patanjali’s yoga sutras

How It Works

Throughout the world, thousands of individuals regularly attend group yoga classes seeking the benefits of this timeless science of self.  In an effort to provide context and clarity to one of the planet’s most effective self-care systems, we explore the key concepts in yoga’s foundation text, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Yoga’s profound teachings and their powerful effects on the human psyche are the result of thousands of years of observation, careful collection and comparison of data and meticulous transmission of information from teacher to student. This experiential, lineage-based methodology, fully articulated in the Yoga Sutras, is the basis for yoga’s ability to transform individuals and reduce suffering.

Unless our teachers become familiar with the underlying principles of yoga psychology as contained in the Sutras, modern yoga students are likely to end up, to paraphrase a contemporary songwriter, “looking for ways to change, just finding new ways to stay the same”, an army of well-stretched neurotics, a flock of flexible sheep (at least we’ll all have yoga butts).

Over and Again

Let’s review. In previous articles, we have seen that India’s ancient Vedas are the source of the Yoga Sutras, as well as Samkhya, Yoga’s sister philosophy. Samkhya outlines a relationship between the clear, unchanging consciousness at the center of all living things and an ever-changing, conditioned mind, subject to addiction, distortion and delusion. According to yoga, the mind’s inherent tendency to confuse two similar objects, (happiness/money, wisdom/knowledge, need/greed, love/lust, choice/habit, spirit/form, freedom/power) causes us to continuously choose that which leads to suffering over that which leads to joy. 

Yoga’s solution to this universal dilemma is viveka, the ability to discriminate between two things which are very close together or similar in appearance. One can cultivate abundant viveka, according to Patanjali, through long-term, uninterrupted, enthusiastic, guided practice of the ashtanga, or eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs model presents tools for replacing inefficient, outdated patterns of perception and behavior in six areas of living.

The six areas are: relationships, lifestlye, body, breath, senses and mind. The tools include relationship guidelines, physical postures, breath control and various techniques for improving the senses, mind and emotions. Ultimately, all yoga’s tools are aimed at cultivating a balanced, satvic mind. Such a stable mind, according to sutra 1:2, can more easily focus on and sustain relationships with chosen objects over time. In a dualistic universe filled with infinite possibilities, our ability to make intelligent choices, clarify values, behave with respect to those values and embrace the consequences of our actions is essential for an individual or society to flourish.

The Yoga of Action

J. Krishnamurti, the great South Indian sage used to say, “The confused mind finds confused answers”. Because the imbalanced, disturbed or distorted mind makes problems out of everything, including attempts at positive change. Sutra 2:1 presents a strategy for self-improving without inadvertently perpetuating suffering in the very attempt to reduce it. This process is presented as a three-part model called Kriya Yoga. Kriya is from the Sanskrit word for “action”, the root of the English creation. Kriya Yoga, the yoga of action, outlines the three components of satvic change.

Acting As If

The first component is tapas. Classically translated as “austerities”, tapas can be understood as deliberate actions aimed at personal refinement. According to yoga, suffering (duhka) is the result of self-destructive patterns such as cruelty, dishonesty, projection and negativity. These patterns, or samskaras create stress, anxiety, addiction and various behaviors that lead to a plethora of physical problems. Tapas are specific practices aimed at changing undesirable habits of body, breath, mind or speech. 

For instance, asana (yogic postures), practiced correctly, softens and strengthens the physical body; pranayama (yogic breathing) subtle-izes the breath; and yoga’s various meditation techniques serve to refine the mind. 

Outside Looking In

However, not every action is tapas. The foundation of tapas is Kriya Yoga’s second element, reflection, or svadhyayaSvadhyaya, from the Sanskrit, sva,  “oneself”,  dhyaya, “to know”, classically required a religious reference, such as a priest or sacred text. Today, reflection can be accomplished with the help of a qualified yoga teacher, therapist or sponsor. Svadhyaya requires a clear reference point other than our own minds to suggest the appropriate action needed to refine the body, breath, mind or behavior.

