The study of Patañjali’s Yoga-sūtra is an intrinsically rewarding process, one that I began about seventeen years ago. I found that repeated application of its concise teachings unfolds great depths of understanding and experience. Through this process, what at first seemed like an impenetrably dense text eventually yields up incisive insights into the nature of human consciousness and its potential for transformation. In honor of the launch of my new course on the subject, I present the following:
A simple and clear outline of Chapter One of the Yoga-sūtra
The structure of Patañjali’s text is extremely logical. He follows a pattern of establishing a firm foundation, then layering more nuanced levels of understanding over top of that in the subsequent sūtras. Like any good author, Patañjali often uses foreshadowing, initially alluding to difficult ideas and later explaining them more fully.
The title of the work is Aphorisms on Yoga (or Threads of Yoga), so the first question that logically occurs to the uninformed reader is: What is yoga? And the definition of this term is exactly Patañjali’s first goal. After his first sūtra (which alludes simultaneously to the immediacy of the topic and the fact that this is an exposition of already ancient practices),* Patañjali gives his famous definition: yogaś-citta-vŗtti-nirodhaḥ, “Yoga is the state in which the mental-emotional fluctuations have become still.” Note that the correct translation** defines yoga as a state of being, not a practice. A small difference that makes all the difference. (The mistranslation of Sutra 1.2 for the last hundred years is probably the main reason that the general public thinks meditation means to clear your mind of all thoughts!) Yoga, in Patañjali’s lexicon and that of his contemporaries, referred to the state of consciousness that results from doing the practices he presents (and which he derived from earlier tradition).
The definition of yoga is immediately followed by two sūtras answering related questions: what happens if one experiences this profound inner stillness and what happens if one does not? Patañjali answers: you abide and stand firm within your soul-essence, your true nature (1.3) or you continue to mistakenly identify with the conditioned thinking-mind and therefore suffer (1.4).
Something impressive has happened: in just four sentences, Patañjali has summarized the nature of the topic at hand, its definition, the fruit of experientially realizing it and the problem with not doing so. Here the foreshadowing technique is evident: the rest of the Yoga-sūtra could be seen as an unpacking of these first four sūtras.
Yoga is defined as a state of being, and central to that state is stillness of the vŗttis or mental-emotional fluctuations; the complete coming to rest of the churning mind. Hence the next logical question that occurs is: what exactly are these vṛttis? Patañjali spends the next seven sūtras defining and explaining this key term. There are five kinds of vṛttis, he tells us, each of which can be in one of two conditions: afflicted or unafflicted, harmful or benign. (Whether these ten classes exhaust all the types of mental-emotional fluctuation is not made entirely clear.) The term ‘afflicted’ foreshadows the discussion of the kleśas (psychic afflictions such as attachment and aversion) in Chapter Two.
Next our author carefully defines the five types of vṛttis (1.6-11). We must thoroughly understand our own minds before seeking to go beyond them, he seems to imply. Understanding what the vṛttis are, and that yoga is nothing but the state in which they come to rest, the next logical question would be: how does one achieve that inner stillness? This is the topic Patañjali takes up in the rest of the chapter.
First he delineates the attitudes that must be adopted in this yogic practice (1.12-16). One must resolve to practice for a long time, uninterruptedly, and with reverence and careful attention (1.14). Patience is required! How to achieve this patience? Through the cultivation of the second key attitude, vairāgya (dispassion, detachment, nonreactivity). Vairāgya does not mean desirelessness, but rather the cultivation of a calm, patient desire, even a certainty that the practice will work and full attainment of yoga is inevitable. The timescale, we’re told, is relative to the degree of one’s zeal for the practice (1.21-22). Vairāgya entails the realization that nothing else but yoga will satisfy, for only abiding in one’s true nature brings the sustained fulfillment and contented joy we all crave.
Next Patañjali continues his discussion of ‘How to Stop the Vŗttis’ by describing the two main types of samādhi, or meditative absorption (1.17-18). The second of these two types—and this is a crucial point missed by most translators—is identical with the state of yoga itself, and the first of them is preparatory to the second (as explained in 1.20). The first type of samādhi (called saṃprajñāta or sabīja) is part of the yogic project to create condition in which the vṛttis spontaneously come to rest, and the second is the state in which they have done so.
