An Overview of the Yoga Sutras

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali must have been composed and then transmitted by the oral tradition since, at least, 1500-1000 BC but came into the written form much later, in around 500 BC–300 AD. The sutras were always kept short, as they were intended to be learned, memorized and chanted with reverence and understanding in order to facilitate the development of a deep sense of quiet, inner contemplation. The 195 or 196 sutras, depending on the version. (Two versions are available today that differ on the addition of a sutra at 3.22, which is actually an expansion of the idea presented in the previous sutra.) They are arranged in a logical form and placed into four chapters.

Chapter One: Samadhi Pada
Sutras 1.1-1.4 deal with the definition of Yoga as a process of mental purification. The classical definition of Yoga as a discipline to control the whirlpools of the subconscious or unconscious mind (yogah chitavritti nirodha, 1.2) is given along with the understanding of the process of oneness with the vrittis, which occurs in the absence of the control.

Maharishi Patanjali stresses the importance of abhyasa and vairagya in sutra 1.12 when he says that the vrittis will cease on their own accord once one has perfected these twin keys. He defines abhyasa as the uninterrupted, disciplined and dedicated practice done with divine aspiration (1.14). The nature of vairagya as a cultivated nature of dispassionate objectivity, so essential for every scientist, be they either the experimental modern ones or the experiential ancient sages, is dealt with in sutras 1.15-1.16.

In sutras 1.17–1.18, Patanjali deals with the concept of samadhi, classifying it into numerous levels and sublevels. Sutras 1.19–1.22 address the importance of qualities such as shraddha (faithful devotion), veeraya (strength of body and mind), smriti (ability to remember and learn from previous experiences) and samadhi prajna (mental competence for the higher states) that are essential for spiritual success. He also classifies the seekers as mridu (dull and incompetent ones), madhya (the average ones) and adimatra (the excellent ones) but then tells us that for the extremely motivated and energetic one who doesn’t give up, the attainment is much easier (1.21).

The concept of the Divine is addressed in sutras 1.24-1.26 where Patanjali also stresses the importance of the pranava (OM) and its repetition. The pranava consists of the three sacred sounds (akara, ukara and makara nada) that may represent creation, sustenance and dissolution. Patanjali further states that pranava japa (1.28) can eradicate all obstacles on the path toward attaining realized oneness with the Divine (1.29).
In sutras 1.24-26, Patanjali defines the Divine Self (Ishvara) as a special soul (Vishesha Purusha) who is beyond the kleshas (inherent psychological afflictions) and karma. He also describes Ishvara as the eternal teacher (1.26) who is beyond time itself and is the seed of all wisdom (1.25).

Patanjali is blessed with foresight, and cautions seekers that there are many obstacles on the Yogic path to kaivalya (liberation) and offers the solutions to these. In 1.30–1.32 he describes the nine obstacles faced in one’s sadhana and enumerates them (1.30). He also details the four-fold external manifestations of these internal obstacles (1.31). Patanjali then goes on to suggest different methods to stabilize and clear the mind in sutras 1.32–1.39. Focused practice of one principle (1.32) is stated to be the best method to prevent and deal with the obstacles and their manifestations.

He advocates the adoption of positive attitudes (1.33) such as maitri (friendliness towards those who are at ease with themselves), karuna (compassion towards the suffering), mudita (cheerfulness towards the virtuous) and upekshanam (avoidance and indifference towards the non-virtuous). Single-minded concentration on the prana (1.34), the sensory experiences (1.35) and the inner light (1.36) is also mentioned, while he recommends a detached attitude (1.37) with deepening of one’s knowledge through an understanding of dream (1.38) and meditative states (1.39). Once we stabilize the restless mind, it attains the highest clarity and becomes crystal-like in its ability to truthfully transmit the highest experiences (1.41). This clarity is attained through different stages of samadhi, which he describes in 1.40–1.51.

Chapter 2: Sadhana Pada
Chapter Two begins with an exploration of the kleshas and the methods of their removal. Kriya Yoga, the potent combination of tapas, svadhyaya and Ishvara Pranidhana (2.1), is prescribed as the method to facilitate attainment of samadhi through the elimination of the kleshas (2.2).
In sutras 2.12–2.25 Patanjali describes the process of this gradual disengagement from the karmic bondage. According to sage Vasishtha, Atma Jnana (knowledge of the Self) is the only way we can escape from the clutches of the never-ending cycle of births. Patanjali echoes this when he says that it is only the wise one endowed with viveka (discerning intellect), who can see clearly that all worldly experiences are ultimately nothing but suffering and pain (2.15). It is only the highest state of kaivalya that is the real bliss and anything less is pain according to Patanjali. This is similar in many ways to the core of the Buddhist philosophy that views all life as suffering.

