Updated: Jun 20, 2021
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is perhaps the most celebrated yoga text, and for good reason. While the text was compiled for serious yoga aspirants for the purpose of reaching enlightenment, the Sutras, and the 8-fold path within them, are powerful tools for anyone.
The Sutras are mini-meditations that can be contemplated as stand-alone meditations, but they are also threads that make up an entire tapestry of the yoga practice. Contemplating them can help stabilize the mind, uplift the spirit, shine light on our motivations and behaviors, and help us awaken and live more harmoniously with ourselves and others.
When I first encountered the Sutras and the Eightfold Path, I was excited to learn about the deeper practices of yoga. Now, after many years of working with this text, my appreciation has deepened. I just love the Sutras! Even looking at the books on my shelf makes me feel happy!
Astanga Yoga (pronounced UshTAHnga) means Eight Limbs of Yoga. It is also referred to as a path. The idea is that you must start with the first steps and progress to the last. However, we can enter into the practice from anywhere. For me, I discovered yoga through asana first, and then started contemplation, meditation, and getting more serious about truly cultivating my mind and heart.
Let's Dive Deeper: Sanskrit is a complex and rich language. Looking at the meaning of any one word or concept can take you down a rabbit hole. Here I am combining many meanings that resonated with me as I have practiced yoga over time. I am drawing from different sources and influences, but trying to stay true to the original meanings, and respectful of the roots of yoga.
All of these concepts deserve chapters for themselves. For the purpose of this post, I am choosing just a few.
Yamas and Niyamas
All human philosophies and religions have variations on the same themes. Don't kill, don't steal, try not to be a total jerk . . . do unto others as you would have done unto you . . . This system is one variation on that theme.
Yoga is an ancient and many twigged tree. There are other forms of yoga that have different yamas and niyamas. In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Yamas are Non-violence, truth, non-stealing, continence, forgiveness, endurance, compassion, humility, moderate diet and cleanliness. The Niyamas are Penance (austerity), contentment, belief (faith) in the Supreme God, charity, worship of God, listening to the recitations of sacred scriptures, modesty, a discerning intellect, japa (mantra repetition) and sacrifice (giving up worldly pleasures and surrendering the ego). (Hatha Yoga Pradipika 1:16 ii & iii)
It is easy to kind of skip over the yamas and niyamas, or to take them for granted. Of course I am not violent! Of course I am a nice person. But have I had less than well-wishing thoughts for someone this week? Have I judged? Thought someone did a job poorly? Thought they "should have seen something" more clearly, more quickly? Snapped at a friend or loved one? Remembered a past injury and thought ill of the "offender."
We are all human. We will have moments of impatience and judgment. In the case of actual trauma and mistreatment by others-- is part of the therapeutic process to sit with our feelings. Repressing them doesn't work. Spiritually bypassing them doesn't work. But after we have worked with our feelings, the next step is to purify our minds to the extent that we are able. Forgive what we can, even if it takes meditation. Get out of the habit of automatically judging, reacting or snapping. Get into the habit of responding with patience and kindness. Apologize immediately when we make mistakes. Because we care about ourselves and others. Just yesterday I had some big experiences with ahimsa. It takes perseverance and discipline to truly (truly truly) ensconce in ahimsa and break the cycle of reacting--even when the other person provokes.
In my meditation above, I included "happiness" and "peak experiences" as potential experiences associated with Samadhi. To be honest, happiness is not an original goal in yoga.
Samadhi means a state of meditative absorption. There are many different kinds of samadhi. Awakened yogis can go into a state of samadhi that is so deep, they can stop their hearts, slow their breathing, be buried alive for weeks, eat nothing--simply be in meditation that deeply. They may be able to project their consciousness into the minds of others, continents away. With more practice, an awakened yogi will enter a state of samadhi so deep, their consciousness leaves their physical body and joins the energy of the universe, forever. That is Mokṣa (pronounced Moksha)--permanent escape from the cycle of birth and death.
I chose to include under my Samadhi list other ideas like Happiness, Wellness and Peak Experiences. As an American yoga practitioner who is also a householder, I definitely want to pursue happiness. What makes me happy? A combo of many things, including equanimity, contentment, natural joy and awakening. Being established in wellness and having peak experiences is a part of self-actualization. For a yoga enthusiast who is not on the path to Moksha, these experiences have similarities to Samadhi.
Please note that the 8-Fold Path of Patanjali is different from the Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path.
I really enjoy working with the Buddhist model as well, and in fact, have been deeply influenced by many Buddhist teachers. It is all the same soul work, but with slightly different essences.
I also want to highlight that Patanjali and Buddha are not the only ones who came up with these kinds of lists. Patanjali is thought to have taken several different Yoga Lineages and put them together in something more straightforward and codified. And of course, we have the 10 Commandments in Judaism and Christianity.
It's not a Path--It's More Like a Web:
The limbs are less like stepping stones and more like threads in a web. They are all interconnected and one limb leads to the others. They are all parts of a dharmic lifestyle--cultivating consciousness every day in every way as much as possible. I wrote more about the interconnectedness in a previous blog post here. For now, here is one of the graphics from that post:
Pronouncing these limbs and other Sanskrit Terms . . I am chagrined to say I recently discovered that my teachers taught me incorrect pronunciations. My Indian yoga teachers didn't correct me. So I am in the process of unlearning and doing better.
Ultimately, I may choose to seek out a Sanskrit teacher. For now here are a few resources to get us started on correct pronunciation of the Yama and Niyamas. Click Here
May this practice serve for our own awakening, and the awakening of all! 🙏❤️🌸
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika by Swami Muktibodhananda