The subtlety of cultivating samādhi is daunting for many, and for those of a devotional bent it comes as a relief to hear that there is another way to attain the state of yoga: devotion to God (1.23). In this section, the nature of God is described briefly (1.24-26), and we are given a specific technique to meditate on Him: contemplation of the syllable ॐ (Oṃ), which designates, symbolizes, and stands for Him (1.27). In Patañjali’s view, to recite ॐ is to contemplate God (1.28). And in the final sūtra of this ‘God section’ of the text, repetition of ॐ is said to remove obstacles on the spiritual path (1.29). Patañjali uses this sūtra as a springboard to the next section, which is a classification of the types of obstacles encountered by the yogin in his or her practice (1.30-31). Following his already established pattern, discussion immediately moves to the means of overcoming these obstacles, which can be summarized as: one-pointedness (32), cultivation of virtues and positive attitudes (33), prāṇāyāma (34), becoming absorbed in ‘flow’ activities (35), contemplation of that which is uplifting and sattvik (36), meditation on self-realized beings (those who have ‘conquered attachment’, 37), or contemplation of insights arising from the dream state and deep sleep state (38).
Patañjali closes the chapter with a rather esoteric discussion of the state of samādhi (1.41-51; note that samāpatti is simply a synonym of samādhi). A provisional definition is given in sūtra 41: samādhi is that state in which the mind is so clear, focused, relaxed, and still that it simply reflects the objective qualities of whatever it focuses on, whether an object, a sense-faculty, or the Knower itself. There follows a classification of four types or stages of sabīja samādhi, which is probably of interest only to those with a sustained meditation practice. (I’m going to break them down in my new course on the Yoga-sūtra.)
In the final of these four stages, we experience ‘the clarity and grace of the inner Self’ (47), and our ‘insight becomes filled with truth’ (48) because we now are directly experiencing things as they really are, rather than through the lens of the conditioned mind (49). The saṃskāras or latent impressions of this direct experience of reality, by their very nature, prevent other saṃskāras from forming (50). The final sūtra of Chapter One, with a sense of climax, declares that when even these saṃskāras of insight dissolve, then we experience the absolute inner stillness that is yoga (51). (For those familiar with the Sanskrit, what is implicit here is that asaṃprajñāta-samādhi = nirbīja-samādhi = yoga.)
We have seen how Chapter One of the Yoga-sūtra is a comprehensive, logical, detailed, and sophisticated introduction to Classical Yoga for the novice. The structure is even easier to see in a short summary:
Patañjali: We’re gonna talk about Yoga. (Sūtra 1)
Student: What is Yoga? ~ Patañjali: Sūtras 2-4
Student: What are the vṛttis? ~ Patañjali: Sūtras 5-11
Student: How do you help the vṛttis become still? ~ Patañjali: Sūtras 12-29
Student: What are the obstacles to this state of yoga? ~ Patañjali: Sūtras 30-31
Student: How do you overcome these obstacles? ~ Patañjali: Sūtras 32-39
Student: What stages will I go through before arriving at the state of yoga? ~ Patañjali: Sūtras 40-51
Given that the structure is logical, relatively simple, and clear, why is the meaning of the text not immediately apparent to a present-day reader? I would argue that the significant linguistic, psychological, cultural, and chronological divide between Patañjali and us means that translators must read widely in the Sanskrit literature of Patañjali’s time in order to fluently grasp his meaning. By contrast, to the people and practitioners of his time, Patañjali’s treatise must have been startling in its lucidity, concision, and laser-sharp insight into yogic practice. Though it is not so immediately luminous to 21st-century readers, still, it is because it does have these qualities that this text continues to be studied. Chapter Two is, these days, much better known and understood, which is why I present this clarifying discussion of Chapter One.