Patanjali advises us to prevent those miseries that are yet to occur (2.16), a vital clue about the importance of preventive action in avoiding future sorrow. In sutra 2.17 he further states that the cause of pain is the union between the seer and the seen. This unyielding bondage that causes all suffering is, in fact, ultimately due to avidya, ignorance of the reality (2.24).

The real purpose of Yoga sadhana is expressed in sutra 2.28 when he states that the sustained practice of the various limbs of Yoga is meant for the destruction of the impurities, thus enabling one to cultivate the highest wisdom of enlightenment. To this end he enumerates the eight-fold royal path of Ashtanga Yoga in 2.29. Patanjali describes yama and niyama as great vows (2.31).

He further advises us to cultivate pratipaksha bhavana, the contrary view when one is faced with negative thoughts that cause suffering (2.33). Even if we cannot replace negative thoughts with emotion-laden positive reinforcements, we must at least make an attempt to stop them in their troublesome track! I have personally found that a strong ”STOP” statement works wonders in helping block out the negative thoughts that otherwise lead us into the quicksand of deeper trouble.

In sutra 2.46, Patanjali defines asana as a state that radiates stability and ease. Such a state may be attained only through regular, disciplined and determined practice. The key to attaining this state is given in 2.47, where he advises us to practice asana with a relaxation of effort and contemplation on the infinite. Through the practice of asana, one attains the state of balanced equanimity (described in the Bhagavad Gita as samatvam) that enables one to overcome the dualities that normally torment us into imbalance (2.48).

Patanjali defines pranayama as the “cessation of the processes of inhalation and exhalation” (2.49). Such a state of going beyond the breath is another example of Patanjali’s genius in explaining the higher concepts with simplicity. When faced with something that amazes us, we say, “It took my breath away!” Imagine then, the state of our breath, when we are face-to-face with the divine experience itself! Having described pranayama as a bridge between the external and internal worlds, he goes on to define pratyahara in 2.54 and 2.55 as the “withdrawing of the mind from the sensory engagements.” Just as a tortoise withdraws its limbs into its shell, the senses cease to function as soon as the mind (the main energy source for sensory function) starts the journey inwards.

Chapter Three: Vibhuti Pada
Now ready for the onward, inner journey, Patanjali starts the third Pada, giving definitions of the three internal aspects (antaranga) of Yoga, namely dharana, dhyana and samadhi. He defines dharana as the process of binding consciousness to a point, place, region or object (3.1) and dhyana as the state in which there is a steady and continuous flow of attention and concentration to a point, place, region or object (3.2). The state of absorptive super-consciousness (samadhi) is an omnipresent state in which the mind loses itself and the object alone shines without differentiation (3.3). These three internal limbs are known together as samyama (flowing together seamlessly, 3.4). He describes in 3.17-3.37 and 3.39-3.49 the special experiences and powers (siddhis) that result from performing samyama on various gross and subtle objects. It is important to that in sutra 3.38 he warns us that the siddhis are both an attainment as well as an obstacle to spiritual progress.

The detached attitude toward the manifest world is very important in Yoga sadhana, but we are taught by Patanjali that it’s only though the process of renunciation that the ultimate state of kaivalya may be attained (3.50). He strongly tells us that we must give up even the desire for that highest state, if that state is to occur (para vairagya, dispassionate objectivity). The importance of this para vairagya that destroys the very seed of the impurities, thus blessing us with liberation, is described in 3.51. He concludes the Vibhuti Pada by telling us that it is only the equality between buddhi and Purusha that brings about liberation (3.56). Purity of thought, word and deed is of paramount importance if we are to become the purest vehicles of Divine Grace.

Chapter Four: Kaivalya Pada
Chapter Four has a mere 34 verses, but Patanjali gives us an insight into that highest state of liberation known as kaivalya. He explains how siddhis, which are mere milestones of progress, may be obtained by different methods (4.1). He examines the concept of karma and describes the relationship between action and reaction (4.7-4.8). He discusses the concept of reincarnation in sutra 4.9 when he states that the deep habit patterns (samskaras) have an unbroken continuity and play out from lifetime to lifetime by giving rise to the different types of incarnations, locations and time frames.
He gives us an excellent concept of the threefold nature of time when he says that the past and future both exist in the present reality but appear different only because of their different characteristics and forms. This implies that, by knowing the present reality, one can also gain the knowledge of the past and future (4.12).

