Patanjali’s Yoga system, the highest level of samadhi occurs when there is a complete stilling of the fluctuations, zero content or movement in consciousness, the “ego-I” sense dissolved and the Transcendental Self (or Source Condition of Consciousness Itself) recognized and realized as one’s own Identity. This is called Nirvakalpi Samadhi (or also asamprajnata-samadhi) and it is temporary. But, Feuerstein describes its impact (page 254):

Asamprajnata-samadhi is the only avenue to recover conscious awareness of the transcendental Self-Identity and its eternal freedom. In this supraconcious ecstasy, there is neither an object of contemplation nor a contemplating subject. To the ordinary mind it appears as a state of frightening voidness. When maintained over a sufficiently long period of time, the fire of this ecstasy gradually transmutes the unconscious, obliterating all the subliminal activators (samskara) that spawn renewed ego-conscious activity and the resultant karma.

Then, Feuerstein reports on the fruit of the practice, first in the philosophical framework of the dualistic school of Classical Yoga and then in the context of Advaita Vedanta (page 254):

At the peak of this ecstatic unification, yogis reach the point of no-return. They become liberated. According to the dualistic model of Classical Yoga, this implies the dropping of the finite body-mind. The liberated being abides in perfect “aloneness” (kaivalya), which is a transmittal state of sheer Presence and pure Awareness. [Advaita] Vedanta holds that ultimate Reality is non dual [and] that liberation does not have to coincide with the death of the physical body…..

The two key points emphasized for meditation and yoga practitioners are, as translated here by Chip Hartranft in the following lines near the opening of the Yoga Sutra, practice (abhyasa) and non-reaction (vairagya):

1.12: Both practice and non-reaction are required to still the patterning of consciousness.

1.13: Practice is the sustained effort to rest in that stillness.

1.14: This practice becomes firmly rooted when it is cultivated skillfully and continuously for a long time.

1:15: As for non-reaction, one can recognize that it has been fully achieved, when no attachment arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.

1:16: When the ultimate level of non reaction has been reached, pure awareness can clearly see itself as independent from the fundamental qualities of nature.

1:17: At first the stilling process is accompanied by four kinds of cognition: analytical thinking, insight, bliss, and feeling like a self.

1:18 Later after one practices steadily to bring all thought to a standstill, these four kinds of cognition fall away, leaving only a store of latent impressions in the depth memory.

1:19 These latent impressions incline one to reborn after one leaves the body at death and is dissolved into nature.

1:20 For all others, faith, energy, mindfulness, integration, and wisdom form the path to realization.

1:21 For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near.

1:22 How near depends on whether the practice is mild, moderate, or intense.

There is a lot more to The Yoga Sutra than shared here, four sections of aphorisms. The 2003 Shambhala Classic book “The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary” by Chip Hartranft is very highly recommended for the reader wanting to incorporate directly the practices described.