Around the second century of the Common Era, the yoga Sutras were composed by Patanjali. Patanjali means “fallen angel” – the idea being that he came to assist humanity. The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 short verses, or sutras, organised into four chapters. In the first chapter, Patanjali gives his definition of yoga almost immediately. The next three chapters outline practices and approaches to help the students of yoga who have difficulty following his initial teaching without more guidance, as well as describe some of the experiences the Yogi might encounter.
All enlightened masters transmitting teachings through books or otherwise, start with the highest teachings first. The sutras are incredibly condensed packets of wisdom, meant to be unpacked and considered, if possible, with the help of a teacher. Often even the verb is left out of a sutra to make it smaller and easier to remember. At the time Patanjali composed the sutras, they were not written down-they were transmitted orally. When considered this way, the organization of the sutras makes more sense. His teaching at its most concise is given first. Then the text expands on the essential teaching. Some non-linear repetition and re-visiting of concepts is part of the way speak, not necessarily the way we would write, and this is reflected in the sutras. Rich with wisdom, they can be interpreted in the light of our present culture and circumstances. Let’s unpack the first sutra:
“Atha yoganusasanam” – Now we begin the practice of yoga.
The word “Now” is often seen in Yogic scripture as an invocation-an auspicious beginning. The word “Now”, used at the very beginning of these sutras implies that whatever else we may have done prior to this study, now we begin in earnest the study of yoga. This study is not to be put off any longer, for now is the time to begin. The time to understand our human condition is now.
“We” – Patanjali informs us that this study is not meant to be done in isolation. The support of a community of people with a common aim is indispensable in creating a momentum for a study and an exchange of ideas. Any community with the ability to exchange ideas freely evolves those ideas more rapidly than when there is the impediment of distance, or a self-centred and fearful hoarding of information.
“Yoga” – The term yoga has meant different things at different times. For Patanjali, Yoga means Samadhi. Samadhi is a state of being in which Supreme Consciousness flows unrestricted through us. The individual ego dissolves in this river of clarity.
“Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah”-
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.
In this sutra Patanjali gives us his definition of yoga, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness.” This is the most famous of all the sutras. Patanjali gives us his definition of yoga right here, immediately after his welcome. Yoga occurs when the movements (vrttis) of the mind (citta) are still (nirodhah). In this stillness, in the absence of distraction and mental pre-occupation, our true nature can be experienced. A “vrtti” is anything that turns or moves.
So movement of the mind includes thought, emotion, and memory. Anything that is a disturbance to the quietude of the mind requires restraint.
One can see why Patanjali has another 194 sutras to help explain how to achieve this. Stilling the mind is not an easy thing to do. In the next Sutra Patanjali explains why we would want to undertake this vast task.
“Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam”-
Then the seer dwells in his own splendor.
So, when the movements of the mind are still, we live in that place of Supreme Conscoiusness. That is the essence of Patanjali’s teachings. The remaining sutras go on to help us to help us understand how this state of being can be achieved.