What Are Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras?

Summary: Who was Patanjali, and what are the Yoga Sutras written by him? Are they key to well-being and liberation? What is their significance, and how one can make use of this timeless treasure.

article originally published on isha.sadhguru.org

The True Nature of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras – An Introduction

Sadhguru: Apart from his realization, Patanjali was a kind of intellect that would make top scientists look like kindergarten children – that is the kind of understanding he had about every aspect of life. In Patanjali’s time thousands of years ago, yoga had started specializing in such a way that there were hundreds of schools of yoga. It is like the specialization in medical science today. Thirty years ago, you just had one family doctor. Now, for every part of the body, you have a different doctor. Maybe in another fifty years, it will become like this that if you want a medical checkup, you need one hundred doctors. By the time you get an appointment with these one hundred doctors, either you are well or you are dead.

This happened to yoga at that time – hundreds of schools handling different dimensions of yoga. Patanjali saw that it had become completely impractical, so he codified yoga in almost two hundred sutras.

Once specialization crosses a certain point, it tends to become ridiculous in terms of practicality. There is value in studying the details, but in terms of people learning and making use of it, it becomes quite ridiculous. This happened to yoga at that time – hundreds of schools handling different dimensions of yoga. Patanjali saw that it had become completely impractical, so he codified yoga in almost two hundred sutras.

The Yoga Sutras Are Not Philosophy

Today, because everyone can publish a book, there are a hundred different interpretations of the Yoga Sutras. But the Yoga Sutras are not a philosophy to be interpreted. Nor do the Yoga Sutras give any practices. They are like a scientific document. They only talk about what does what in the system. Depending upon your intention or what you want to create in the system, accordingly you design a certain kriya.

The word sutra literally means “thread.” A garland has a thread, but you never wear the garland for its thread. What kind of flowers, beads, pearls, or diamonds you add to it depends on the skill of the person who is putting it together. Patanjali is only providing the sutra, because without the thread, there is no garland. But you never wear a garland for the sake of its thread. So do not look at the thread and come to conclusions. The sutras are not meant to be read and logically understood. If you approach it logically, trying to understand things intellectually, it will become nonsensical.

For someone who is in a certain state of experience, this thread means a lot; he will use it to prepare a garland. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are not to be read like a book. Take one sutra and make it a reality in your life. If one sutra becomes a living reality for you, you do not have to necessarily read the other sutras.

Sutra 1: “… and now, Yoga”

The Yoga Sutras are a tremendous document on life. And Patanjali started this great document in a strange way. The first chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is half a sentence: “…and now, Yoga.” In a way, he is saying, “If you still think your life will become better with a new house, a new girlfriend, a new car, more money, or whatever else, it is not yet time for yoga.” If you saw all that and you realized that it does not fulfill your life in any way: “…and now, Yoga.”

Sutra 2: Yoga and Focus of the Mind

Questioner: Sadhguru, Patanjali’s second Yoga Sutra says, yogash chitta vritti nirodhah, which could be translated as “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” What does this really mean?

Sadhguru: This is called dharana. Dharana means there is you and an object, and you are entirely focused on that object. If you focus on it absolutely, after some time, only you will be there, or only the object will be there. This is called dhyana, which is the next stage of focus. If you can hold the state of dhyana, after some time, neither you nor the object will be there. There will be some other huge presence. This is called samadhi. These are progressive states of practice.

When we say, “Hold your attention on an object,” people think they have to worship a god or do something in particular. No, you can focus on a flower, a leaf, a grain of sand, a worm – it does not matter. But if you want to hold your attention on something, it must inspire a certain level of passion and emotion in you. Only then will your attention stay there. Why is it that it is so difficult for students to keep their attention on the textbook, but if there is a girl in the neighborhood that a boy is interested in, you do not have to tell him, “Think about her”? He anyway stays focused on her, because there is a certain emotion behind it.

The idea is that unless you hold something really high, you cannot maintain your focus.

This is the reason why the various forms of gods came in. Focus on whatever you can relate to. Maybe you cannot relate to the existing god, so you take another one. If this is not working for you, take another one. If none of them are working for you, you create your own. This is called Ishta Devata. The idea is that unless you hold something really high, you cannot maintain your focus. If you concentrate on something that you are not interested in, it will exhaust you. The focus will enhance you only when you are really grabbed by something.

It is as simple as going to a movie or reading a book. Let us say you read a textbook – the textbook is written for an average intelligence. In spite of that, you read it ten times but still do not get it. On the other hand, you read a love story or a suspense thriller at seventy pages per hour, and you remember every word of it. The object of focus must inspire passion in you. Otherwise, concentration becomes a concentration camp within yourself. It becomes suffering.

Q: In the Yoga Sutras, right at the beginning, Patanjali defines yoga with the Sanskrit phrase “Chitta vritti nirodha.” Can you explain what that means?

The Yoga Sutras

You do not have to do many practices, like people are trying to do 36 or 84 asanas – just one would be enough. You were referring to Patanjali. A lot of people think Patanjali is the origin of yoga – he is not. When Patanjali came, yoga had evolved and developed into over 1800 schools. Over 1800 varieties of yoga were going on in India at that time.

Patanjali simply said, “Chitta vritti nirodha.” This means if cessation of intellect happens, you will be in yoga.

This is happening in medical science today. Thirty years ago, if you wanted a medical checkup, you had to go to one family doctor. Today, you have to go to six or seven doctors, because you have separate doctors for different parts of the body. A few years ago, when I was in Atlanta, I badly injured my knee while playing soccer. So, at a talk I was giving, my knee was bandaged. At the end, someone came up to me and said, “Sadhguru, I think I can look at your knee. I’m a knee doctor.” I said, “What? You must be an orthopedic.” He said, “No, I’m a knee doctor.” It seems every day, he conducts a number of knee surgeries – he does nothing but knees. Then I asked, “Which knee are you – right or left?”

Right now, we may be going to six doctors for a medical checkup, but as they specialize further, in another 50 years, you may need 100 doctors, because if you study even your little finger carefully, you would need an entire team of doctors – it is so complex. If you attend to every aspect of your body, you will see it is such a complex machine.

But if it goes beyond a certain point and you have to meet 100 doctors to check your health, by the time you get all your appointments, you will have an appointment with an undertaker – it will become ridiculous. This happened to yoga. When Patanjali came, he saw this immense knowledge, but it had become impractical for anyone to grasp everything. So he reduced the whole thing into a few sutras – eight limbs of yoga – so that it is a little easier for people to grasp. It was not wrong that there were 1800 varieties of yoga – it was just impractical.

Chitta Vritti Nirodha

Patanjali defined and described yoga in many ways because he was more of a scientist than a saint. He went about it very mathematically. A sutra is like a formula. He simply said, “Chitta vritti nirodha.” This means if cessation of intellect happens, you will be in yoga. The fundamental nature of your intellect is, it is divisive. It is a knife-like instrument. The way for the intellect to analyze and know anything is to dissect, to cut up everything and look at it. If you keep dissecting everything, you will know one aspect of life, but you will not know the nature of life.

By dissection, you can know the physicality – you cannot know the entirety of life. So Patanjali said if you cease your intellect consciously and you are still alert – not drugged out – if you bring your intellect to a hold and it is not cutting up anything, then it is in a state of nirodha. That means the intellect is not active, but you are fully conscious. Then you are in yoga, because if you do not divide the world, as you breathe, as you pulsate with life, you will know you are a part of everything.

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