He helps us understand the gunas by explaining that they are the backbone of all that manifests as well as that which is at subtle planes of existence (4.13). He tells us how the same object may be perceived differently by the different minds because the minds themselves manifest differently (4.15–4.17). No wonder everyone seems to have his or her own view of the world. Once we realize this truth, we are able to understand others better and make the world a better place for we realize there cannot be just one view. He says, “No object depends upon only one mind” (4.16). This is a clear-cut message from the great sage that the universe can do quite well, even if we are not there!

As we gradually grow into the higher states, there occurs the dawning of higher discrimination (vivekanimnam). When this occurs, the mind begins to gravitate toward absolute liberation from all experiences that otherwise result because of the interaction between the seer and the seen (4.26). It is as if we are pulled into that highest state once we get close to it though our self-efforts!
Just when we seem to develop a sense of complacency, Patanjali warns us that even at this highest level we must be very careful for, if not, samskaras of the deep unconscious nature will come into the equation and stall our spiritual progress once more (4.27). These deep residual impressions need to be dealt with again by OM japa, prana dharana and other practices used earlier to remove the kleshas (4.28).

With the final frontier being conquered, dharma megha samadhi can finally manifest thus removing the kleshas and karma once and for all (4.30). Dharma megha refers to the potent rain cloud of virtue that has the potential to bless us with eternal freedom. The torrential rainfall from this rain cloud of the highest nature washes away all the arrogant, ignorant impurities that were keeping us away from our attaining to the highest state of ultimate realization. It is at this point (4.30), Maharishi Patanjali implies, that we become the Divine itself in the state of kaivalya. We lose our sense of individuality in order to gain the sense of absolute universality.

Once this state occurs, the gunas automatically recede back into their essence, having fulfilled their purpose (2.18) of giving us the enjoyment (bhoga) as well as having stimulated us towards the attainment of emancipation (apavarga). We actually even go beyond time itself at this point. There are no more ramifications of the past or the future, for they disappear completely. At this point we finally exist totally only in the enlightened now (4.33).
Patanjali concludes the Kaivalya Pada by saying that, once we reach this point in our spiritual journey, the pure consciousness becomes established in its own true nature (4.34). With the attainment of this absolute and most dynamic state of being, our evolutionary journey ends, as we have reached the pinnacle by attaining our true essence, where a division of any kind ceases to exist anymore. Indian philosophical thought tells us over and over again that our essential, true nature is Sat-Chit-Anandam (absolute reality-consciousness and bliss).

Maharishi Patanjali has given us an amazing and crystal-clear road map towards Kaivalya though his Sutras. Yet the onus lies entirely upon us to follow it with the twin keys of Abhyasa and Vairagya for that is the only way that we can finally attain our goal of absolute liberation – once and for all.
It is important that we never forget to remember his warning that we must Not Stop when the Siddhis appear for they are mere milestones on the path and must continue onward on our evolutionary journey from that of a mere human to the ultimate  Divine.

“abahu purusakaram sankha cakrasi dharinam
sahasra sirasam svetam pranamami patanjalim”

I offer my deepest heartfelt salutation to the great Maharishi Patanjali, the incarnation of the thousand headed Adishesha, armed with the conch, discus and mace. May he bless us all in our spiritual search for that highest state of Kaivalya! HARI OM TAT SAT – MAY THAT BE THE REALITY!


•    Bhavanani Ananda Balayogi. A primer of Yoga theory. Dhivyananda Creations, Iyyanar Nagar, Pondicherry
•    Bhavanani Ananda Balayogi. Yoga: 1 to 10. Dhivyananda Creations, Iyyanar Nagar, Pondicherry
•    Gitananda Giri Swami. Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali. Satya Press, Ananda Ashram, Thattanchavady, Pondicherry
•    Gitananda Giri Swami. Yoga: Step by step. Satya Press, Ananda Ashram, Thattanchavady, Pondicherry
•    Jnaneshvara Bharati Swami. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali- interpretive translation.
•    Satyananda Saraswati Swami. Four chapters on freedom. Bihar school of Yoga , Munger, Bihar

About the Author:

Dr. Bhavanani is the son of Yogamaharishi Dr. Swami Gitananda Giri and Yogacharini Meenakshi Devi Bhavanani. He grew up in the gurukula of Ananda Ashram in Pondicherry, India, where the knowledge of the art and science of Yoga was imbibed as a 24-hour-a-day sadhana. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a medical doctor in order to combine eastern wisdom with the best of western science. He directs the International Centre for Yoga Education and Research in Pondicherry, India, and he is also a featured speaker at Yoga conferences around the globe. For more information, please visit:

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010 issue

Leave a reply