Right reflection is important, for no reference, the wrong reference or too many references can often deepen our patterns and increase our problems. For instance, yoga classes are often populated, in part, by overachievers who see themselves as lazy. A yoga teacher who possesses similar, perfectionistic, “no pain no gain, just breathe through it” tendencies would be appreciated by students, but would ultimately deepen the students self-destructive patterns, increasing their suffering. Sadly, this happens more than most would like to believe. The number of unacknowledged injuries in yoga classes at the hands of teacher-less teachers  (reference-less references) inadvertently reinforcing the student’s bad habits is staggering.

True tapas, real refinement for such students, might be less effortful asana, perhaps 70% of their maximum, or more pranayama, reflection or rest. For some, the most powerful tapas might be no asana at all.

Yoga For Life

Kriya Yoga’s strategy of guided reflection leading to contrary action extends far beyond the simple level of physical postures into yoga’s more subtle, complex realms: relationships, lifestlye, breath, senses and ultimately the life-shaping patterns of the deepest unconscious mind (citta).

My teacher once insisted that I buy some flowers for a colleague who, for some reason, constantly pushed all my buttons at once (I’m not perfect, yet). Following his seemingly absurd suggestion was a difficult task, one I would never have initiated on my own. (I had other ideas about what to give her). When I presented her with the flowers, however, she softened, began to cry.

She confessed that she really admired my work, but was self-conscious, defensive and slightly aggressive whenever we were together. From that day on, I saw her in a completely different light as a result of following my teachers direction. Today, this woman is the mother of my children. (Not really… but we actually are close friends.)

Interestingly, the need for a teacher to aid in personal reflection highlights yoga’s central paradox. On the one hand, all the answers are inside the individual. Consciousness, intelligence and clarity (purusa) are at the center of every living thing. At the same time, the conditioned mind is subject to distortion and blind spots. If left to ourselves we often lean toward our imbalance.

Consider the spinach on the teeth metaphor: I might be a fairly wise (or wisely fair) individual, self-aware and pretty good at what I do. If, however, I have leftover spinach from a lunchtime salad on my teeth, anyone else would be able to see the spinach more easily than I. An ongoing relationship with someone trained to watch for spinach (and tell me about it in a way that I can hear) is indispensable. On our own, we might have great knowledge and insight, but just as two eyes are required for the perception of depth, the added perspective of a teacher helps us to see our limiting patterns as well as our full potential as human beings.     

The Powers That Be

The third element in Kriya Yoga is Isvarapranidhana. While this term was classically translated as “surrender to God”, a more modern translation is “the acknowledgment that there are forces beyond our control”.

With Isvarapranidhana, we can humbly admit that despite our best intentions and most appropriate actions, the final outcome is out of our hands. This aspect of Kriya Yoga translates as focusing more attention on the quality of our actions than on the ultimately uncertain results.  

The fundamental confusion between that which can be controlled and that which cannot, another example of samyoga, is a major cause of human suffering. Trying to control the uncontrollable, or failing to take action when we should leads to anxiety and frustration.

In modern times, Kriya Yoga’s principles are clearly expressed in the Serenity Prayer, an invocation used extensively by 12-Step programs: Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (Isvarapranidhana), the courage to change the things I can (tapas), and the wisdom to know the difference (svadhyaya).

Setting the Bar

Not only does the Kriya Yoga model present timeless truths about the nature of change, it also establishes the standards by which an action can be considered yogic. Washing my hair, if undertaken with the intention of refinement, after serious reflection, while focusing on the quality of the action, captures the essence of yoga far more than 144 sun salutations done mechanically, without adequate reflection, or with attachment to the result.

Kriya Yoga is yoga for adults. This essential strategy embodies the spirit of yoga and enables every action, from the extraordinary to the everyday, to be highly effective, deeply transformational and utterly joyful.

Take that to your Tuesday night stretch class.


Check out this video on Chrishnamacharya practicing on the Sutras.