ARTICLES – Patanjali Yogasutrā (Rajan Narayanan, Ph.D.)

Patanjali Yogasutrā
by Rajan Narayanan, Ph.D.
Life in Yoga Foundation and Taksha Institute, USA


Outdoor Sculpture of Sage Patanjali at Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar, India. (Photo by Dr. Dilip Sarkar.)

The Patanjali Yogasutrā is an ancient treatise whose dating has been the subject of considerable speculation and research to this day. Popular academic notion places the Yogasutra were written in ca. 500 BCE (Radhakrishnan and Moore, 1957); however, given new discoveries by the author, he dates it at about 3100 BCE (Narayanan 2011). Even today, the great seer Patanjali’s work stands as the earliest comprehensive summary of Yoga, and is regarded as the ultimate reference for Yoga principles and philosophy. In a text that consists of only 196 sentences (or,aphorisms) in four chapters, he provides insight into human problems and their solutions, with emphasis on the nature of living in the context of all creation. In its conclusion, it is the attitudinal transformation of a person that liberates him or her, making life “effortless.” Such liberation can come with or without a complete understanding of the nature of existence and God. The Yoga Sutrā-s of Patanjali provides a seeker with a path for direct, individual experience with the nature of existence, to find the highest truth, bringing a complete understanding of everything. As we say in modern language, it provides a mechanism to activate our wireless modem and connect into the cosmic server and God to directly inquire into the highest truth. Yet it does not deny that without any of this understanding, the path of Dharma alone, with the attitude of a dispassionate observer, will also lead to liberation.

Thus the Yoga Sutrā-s provides great clarity on what is yoga. In a world where Yoga has proliferated in multiple exercise regimens and concepts, the Yoga Sutrā-s provides the principles of what constitutes yoga – thus bringing unity in diversity of practices.

The Yoga Sutrā was written in essay format, with four chapters or quarters (Pāda in Sanskrit).

The first chapter, Samādhi Pāda, presents an introductory overview. In the first 20 sutrā-s, Patanjali explains that restraining or quietening (Nirodha) the activation (Vritti) of our internal programmed system (Citta or Chitta or consciousness) is what Yoga is intended to accomplish. He further teaches that when the programmed system is not quiet, we identify with the activation and that only when the programmed system is quiet, can one know our true nature. He explores the five causes of activation of the programmed system, and in sutrā-s 17 through 20 describes high states of awareness one attains in Samādhi, divine communion. In sutrā-s 23 to 29, Patanjali describes God or Ēshvara. Sutrā-s 30 to 51 constitute the last part of the first chapter, showing the progression of an individual from a disturbed or diseased state of existence to a “one-pointed awareness” that leads to intuitive knowledge or wisdom (Prajnya), and finally to the highest state of Nirbēja Samādhi (unstimulated divine connectivity, i.e. constant connectivity). Many people make the mistake of stopping here, though the full depth of yoga terms introduced in the first chapter cannotbe understood properly without the details of the full document.

Chapters 2 and 3 comprise the body of the text, containing 55 and 56 sutrā-s, respectively. Here are described the importance of purification, the nature of impurities and the process of cleansing necessary to attain a one-pointed frame of mind leading to Samādhi. In this context, the step by step guide of the 8-fold Ashthānga Yoga is presented, leading all the way to liberation (Moksha or Kaivalya). While no descriptions of āsanas or specific exercises are included, the principles are all discussed. In Chapter 3, there is clear evidence of an understanding of the Chakra and Nādi systems (discussed in other Yoga literature), although they are not specifically discussed.

Chapter 4, with 34 sutrā-s, is the conclusive overview, wherein the individual human being in the context of all of creation is explored, as well as the process of rebirth, the nature of all creation, and the final liberation in one of two ways: (i) being in one’s own true state in communion with God all the time (Kshana Prati Yogi); or (ii) becoming dissolved with the energy flow of nature. [For those who can relate to Vedāntic concepts, it is clear to see that the first is the Vishishtha-Advaita Moksha as a Nitya Suri (always in the shine of God), while the second is the Advaita Moksha.] The crowning statement of thehighest wisdom of the Yoga Sutrā-s is sutra 31 of this chapter, which essentially states that with infinite wisdom one comes to the conclusion that what is to be known is very little. And what is that “very little”? It can be reasonably deduced that each being is merely an actor in God’s Cosmic Game, and doing our part as programmed, without judging anything, is all that is expected of us, and that is the path to Moksha – (which is also the teaching of the Bhagavad Gitā). As stated earlier, this can be done with or without that infinite knowledge gained through the communion of Yoga.

For one who is discerning, the Yoga Sutrā-s provides enough principles of practice to devise one’s own Yoga practice. And the rest is revealed through the infinite wisdom of the highest intuitive awareness.

In short, the core points of the Yoga Sutrā-s are as follows:

  • We are all programmed beings – carrying the baggage of the past lives and initial creation.
  • The path to liberation is to rid oneself of the programs.
  • This is accomplished by maintaining an attitude of a pure observer, without judging or reacting to everything.
  • Since one is born to play a certain role in life (one’s Dharma), playing one’s role without judging oneself is required. The role in itself may involving judging – as a judge in a court, as a doctor examining his/her patient to diagnose, a document processor who judges completeness of the document before forwarding it for processing, a mother who judges when it is time to feed a baby or how to make sure the environment is safe for the baby, or judging to see if it is safe to cross the road when needed, etc. Regardless, one should not judge oneself. One should accept the consequences, once actions are performed with ones best judgment. Intuitive guidance can be part of this best judgment.
  • The path of purification and divine communion leading to realization works is through the 8-fold Yoga process called Asthānga Yoga. The first two stages relate to the mental process of becoming a thinking, disciplined person, who is ready for Yoga practice. The next three stages relate to body-mind integration, with physical, breath, and vibration elements. The vibration element includes sounds, such as music, the internal vibrations of our nature, the food we eat, the company we keep, the vibrations of places, climate and weather, time of day, etc. The next two relate to mind-spirit integration, with thought and pure observation. From this stage, one goes to the eighth, which is the spiritual integration in divine communion (Samādhi).
  • Intuitive awareness and wisdom come from divine communion. As one’s external sensory reactions take a back seat with the body-mind-spirit integration, the wireless transmitter within activates and becomes receptive to divine communion while in a conscious state (as opposed to an unconscious state, such as sleep). The process occurs in stages, from low level awareness to increasingly higher levels, until one attains the highest communion with God. The extraordinary abilities that even lower level awareness brings are a natural unfolding of the process. One should not feel pride or a sense of superiority because of these abilities, since such violation of being a pure observer will prevent one from reaching the highest level of understanding, where one understands that all of creation is just a drama – illusion, as philosophers call it.
  • Intuitive awareness and self realization is not necessary for liberation. Simply having the attitude of an observer leading to purification is sufficient.

Thus, one may conclude that for any Yoga exercise, there are three requirements:

  1. Purification – the exercise must reduce ones internal programs.
  2. Practice – the exercise must be done with one-pointed focus that later becomes that of a pure observer.
  3. Process – the exercise functions through the elements of the 8-fold process known as Asthānga Yoga.


Narayanan, R. (2011), Yoga’s Approach to Sustainable Evolution of the Human Being and Societies.

Radhakrishnan, S.; Moore, C. A. (1957), A Source Book in Indian Philosophy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.