The varied philosophies and methodologies of Yoga itself were clearly and methodically brought together and presented by the sage Patanjali in his set of 196 aphorisms called “The Yoga Sutras,” written some 2200 years ago. The Sutras bring together all the various strands of theory and practice from all sources of yoga and present them in one concise, integrated and comprehensive text. How all the aspects interrelate and form part of the whole body of yoga are clearly elucidated. There are 8 disciplines to yoga as presented by Patanjali (thus Astanga yoga – 8 limbed yoga) which must be practiced and refined in order to perceive the true self- the ultimate goal of Yoga:
- Yama – Universal ethics: Non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint and non-acquisitiveness.
- Niyama – Principles of self conduct: purity, contentment, intense dedication or austerity, study of self and scriptures and self-surrender.
- Asana – practice of the postures.
- Pranayama – Breath control.
- Pratyahara – withdrawal and control of the senses.
- Dharana – concentration.
- Dhyana – meditation.
- Samadhi – a state of higher consciousness where the sense of self (ego) dissolves in the object of meditation and the individual self exists in its own pure nature.
The key elements of all the paths of yoga are presented in a balanced perspective and legend has it that Patanjali was himself a realised being and so writing from experience.
In the four chapters of his sutras he explains the levels of higher consciousness (Samadhi) which the aspirant must experience before reaching Kaivalya (emancipation) and the end of this world’s spiritual pursuit. The second chapter deals with the methodology which must be followed to reach Samadhi and the hindrances which may be encountered. The unusual powers that may develop are also described with the warning that their lure must be avoided, while the final chapter covers the achievement of Kaivalya in detail.
These Sutras were and are still considered a most profound and enlightening study of the human psyche. Patanjali shows how through the practice of Yoga, we can transform ourselves, gain mastery over the mind and emotions, overcome obstacles to our spiritual evolution and attain the goal of yoga: liberation from the bondage of worldly desires. Written in Sanskrit, many commentaries and translations have been written over the centuries by various scholars and practitioners; each interpreting as per their era and understanding.