how to study the yoga sutras of patanjali


It is so ingrained in our education and training that to ‘study’ a text means to discuss it, which means intellectually. It took me years to realize that there is something besides thoughts. Now I find I am often at a loss how to convey to someone that the words of the ancient texts are not to be taken in only  intellectually, and there is a subtle energy transmission that happens when we ‘tune in’ to the frequency of the ancient transmission. Intellectual understanding if an important part of that tuning in, but if one does not go further and venture into the unknown (beyond the intellect) the yeast is missing in the cake mixture and the cake will be flat.

Then there is the feeling of the discussions being shallow, brittle and consisting of complicated thought constructions. I have facilitated groups that were able to carry on an exchange together on such topics while remaining in a meditative state. Using words when one is together with others in that way then becomes something sacred and deeply moving – oftentimes life-changing. The groups were always small, 5 – 7 persons, and it is a very satisfying and fruitful experience for all concerned. Of course there is then no “instructor” who knows what it is all about and imparts knowledge to the others. Rather, the joint meditative space allows what I like to call ‘Intelligent Infinity” to speak through each one. In this way I can see individual Yoga Sutras being the ‘topic’ for such a process.

Let us take, for example, one of the last Sutras from Part 1 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as an example of the depth that each of the Sutras have – and remembering that we are taking an integral approach to understanding the Sutra, not an analytical one. This is Sutra 1.23: “ishvara pranidhanatva” Rather than looking at the Sutra as an aphorism or something to help memory to pass on knowledge, my sense is more that each Sutra is like a scientific formula. Several elements are placed in a certain order and they give us a very definite picture, if we are able to fathom them.

Here we have the first element: ishvara This term is found translated into English with the following words: creative source, pure consciousness, God, supreme Guru or teacher. Swami Rama, in his book on the Mandukya Upanishad, “Enlightenment Without God”, in the section “What God Is”, gives us a more in-depth meaning:

“In the Upanishads, the word Īśvara is used to denote a state of collective consciousness. Thus, God is not a being that sits on a high pedestal beyond the sun, moon, and stars; God is actually the state of Ultimate Reality. But due to the lack of direct experience, God has been personified and given various names and forms by religions throughout the ages. When one expands one’s individual consciousness to the Universal Consciousness, it is called Self-realization, for the individual self has realized the unity of diversity, the very underlying principle, or Universal Self, beneath all forms and names.

“The great sages of the Upanishads avoid the confusions related to conceptions of God and encourage students to be honest and sincere in their quests for Self-realization. Upanishadic philosophy provides various methods for unfolding higher levels of truth and helps students to be able to unravel the mysteries of the individual and the universe.”

I also like how D.Y. Deshpande describes Īśvara in “The Authentic Yoga” as “a mysterious and awe-inspiring something”. We might also say that this word, this sound, when spoken, is an expression of the highest that we can imagine in ourselves, one might say the Highest “I”. The Sutras in this section 1.23 – 29 express seven alternatives that are suggested for all who come across unforeseen impediments to remaining undisturbed in the state of nirodha (i.e the state of mind devoid of any vrtti – mind modifications). We are talking about reaching and remaining in the state of samadhi, which is the topic of the entire Part One of the Yoga Sutras, Samadhi Pada.

This Sutra 1.23 has the first element “Īśvara” and so we are asked to enter with our consciousness as far as possible into this concept of the Highest Principle we can conceive of. Then come the further elements: pranidhanatva. This is composed of the prefix pra with nidhana. The t and va together mean “or”in this context – as this alternative is pointed out as a means to attain the state of nirodha. Nidhana means ‘a place where anything is placed’ and pra means here ‘with intensity’. Thus one meaning of Īśvarapranidhana is “the Divine is what we place full of intensity into the void”, so that we see the Divine when we look with the intensity full of Being at something which we hold special. I see this Sutra pointing to the fact that anything which I behold a being filled with the intensity of life itself then becomes an expression of the Highest, or God, for me. Deshpande words it like this: “Īśvara-pra-nidha-na thus means ‘the space, a void, full of the intensity of Being, where God dwells”. Thus this alternative method for remaining in the nirodha state (which is the definition of the state of Yoga) is to completely merge into the state of ‘seeing God”. Eckhart Tolle calls it “Being in the Now”.

The traditional English translation of this Sutra is “Or [samadhi is attained] by devotion with total dedication to God [Isvara].” I came much deeper in my Self-exploration by delving into the original Sanskrit of this Sutra. It may be too tedious for many and I can console them: you will find your own way to the state of Yoga, which is the same as Buddha Mind, and the same as the Love Drunkenness of Rumi or Meister Eckhart’s Mystic Communion, if and when you decide to leave the trance world. The theologian Thomas Merton states: “A man searching for enlightenment is like a man sitting on an ass in search of an ass.” In a similar vein Joseph Campbell tells us that “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.” Here, the Yoga Sutras tell us to consciously enter into that intensity of Beingness in the Void and we will know our true identity. We will not find that Truth outside of us.



One thought on “how to study the yoga sutras of patanjali

  1. Pingback: yoga sutras – fifth exploration: a movement of discontinuity | New Earth Heartbeat

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