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The Modern Yogi’s Guide to Reading the Yoga Sutra

The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, a spiritual text written around 400 CE, is often criticized for being a non-relevant text. Yes, it was written in a different context for a different kind of practitioner. Yes, it can be difficult to understand—even more difficult to translate accurately—and, some argue, not particularly practical for, say, a 30-year-old woman living in the United States.

In simple terms, the Yoga Sutra is a manual for the practice of meditation. But it’s kind of like reading the operation manual for your grandma’s 1950s-era vacuum machine. Why not just buy yourself a Dyson already? 

Nostalgia, perhaps, plays a part—both for why you might want to hang on to your grandma’s beloved vacuum cleaner but also for why yogis hang on to the Yoga Sutra.

In our current social and political climate, we crave authenticity and greatly distrust authority.

The spiritual crises brought about by misguided teachers abusing their positions of power leave us desiring wisdom that is more pure—beyond the scars of scandal and human imperfection. It’s easy to land on ancient texts like the Yoga Sutra and feel comforted by their purported universal wisdom. 

Until, of course, scholars remind us that there is more to the Yoga Sutra than what was presented to you in your yoga teacher training. For me, all I got from my teacher training was a conversation about the Yamas and Niyamas, part of Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga. This left me somewhat confused when I read through the third chapter of the text on my own. Some parts are so far-fetched to the modern mind (levitation and mind-reading, anyone?) that your faith in yoga as a whole may take a serious existential hit.  

So, where does that leave us? The yoga practice most of us know and crave today is the product of exercise routines created and promoted in the early 20th century as a way to tire young boys. Yet the ancient texts espouse a seated meditation-based practice that requires intense single-pointed focus and discipline that would challenge most worldly Westerners in 2020. Then what, really, is the point of practicing yoga?

This brings us to perhaps the most important question we must ask ourselves as both teachers and practitioners: What is yoga? It’s not that there is a right or wrong answer, but it helps to be clear on what yoga is to you. If yoga is a practice that helps you find relief from chronic low back pain or helps you clear your mind after a long day at work, is there anything wrong with that? And, to take it a step further, what’s wrong with interpreting the Yoga Sutra in order to help us in that aim?

It’s time to reclaim the wisdom of the Sutra (and other ancient texts). 

Do What Works For You

I agree with many critics and scholars—the literal reading of the Sutra very clearly describes a practice meant to help the practitioner transcend the mind through meditation. Most yoga practitioners today are not interested in isolating themselves in caves for the rest of their lives for the sole purpose of finding out what happens when we rise above the insidious torments of the mind. And there is no doubt that the Sutra has absolutely nothing to offer concerning foot placement in Warrior 2.

With that said, the Yoga Sutra is chock full of incredible, timeless wisdom that, when applied to modern contexts, can be just as useful today as it was thousands of years ago for the ascetics who gave up worldly possessions in pursuit of transcendence. However, it requires a more subtle, refined interpretation and modern commentary.

I admit the interpretations I offer of the Sutra are not what Patanjali intended. Yet, the wisdom gleaned gives me solace, provides inspiration, and benefits my life in profound ways. Does that make it wrong? If I’m on the path of yoga, but closer to the beginning, am I not permitted? 

If your grandma’s vacuum cleaner from the 1950s still does its job, despite perhaps being cumbersome, and it gives you joy to use it, must you throw it out simply because it’s outdated? What’s wrong with sticking with what brings you joy and gets the job done?

Because The Sutra Says So

Patanjali himself admits in the Yoga Sutra that there is no one right way to practice yoga, and that you can practice yoga at different “levels.” 

Let’s break down a few examples to see how this plays out in the text.

Sutra 2.18: Everything in the world around us (nature/prakriti) is composed of 3 qualities (the Gunas): 

1. Lightness/illumination

2. Activity

3. Stability/inertia

These 3 qualities manifest in the world as the elements and in humans through the senses. The elements and the sense organs serve a dual purpose in the world. 

1. For our enjoyment

2. To lead us to liberation from them

The most interesting part about Sutra 2.18 is that the senses serve two purposes: According to Patanjali, the senses are a tool for us to enjoy the world and they are also a tool for us to discover our True Self.