But, you may ask, what is a post about the Yoga-sūtra, a non-tantrik text written around the time Tantra was just getting started, doing in a Tantrik Studies blog? It so happens that Patañjali’s text was so influential that later Tantrik scriptures pay homage to it, even as they overcode and reinvent it. For evidence of this, see the next section below.
Footnotes to Part One
* atha yogānuśāsanam, “Now begins the traditional teaching on yoga.” But note that Śaṅkarācārya, in his ninth-century Brahma-sūtra-bhāṣya, cites an alternate first sūtra: atha tattva-darśanābhyupāyo yogaḥ, “Now is taught yoga, the direct means to seeing things as they really are.” This alternate sūtra is discussed in the first teaching video of my new course on the Yoga-sūtra.
** Most translations get the crucial Sutra 1.2 wrong. This is because getting it right is not a matter of understanding the Sanskrit grammar, but rather of understanding the crucial fact that in Patañjali's time, the word yoga almost always referred to a state of being; the goal of the practice rather than the practice itself. It came to refer to the practice by extension. This crucial piece of information allows us to translate it correctly.
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Part Two: The Tantrik reinvention of Patañjali’s aṣṭāṅga-yoga
The central scripture of the Amṛteśvara lineage of Śaiva Tantra is the Netra-tantra (also incorrectly known as the Lakṣmī Kaulārṇava Tantra). In this so-far unpublished but fascinating ninth-century text, we find an homage to Patañjali’s ‘eight-limbed yoga’ (aṣṭāṅga-yoga) and a complete reimagining of its meaning. Here I present a translation of the relevant section. It occurs in chapter eight, the topic of which is ‘the yoga of cheating Death through higher meditation.' What follows begs some explanation, but that will have to wait for a future post.
Yama is said to be complete abstention from saṃsāra forever.
Niyama is constant contemplation (bhāvanā) of the fundamental reality. || 8.10
Taking refuge in the central Prāṇa, between the paths of ordinary prāṇa and apāna (the piṅgalā and iḍā nāḍīs), āsana is simply [said to be] stabilizing there, relying [only] on the Power of Insight. || 8.11
One should go beyond the coarse experience of the prāṇas, and likewise [even] the subtle inner path, since then one attains the supreme pulsation (spanda) beyond the subtle. || 8.12
When the mind does not become agitated, despite experiencing the vibrations of sound, appearance, touch, and so on [in meditation], that is taught to be the true prāṇāyāma. || 8.13
Having left behind those [inner sensations], one will enter the supreme radiant abode by means of one’s awareness. This is taught as the true pratyāhāra, which severs the bond of becoming. || 8.14
When one’s religious imagination (dhīḥ) transcends the guṇas and meditates on the formless (nirguṇa) unchanging Lord, the one who ought to be contemplated and can be known in one’s inner awareness—that, the wise say, is true dhyāna. || 8.15
That by which one holds the Supreme Self in awareness at all times is dhāraṇā—it is taught as that which destroys the bondage of becoming. || 8.16
[Realizing that] the distribution of consciousness is equally (sama) placed (ādhāna) in all beings is taught as ‘samādhāna’ (i.e., samādhi); [arguing] otherwise is deceiving people. || 8.17 (my translation here follows that of Gavin Flood)
In this world, awareness is universal (samāna-dhīḥ) in all beings, [the same] in oneself and others. Therefore, it is supreme samādhi [not ego] to say “I am Śiva, one without a second.” || 8.18
[The wise] know this supreme samādhi as one’s authentic nature, the awareness born of one’s essence, which ought to be perceived, [though] it is perceptible only through self-awareness. || 8.19
Having discerned the difference between the mass of consciousness and that of insentient matter, the wise know that [resultant awareness] as the perfect state, the samādhi whose nature is eternal. || 8.20
Thus, having seen the supreme eternal [state] in this way, established as one’s essence-nature by this [Tantrik version of the] eightfold yoga, one cheats Death [and realizes one's true nature as] the highest Lord . || 8.21 (translation follows G. Flood)
If you enjoyed this post, please check my comprehensive new course on the Yoga-sūtra! One 10-minute video per sūtra breaks all down for you nice and clear.