Attributed to Patanjali, the Yoga Sutras were compiled a few hundred years before the Common Era and are essentially the bible of yoga. I love them, because they are old yet still apply to the modern world. I love that they are succinct and specific. I love the feeling I get when I chant them, and I love that my life has changed for the better because of them. I am in awe of the sutras, and they inspire me.
My teacher A.G. Mohan, a student of the late great father of modern yoga Krishnamacharya, instilled in me a deep sense of appreciation for each and every word of each and every sutra. In Sanskrit, sutra means string or thread. Imagine a tapestry like the ones hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or at the Vatican. If you stand too close, you can’t see the entire picture. If you stand too far away, you can’t see the individual stitches. It is like this with the sutras. We need to get close enough to see each sutra for what it is, understand what each word means in context, how the sutra relates to the one that came before and how it flows into the one that comes next, so that we can step away and understand the sutras as a complete system.
What then is this system of yoga? It is psychology, philosophy, even religion if you want it to be. Yoga is an internal, personal investigation into the mind in terms of what is true, what is real, and what is the purpose of a human existence. It is a deep dive into the age-old question, “What is the meaning of life?” And the first four sutras give us the answer:
atha yoga anushasanam
yogash chitta vritti nirodhah
tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam
vritti sarupyam itaratra
Patanjali vows that now, based on personal, transcendental experiences studying and following scriptures, the teachings of yoga will begin. Yoga is the control of the activities of the field of the mind. Then, in that moment of control, the Self is realized and we stand in our true nature. This is Self-realization and our true nature is peace. At other times, when not in that state, we stand in our thoughts and so it appears that we are our thoughts.
That’s it. That is the entire point of the text – to keep the mind under control. When we are able to keep a thought of our choosing in our mind and allow it to be there continuously, we have full control over our internal state. This creates our reality, which in turn dictates the quality and meaning of our life.
Think about it. Our reality is not the web of tangled thoughts that constantly whirl through our heads like, “Should I buy another pair of yoga pants? Will I ever be able to do a handstand? Should I call her back and repeat myself because I am not sure if I made myself clear? What time is that meeting? Will I be able to get to my son’s school on time for pick up? Where should we go on our next date night? Speaking of dates, do I have enough for my smoothie in the morning?”
Do you see what I am talking about? If that was all there was to life, then the Yoga Sutras would not have survived all of these years. When I actively choose the thought to have in my mind, like “I am love,” and keep that thought there, I stand in my true nature. I am not, in that moment, mistaking my Self for those thoughts.
While it sounds simple, it is not easy and, in 192 more sutras, Patanjali offers a systematic method for controlling the activities of the mind. We learn about what kinds of thoughts we have, strategies that will help us to focus our minds, how to attain more subtle levels of understanding of our minds and the powers we attain from this kind of focus, and ultimately how to become completely free.
This is why I love the sutras, and I believe that we are incredibly lucky that such a profound system has survived through the ages. Peace is possible in this life, and Patanjali has given us a path to follow.
Join me here on Five Tattvas, in the weeks to come, for a deep exploration of the sutras!