In other words, we can use our senses to enjoy (or dislike) the taste of chocolate, the pleasures of sex, the sight of a beautiful vista, the sounds of an opera, or the smell of lavender. But we can also invert the senses (a process known as pratyahara) and develop an inner awareness that leads us to our True Nature. 

That’s two ways to live in the world, and neither is wrong. It just is.

We can use our senses to enjoy (or dislike) the taste of chocolate, the pleasures of sex, the sight of a beautiful vista, the sounds of an opera, or the smell of lavender. / Photo by Annie Spratt

There is no “my way or the highway,” only your way.

In the first chapter of the Sutra, Patanjali states that the mind has five functions: 

Sutra 1.5: The mind functions in 5 different ways. Each function can cause suffering or joy.

Sutra 1.6: The 5 functions of the mind are: 

1. Understanding or right knowing based on personal experience

2. Misunderstanding or wrong knowing based on false information

3. Imagination 

4. Sleep

5. Memory

Sutra 1.7: Understanding, or right knowing, based on personal experience is obtained through direct perception, inference based on experience, or testimony from a reliable authority.

For us to know our True Self, then, it is paramount that we develop the capacity to experience the world using our senses, for it is this direct experience that provides us with the “right knowing” that leads to clarity later on. 

At the same time, notice the qualifier at the beginning of Sutra 1.5: Each function of the mind can cause suffering or joy. So even though we may be chasing “right knowing” because we think it will lead us to a sense of clarity, there is always the potential that the very chase for right knowing leads us down a path of suffering too! 

Throughout the Sutra, Patanjali offers qualifiers like this. It is what makes the text, in my interpretation, so permissive. You can choose to live in the world and experience joy or you can choose to suffer. You can use the senses to experience the world or you can use them to withdraw from it. You can practice yoga because it makes you feel good or you can practice yoga to transcend the mind. Take your pick. There is no wrong answer.

Applying Modern Science to The 8 Limbs of Yoga

Take the 8 Limbs—perhaps the most practically applicable portion of the Sutra that most yogis learn about in their yoga teacher training programs. 

The 8 Limbs are presented in a sequential yet non-linear order. 

  1. Yamas 
  2. Niyamas 
  3. Asana 
  4. Pranayama
  5. Pratyahara
  6. Dharana
  7. Dhyana
  8. Samadhi 

You can interpret these 8 Limbs strictly as a set of codes we must master to beat back the distractions of the mind or you can interpret them as layers we can cultivate as we live our lives in the best way we know how. Take the Yamas and Niyamas as an example. Although many of these limbs are traditionally translated using negative language, I personally prefer positive, action-based interpretations.

Ahimsa, to me, means practicing compassion instead of non-violence. It is easier to practice compassion than it is to not practice a broad concept (violence). To practice asteya means to be generous and to give to others rather than focusing on not stealing.

I personally prefer positive, action-based interpretations. (…) To practice asteya means to be generous and to give to others rather than focusing on not stealing. / Photo by Antón Jáuregui

In fact, modern scientific research now backs us up on the health benefits of almost all these layers.

We must be able to connect with the world around us in order to live in the world (Yamas). As much as we may want to go hide in a cave some days, researchers have proven over and over that human beings need connection with others to survive. 

We must also be able to live with ourselves, too (Niyamas). Often, we are our own worst critics. If we can’t live in harmony with who we are, we struggle to enjoy life. This can show up as depression or anxiety and leave us searching desperately to make meaning out of our life. Research published in the journal, Health Psychology Review, in 2017 found that people who have high self-control are more satisfied with their lives. This finding buffers the ancient yogis’ reliance on the cultivation of discipline as a bedrock principle for living well. 

Asana helps us live in our body well so that we don’t get distracted by the ever-changing cycle of pain and pleasure. More and more research now supports the importance of movement as a cure for physical, generalized, chronic pain.

Pranayama takes us a level deeper and allows us to cultivate our energy to maintain optimal wellness in our whole being. At a physiological level, studies show that breathing with proper diaphragm mechanics contributes to the optimal functioning of the parasympathetic nervous system and supports our body’s innate ability to self-regulate through the stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Pratyahara allows us to begin the process of withdrawing from the external world, not to disappear, but to go inside. Sometimes when we’re out in the world for a while, it’s necessary to have some alone time to recharge. This process of “going inward” literally recharges our internal battery so that we can turn around and continue making an impact in our own life and in the lives of others. Susan Cain talks about this concept in her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Dharana helps us focus the mind and dhyana allows us to move into a state of meditation. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow state” in 2008; this term nicely encompasses what Patanjali originally instructed in the Sutra when describing dharana and dhyana.

