Yoga Sutras – Historical Significance, Current Relevance

Our ancient Indian texts are a fascinating representative of the times when they were created and an indication of the highly evolved, peaceful and healthful life that people likely lived at the time. Sutra of course means a thread or a common theme that runs through something. In the literary context the sutras are records or manuals relating to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism – religious belief and practice as well as prescribed way of life.

What the Sutras Represent

In the Hindu tradition, the sutras refer to a compilation of texts, literary compositions or certain aphorisms. These were various philosophies of life; bodies of knowledge based on which rituals and ways of life were prescribed. The sutras covered various subjects such as ethics, the law, arts and medicines and were a vehicle for transmitting this body of knowledge from one to the next generation. In Buddhism, the sutras refer to the teachings of Gautam Buddha; similarly Jain Sutras consist of the sermons of Mahavir as well as some later texts.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

In my quest to understand and truly imbibe the holistic discipline of yoga, the texts or sutras that I find mentioned the most are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These sutras are a collection of some 196 principles or truisms and are thought to have been compiled nearly 2500 years ago by the sage Patanjali. During the medieval times, these texts were translated into as many as 42 languages; however they were not much read or referred to until later, when in the 19th and the 20th century these Sutras once again regained prominence. It is thought that it was largely due to the efforts of Swami Vivekananda and the Theosophical Society that the world rediscovered these sutras and their significance.

The yoga sutras of Patanjali are the basis of classical yoga practice and all the different schools of yoga do trace their roots back to these texts. Patanjali is thought to have created the compilation of yoga sutras based on the body of yogic knowledge, philosophy and practice.

These sutras are made up of two main parts: Kriya Yoga and Ashtanga (eight parts or limbs) yoga. The eight limbs of yoga are understood to be:

The Yamas or moral imperatives such as:

  • Ahimsa (nonviolence),
  • Satya (truth),
  • Asteya (not stealing),
  • Bhrahmacharya (chastity, physical restraint or fidelity),
  • Aparigraha (non-possessiveness or a lack of avarice)

The Niyamas or the rules (prescribed habits or behaviors) such as:

  • Shauch (purity or clarity of speech, body and mind)
  • Tapa or austerity
  • Santosh or contentment or optimism where the mind accepts one’s own circumstances as the first step towards improving them
  • Swadhyaya or self study for personal growth and evolvement and reflecting upon the inner self
  • Ishwar Praṇidhana is the contemplation of God or the one supreme being

8 Limbs of Yoga

The Aasans or the set of exercises and positions that help to improve health, well being, fitness, balance and posture as well as to derive many other benefits. Various yoga texts prescribe various aasans based on this.

Pranayam is the fourth limb of yoga; a set of breathing exercises as we understand it. It is also the process of concentrating our attention and energies within; disconnecting from the outside world, things and persons.

Pratyahara, the fifth limb, means detachment from the outside world to focus inwards. In involves reflecting objectively upon habits that are holding back our spiritual progress.

Dharana is about developing focus and concentration and developing what is known as the one-pointedness of the mind.

Dhyana is deep or abstract meditation. The practitioner starts with reflection or contemplation and then sinks into meditation to derive various benefits.

Samadhi is the attainment of the supreme bliss. This is the state of trance where the mind is able to control the body and where one experiences perfect harmony and pure joy; which should be the ultimate aim of the human being.