There are many different philosophical teachings on yoga, however for the purpose of this essay I will focus on one important text: The Sage Patenjali’s Yoga Sutras.
According to Sri Swami Satchidananda, an expert on the Yoga Sutras,
Within the space of these 200 short Sutras, the entire science of Yoga is clearly delineated: its aim, the necessary practices, the obstacles you may meet along the path, their removal, and the precise descriptions of the results that will be obtained from such practices.
Although Patenjali’s Yoga Sutras is one of the most highly respected and well read texts on yoga today, very little is known about the man himself. Patenjali is thought to have lived somewhere between the 2nd and 3rd century C.E. Historians have been unable to agree on his birthplace and the only stories we have of his birth are surrounded in legends and myths.
If you are interested in a comprehensive study of Patenjali’s life, this biography written by Kofi Busia is a great resource.
Regardless of Pantenjali’s history, the Yoga Sutras are an important part of Yoga Philosophy. The 196 sutras, or threads, are divided into four sections:
- Samadhi Pada or Contemplation – explains the aim of yoga in a theoretical way, this aim being to attain a constant state of Samadhi or enlightenment.
- Sadhana Pada or Spiritual Practice – explains methods of practice to attain the yogic goal of Samadhi. Here, Pantenjali outlines the eight limbs of yoga discussed below.
- Vibhuti Pada or Accomplishments – explains the 6th, 7th and 8th limbs of yoga
- Kaivalya Pada or Absoluteness – explains mind construction and how it masks the inner self.
Book Two, Sadhana Pada, of the Yoga Sutras discusses an idea called the Eight Limbs of Yoga. According to the sutras,
By practice of the limbs of Yoga, impurities dwindle away and there dawns the light of wisdom, leading to discriminative discernment.
The eight limbs are:
- Yama or abstinence: Not causing pain. Pain can be caused through words (including lies), actions, or even thoughts.
- Niyama or observance: purity, contentment and accepting but not causing pain.
- Asana or posture: Asana means to sit in a posture that brings comfort and steadiness. The purpose of sitting still for long periods of time is to meditate. This is easier said than done, the yogis decided. As a result, the asanas transformed into various poses, all with different purposes. Some poses help squeeze toxins from the body, while others help stretch the muscles to make them more supple. It’s important to remember, when practicing yoga asanas, that the originally goal of these exercises was to be able to sit still and meditate without pain or discomfort. They were a means to an end, not an end to a means.
- Pranayama or breath control: Once the asana posture has been mastered, next we must master breath control or pranayama. Prana means breath. Without prana, we would die. Mastering our breath is a very important element in attaining Samadhi. (note: ALWAYS use caution when practicing pranayama exercises as these can be dangerous if not done properly).
- Pratyahara or sense withdrawal: Not allowing our senses to be satisfied by pleasurable yet unnecessary things.
- Dharana or concentration: Dharana is the binding of the mind to one object, place or idea. It is the ability to meditate by concentrating on only one thing.
- Dhyana or meditation: Dhyana is the continuous flow of cognition towards that object. When the Dharana, or concentration, is fixed and flowing uninterrupted, this is mediation.
- Samadhi or contemplation, super-conscious state, enlightenment. The sutras describe it as such: “the same meditation when there is the shining of an object alone, as if devoid of form.”