The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali w/ Syamananda

A short presentation of the Podcast.  

In this episode we give an introduction to our new podcast series on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We touch on theories about the origins of yoga and its relationship with samkhya, an ancient science describing the material elements and their difference from consciousness. The better part of the episode is dedicated to a retelling of Patanjali’s life story as told in certain yoga traditions. Once upon a time, there was a yogini named Gonika who was the most accomplished practitioner of her time. Having practiced for her entire life, on her hundredth birthday she reflected on the fact that she would soon pass away and a lot of insights would be lost to the world if she didn’t share them with someone. Listen to the episode to find out what happened next! 🙂

In this episode, Syama and I speak about the first four yoga-sutras of Patanjali.

The first introduces the book, saying quite plainly: “Now, the study/self-discipline of yoga”. The “now” can be seen in different ways, but one particularly powerful way is to emphasize that yoga is something that is meant for the present moment, as the present moment is the only time we have.

We cannot do anything in the past or the future, only now. The definition of yoga then follows: “Yoga is the controlling and stilling the movements of the mind.” When this stilling is achieved, we rest in our own being. If we do not take the trouble to do this, we will continue identifying with the fluctuations of the subconscious. These movements of the mind will be elaborated in the following sutras that we will discuss next time. 

In this episode, we speak about the second section of the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras.

As Yoga is defined in the first section as stilling the movements of the mind, the next section tells us with these movements are. The movements of the mind are divided into five categories: right knowledge, error, imagination, deep sleep, and memory. All of these can be either helpful or unhelpful to your yoga practice, but in the end, they will all need to be stilled.

But before stilling them completely we need to culture the aspects of them that are helpful for yoga practice and let go of the others when we realize for ourselves how they are not serving any purpose.

In this episode, we discuss sutras 12-16. Having defined the goal of yoga as the stilling of the movements of the mind and described what those movements are,

Patanjali now moves on to tell us in broad strokes what yoga means practically.  He answers the question that may come up by reading the previous sutras: how can the movements of the mind be stilled? The process has two divisions: practice and detachment. In other words, yoga is the stilling of the mind by the dual process of practice and detachment. Having stated this, Patanjali gives two sutras defining practice and another two defining detachment. Practice means to make an effort to control the mind and to try to maintain whatever control we can muster up.

This practice becomes firm when it has been sustained with devotion and without interruption for a long period of time.  We discuss different ways to look at the word “uninterrupted” in the episode. As the practice has its beginner and advanced levels, so the second division, detachment, has two levels, broadly speaking. The first one is conscious detachment, whereas on the higher level one would be oblivious to superficial matters and therefore not needing to do any effort to stay detached from them.  

To illustrate this, we can say that it’s one thing to know that cigarettes are bad and therefore avoid smoking while it’s another thing to forget what cigarettes even are. The joy of resting in one’s own being implies the absence of desire for anything superficial. Happy listening!

In this episode, we discuss sutras 17 to 22. This section is about levels of absorption (samadhi) throughout one’s practice up until one’s final attainment.  In the first level of absorption, one is mindfully aware of the physical environment. In the next stage one is absorbed in awareness of the mental world, letting thoughts come and go without attachment.

In the third stage, one is absorbed in the joy of existence reflected in one’s psyche.  In the fourth stage, one is absorbed in one’s sense of self. Beyond these four stages, there is the stage where one is absorbed in the self itself (rather than the ‘sense’ of self). At this point, one may still be connected with one’s psyche and physical body, but the impressions from previous experiences that would normally urge us on in external or internal cravings are inactive.  The section concludes by saying that the attainment of this level is as near to us as we are committed to the practice. We can be somewhat committed, pretty committed, or very committed, and this will determine the pace at which we proceed.

The purpose of this section is thus to inform us about the interim goals of the practice and inspire us to go through them.

In this episode, we talk about the fifth group of sutras, 23-29, where Patanjali offers an alternative to the arduous path of independently trying to stop the movements of the mind and attain samadhi, resting in the self.

 The alternative is to absorb oneself in Isvara, a special self. Isvara is a way to speak about God, but Patanjali does not speak of Isvara as a creator. He focuses on Isvara as someone who is like us but who has since a time without beginning been experiencing the goal of the yogis. Isvara has never been affected by karma or the influence of time. He is all-knowing and the teacher of the ancients. His name is the syllable ‘aum’ (or ‘om’) and if one repeats this syllable while contemplating its meaning, one will get to know Isvara and consequently get to know oneself and attain samadhi.  The description of God is general and therefore the method can be applied to any religious path.