Finally, we reach a state of absorption: Samadhi.

But what does this mean? And what happens once we’ve “achieved” samadhi? 

Some scholars believe at this point you die. I don’t believe in practicing yoga for the purpose of dying. But even if we decide that samadhi is a death sentence, must we deem the rest of the Sutra null and void? Do we consider the Yamas and Niyamas useless because they are part of a process that prepares us for death?

Choose Your Own Adventure

What Patanjali does so brilliantly throughout the Sutra is demonstrating that the practices of yoga can be beneficial for both living in the world and transcending it. This is why I don’t think samadhi=death.

Patanjali describes different levels of samadhi.

Sutra 1.41: Once your mind becomes purified, it functions like a crystal—completely transparent. In this state, the mind reflects and integrates characteristics of whatever it comes into contact with. This is called Samadhi. 

Sutra 1.42: There are different levels of samadhi. Savitarka Samadhi (level 1) is when the mind becomes integrated with an object of concentration but still has awareness of the name of the object, the meaning of the object, and the knowledge gained from concentrating on that object. You are focused, but you still have thoughts. 

Sutra 1.43: The next level of samadhi (level 2) is Nirvitarka Samadhi. At this level of concentration, you no longer have any thoughts about the name or meaning of the object you are concentrating on. Even your memory of that object has been completely purified. 

Sutra 1.44: There are two more levels of samadhi—Savichara (level 3) and Nirvichara (level 4). These levels are reached in the same way as levels 1 and 2, respectively, but by concentrating on subtle objects rather than gross objects. 

Sutra 1.46: All the levels of samadhi are achieved by meditating on an object. You must have an object to concentrate on to achieve any of the levels of samadhi previously described.

Sutra 1.51: And yet, there is still one more level of samadhi. It is the Pure Samadhi that requires no object of concentration. It is achieved when you are able to integrate the state of true wisdom that comes about as a result of achieving the state of mind called yoga. Then, only the True Self remains.

Based on these descriptions of the different levels of samadhi, it is possible to both have achieved samadhi (at least at the lower levels) and also live in the world. And sure, maybe once you reach the final level of samadhi, your body is toast. But you can’t get there until you’ve mastered all the previous levels and for most of us that journey is going to take a long time. 

So do we throw out all the wisdom of the Sutra because the final, ultimate, end-all layer of yoga practice leads us to something we’d rather not “achieve” in this moment?

No. Because yoga isn’t just about transcending life. It’s about living life the best you can. For me, that means practicing yoga to move my body as a way to counter the daily toll it takes hauling my 1-year-old around. Living my best life means having practical, simple tools I can use immediately when I start to feel anxious, like closing my eyes and taking deep breaths with longer exhales, because I know that best-life living requires rubbing up against uncertainty, discomfort, fear, and risk. And I don’t want to keep running away from life. I want to dive into it. 

Yoga (…) is about living the best life you can. For me, that means practicing yoga to move my body as a way to counter the daily toll it takes hauling my 1-year-old around./ Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash

Let us live our yogic life in the way that makes most sense for us in the present moment. Even if it’s not perfect, we’re on this path doing the best we can. As long as we continue to earnestly devote ourselves to the principles of the path, let the path evolve as it will on its own time (even if that takes lifetimes). 

The wisdom of the Yoga Sutra lets us live in the world well. It can also be read as a guidebook for learning how to leave the world well. In this regard, it is a complete text that works for you no matter where you are in your journey. 

Classical Yoga philosophy as presented by Patanjali is a whole system, relevant for every aspect of the journey of your life.

Just like your grandma’s ancient vacuum mysteriously keeps running when you turn it on 50 years later, so too does the ancient wisdom of the Yoga Sutra continue to offer its lessons to the modern practitioner. But only if you dust off the cobwebs and give it the attention it deserves. 

Edited by Jordan Reed

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