Just because the Yogasūtra of Patañjali is an ancient text doesn’t mean it’s merely an interesting historical backdrop to yoga. With proper guidance, it is a relevant and comprehensive practice pathway - more psychology than philosophy - offering deep insights for positive self-transformation.
When we begin practising yoga, the first thing we need, according to Patañjali, is tapas. Why? Because when we start to make positive changes, we naturally experience some discomfort as our past habits (saṁskāras) resist change. Our effort to overcome that discomfort is tapas, the first word in the first sūtra of the second chapter. But why start at Chapter II?
Patanjali’s Yogasūtra is a treatise on sāṁkhya-yoga philosophy, presented in 195 concise sūtras contained in four chapters. The Sāṁkhya Kārikā tells us ‘what’ and ‘why’, and the Yogasūtra tells us ‘how’. Although the yogasūtras are concise to enable memorisation and oral transmission, they are fully explained in the main commentary of Vyāsa. Subsequent to Vyāsa’s commentary, there are some early sub-commentaries (e.g. from the 9thand 15th centuries), and then dozens of modern-day interpretations. Some commentators have attempted to align the sūtras with their own philosophies; however, the Yogasūtra is inseparable from sāṁkhya philosophy, just as the commentary of Vyāsa is considered inseparable from the Yogasūtra. Vyāsa’s commentary is as close to the source as it gets, thereby preserving accuracy and authenticity.
The heart of the Yogasūtra is the thought-and-latent impression (vṛtti-saṁskāra) cycle. The practice of kriyā-yoga enables this compulsive thinking cycle to be modified, paving the way to the state of yoga (citta vṛtti nirodha - the stilling of mental fluctuations). Through kriyā-yoga, says Vyāsa, the principles of sāṁkhya philosophy can be realised.
Sāṁkhya proposes the two realities of Consciousness and Matter (puruṣa and prakṛti), and the mechanism of the guṇas (rajas, tamas and sattva). The primary purpose of kriyā-yoga is to reduce rajas and tamas (restlessness and dullness) and maximise sattva (calmness and clarity). To attain yoga, the mind must first settle predominantly in sattva, and ultimately go beyond the sway of the guṇas altogether.
Kriyā-yoga is introduced at the beginning of the second chapter, because Chapter I was applicable for those with an already concentrated mind. Chapter II describes what an everyday person with a restless mind can do to achieve success in yoga.
Which brings us to the question - what is yoga? Vyāsa defines yoga in Chapter I, along with how to achieve it. While there are two roots for the word yoga - yujir yoge (union) and yuja samadhau (samādhi), Vyāsa states clearly that yoga is samādhi (a particular type of concentration). It is through samādhi that one can attain the goal of yoga, i.e. perpetual peace (kaivalya).
So, for the everyday person, sūtra II.1 introduces kriyā-yoga. Kriyā means action and in this framework refers to actions that will help us bring about a steady mind. It does not mean the kriyās spoken about in the Haṭha Yoga texts. Kriyā-yoga is a set of three practices that are most useful to take us from activity to stillness; these are: tapas, svādhyāya and iśvara-praṇidhāna.
These are not esoteric concepts, although a literal translation might leave us confused as to the relevance to an ordinary person. This is why, rather than direct translation, the explanation of a wise and clear teacher is necessary for the sūtras to be of practical use.
Commonly, tapas is translated as discipline or austerity; svādhyāya as self-study or self-reflection; and, iśvara-praṇidhāna as surrender to God. There appears to be little relationship between them. In fact, they progressively lead from gross to subtle - tapas is principally discipline of the body, svādhyāya is control over speech, and iśvara-praṇidhāna is control over the mind. These three practices help us move from our current state towards stillness.
You’ve probably heard yoga practitioners say that they’re practising tapas when pushing through pain in asana. There is no clarity in pushing through pain – tapas requires correct knowledge and clear understanding. In the context of the Yogasūtras, tapas means putting up with the discomfort of changing old patterns, as we gradually modify habits around our actions, food, breath and speech. Rather than forcing change, Vyāsa advises cultivating will-power and endurance without excessive disturbance or disruption.
Svādhyāya, in this context, is repetition of a mantra (mantra japa) and study of the scriptures (those concerned with the path to kaivalya). Why then is svādhyāya popularly described as self-study? In Sanskrit, sva = self; adhyayanam = study. Put another way, sva = self; adhi = near/toward; ayanam = to go. Svādhyāya suggests a means to go near one’s own self. Through correct knowledge and appropriate mantra japa meditation, we gain control over our external speech and internal chatter (thoughts), bringing about greater self-awareness. Mantra japa is a direct means to change the vṛtti-saṁskāra cycle.
Iśvara-praṇidhāna literally means to surrender/place before/in front of iśvara, however iśvara does not mean God as generally understood in the West. Vyāsa says that iśvara is a special consciousness that is not, and has never been, affected by the mental obstacles (kleśas), their consequences (karma), or the impressions they leave behind (saṁskāras). Unlike those who have attained kaivalya (either spontaneously like Ramana Mahaṛsi or through their own efforts like the Buddha), iśvara has never been bound and represents the unknown expanse that currently lies beyond our reach. In practical terms, iśvara-praṇidhāna means that by realising not everything is in our control, we surrender our expectations and accept what we cannot change. It doesn’t mean let go of our efforts or actions; it means let go of attachment to our expectations.
The three practices of Kriyā-yoga are re-iterated in sūtra II.32 (niyamas) as an external limb of aṣṭānga-yoga (eight limbs of yoga). The first five limbs (yama, niyama, āsana, prāṇāyāma, pratyāhāra) are considered external, and the last three internal as they involve only the mind (dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi). The external practice prepares us for the internal practice, and our first step is kriyā-yoga (note that yamas are non-actions – we refrain from doing something).
Is this relevant to us today? Perhaps kaivalya is not our goal. But we’ve come to yoga and stayed with yoga for a reason – usually it has helped us reduce suffering in some way. Therefore, no step on the path of (and to) yoga is a waste of time.