The details will be figured out in the personal dynamic between student and teacher. Happy listening and see you again after our Christmas break!

In this episode, we first speak about the obstacles of the mind in the course of practicing yoga. Then we move on to discussing different things we can focus our mind on as alternatives to the Isvara-pranidhana of the previous section.

The obstacles are physical illness, mental difficulties such as depression, doubts, carelessness, laziness, attachment to distractions, misunderstanding the goal of yoga, inability to achieve a base of concentration, and having achieved such a base, being unable to maintain it for longer periods. Some of the things we can focus our mind on to achieve stillness are parts of the body, like the sense organs.

We can focus on the breath, on the mind of an advanced yoga practitioner that inspires us, on spiritual visions we have had in dreams, or lastly, on anything that works for us. The last one may not be the ultimate type of practice, but as always: we have to start somewhere.

In this episode, we discuss the last 12 sutras of the first chapter. Here the obstacles to samadhi are overcome, and there are five stages of samadhi, resting in one's own being, outlined. In the first two, the practitioner selects objects to meditate on, which could be anything from the entire universe down to the smallest subatomic particle.

First, these things are meditated on with distinctions as to what they are called, our understanding of them, and the objects-in-themselves. Then we move on to meditating only on the object in itself without labels or ideas about them. In stages three and four, one meditates on subtle realities underlying the things we can directly perceive with our senses.

Ultimately this means meditating on material nature in itself. As in the previous two stages, here we also go from meditating on these principles with their respective names and our understanding of them to later move on to meditating on them in themselves without labels. Finally, we arrive at independent samadhi, meaning samadhi that does not require holding anything in the mind as an anchor.

In this episode, we discuss the first 12 sutras of the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Here we are backing up a little bit from where we were in the first chapter.

You could say that the climbing rope is extended from the same place but this time it’s extended further down so that more people can grab and hang on to it. While the first chapter speaks to those who are pretty much ready to go for samadhi, this second chapter will be user friendly for us who still have a bit further distance to go. It is a more hands on practical chapter.

The practical things we can do are moderate abstinence, study, and selfless actions dedicated to Ishvara, meaning God or what you prefer to call it/him/her. Later on in the chapter, we will start to hear about the famous ashtanga, the eight limbs of yoga.

In the episode, we discuss sutras 13 to 20 of the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. These sutras and their classical commentaries go deep into explaining the root of the obstacles to yogic enlightenment.

This root is the mixing up of spirit and matter. Sutra 15 reflects the first noble truth of the Buddha: life is suffering. For Patanjali this is a healthy acceptance of reality that allows us to unplug from habits that perpetuate this suffering. The suffering consists of trying to find ourselves in material things that we project ourselves into.

With a healthy relationship to matter, we can engage with this energy in a way that helps us attain enlightenment.

In this episode, Syama and I discuss sutras 21 through 28 of the second chapter.

This is the section leading up to the description of the eight limbs of yoga (astanga). In the previous section, we heard that the world of experience is there to provide experiences and liberation for the experiencer (we, you, and I, the sentient beings, are the experiencers talked about here). In the current section, this key teaching is reinforced by Patanjali stating that in essence the experienced world is meant solely for the experiencer.

Does this mean that we are encouraged to treat the environment however we, please? Not exactly. In the upcoming section on astanga-yoga, the first two limbs prescribe non-violence (ahimsa) as the very first principle.

But why should there be rules if the world is meant only for us? Because the world is here to teach you about your potential and to act as a springboard to your final goal rather than for you to be entangled in it forever.

In this episode, we name the eight limbs of astanga-yoga and then focus on the first limb which is abstentions (yama). There are five abstentions: non-violence, truthfulness, refrainment from stealing, celibacy, and renunciation of unnecessary possessions. The yogi following the path of astanga is instructed to follow these on the physical, the verbal, as well as the mental level, meaning, for example, that they are not supposed to engage in physical violence, think of stealing, or speak lies. Yama is, according to Patanjali’s outline of this system, the first step in yoga, and what to speak of the final goal, even this is a tall order! However, rather than beating ourselves up (for not being able to live up to the ideal) or knocking ourselves out (the over-enthusiasm of the beginner), we should pay attention to the point made by the commentators that non-violence (ahimsa), which includes abstaining from self-harm. Contemplate the five abstentions and feel out for yourself how far you are able to go sustainably in the present.

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