What are the Sutras?
Do you sometime hear about Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras? Some teachers like to mention them during classes, you might as well come across some quotes on the net or some philosophical mini-lectures. If you are intrigued then it shows that there is something there for you! If you’re already reading this, it might be that without even knowing it, this amazing ancient ‘book’ could bring something into your life… So continue reading…
The Yoga Sutras are 196 aphorisms, composed by the sage Patanjali around 400BC. In the last century, it has become a text of reference for the yoga practitioner, especially in the West. Composed of 4 chapters, the first two are the most studied and understood from our occidental perspective.
Every school of philosophy or individual can bring their own interpretation to the sacred aphorisms, even though some of them seem pretty straight forward. Every time one reads the Sutras, something else is being discovered from an intellectual, moral and spiritual perspective.
Personally, my dad used to read me the Sutras when I was little, then I read them many times in different books, learned about them in lectures and trainings and discussed about them with different people – I know, I’m so into my yoga stuff right?! Haha can’t help geeking about that! What strucks me the most is exactly that, that every time I study them again I learn something new and I understand them more deeply. I find it fascinating that the things of life that concern ever human on this earth can be so simply and clearly explained; and moreover that some solutions are offered to our ‘suffering’!
Why are the Sutras relevant for today?
The Sutras highlight the problematic of over-thinking as the main cause of suffering for us humans. Right from the beginning it is explained that ‘Yoga calms the fluctuations of the mind‘ (P.Y.S. 1.2 : “yoga chitta vritti nirodha”). It then explains further that Yoga has to be practised on a moral, physical, mental and spiritual level and that this practice has to be detached from any result (P.Y.S 1.12: “Abhyasa-vairagyabhyam tannirodhah”). So we should practice regularly on all those levels without trying to reach any results. To me, it sounds pretty much like being mindful of what we do and doing what is right for us and others on all levels. Ambition is not something to pursue but rather the feeling of calmness that comes from dropping all thoughts about performing a certain way – it is the opposite of being ambitious and competitive yes! To me, it sounds so right yet so hard in our goal oriented society.
Our mind is at any time in one of 5 states (Vrittis): correct knowledge (Pramada) – when you observe something and know it is true, like gravity when the apple falls from the tree; incorrect knowledge (Viparyaya), like when you wrongly mistake someone for someone else at night; imagination or fantasy (Vikalpa), like when we project ourselves in the future, day-dream, lie…; sleep (Nidra), when we are asleep or our mind is in a sleepy state and finally memory (Smriti), like when we think about the past.
That sounds pretty straight forward to me when I observe my mind… yes, it’s always in one of these states. There is hardly any rest between these states, my mind travelling from the past to what’s coming up next, to this dream that I have to travel here and there, passing by this conversations I have with people about life. My mind runs a marathon every day but without direction and goal; it’s like a wild horse totally uncontrolled that if not watched takes me in unwanted locations where I sometime get stuck. It’s not pleasant to realise that I’m certainly not a skilled rider for my own mind!
The 8 limbs of Yoga
In the second book, the Sutras mention many more interesting things, such as the famous 8 limbs of yoga. Those 8 limbs create a path to liberation and total bliss. Here is a quick overview of this process – observe how it is still relevant for today:
Yamas – the do’s, how to behave with others in society: Ahimsa (non violence), Asteya (non stealing), Satya (truthfulness), Bramacharya (sexual restraint), Aparigraha (greedlesness).
Niyamas – the more personal moral code of conduct: Sauca (purity), Santocha (contentment), Tapas (austerity, perseverance), Svadhyaya (self-study and study of scriptures), Isvarapranidhana (surrender to a higher power).
Both the Yamas and Niyamas can be linked to the 10 commandments of the Bible and actually to the basic principles of any human society. We have no choice but to live together on one little planet earth, so having some guidelines helps. Saying that, it’s pretty obvious that we are, as a society, definitely not respecting those fundamentals of living in harmony with one an other. If you look even more closely, just for yourself, being honest about how you live your life, you might find as well that some aspect could be fine tuned right? Do you NEVER have a word of violence towards yourself? Yes, wordings like ‘I’m so stupid, I’m useless at this, what’s wrong with me?” etc are Ahimsa, violence, guided towards our inner self – not good! I know, every time I look closely for myself I have to admit that I find all sort of excuses to get off track… but the more we practice implementing good values in our lives, for others and for ourselves, the more it becomes a habit.
Gandhi based his life on following the first two Yamas only – non-violence and truthfulness. He said that it was hard enough already. And look where that took him. He changed the lives of millions in total humility, truth and non-violence. That is true dedication!
Asanas – Physical practice (although not a single physical posture is actually mentioned in the entire text) – it would relate more to having the ability to sit for a long period of time to allow breathing practice, concentration and meditation. We could see today’s physical yoga practice as a way to open and strengthen the body to then be able to sit for meditation without any suffering.
Pranayama – Breath control that result in quietening the mind. Having the ability to control the breath and use full lung capacity has many scientifically proven benefits. It calms the mind, massage the internal organs, triggers the parasympathetic nervous system that is responsible for bringing feelings of inner peace, calm and happiness, amongst other things.
Pratyahara – Control of the senses. 10 senses (Indrias) are mentioned in the sutras. From our senses being triggered, result the fluctuations of the mind. If we can control our senses, we will then experience less over-thinking. Think about what you love eating… then you can smell it passing in front of a restaurant, your mind gets trapped into that smell making you think that you want it. Then, you feel that you need it, next thing you know, you’re eating even though you’re not hungry. An other example; if you listen to a sad song, it will trigger feelings of sadness, possibly a memory (smriti) of some sad event, then triggering a mood reaction and a physical reaction of crying or feeling gloomy and depressed. And the list goes on and on! Next time something crosses your senses, observe; the process is truly fascinating! Then if you can observe that, you can choose to change your reaction accordingly.
Dharana – Concentration. Being able to hold the mind still. Just this already requires a lot of practice over a long period of time without any intentions – remember? Abhyasa – regular practice and Vairagyam (detached from the results). To be able to concentrate, the Sutras encourage the mind to focus on one thing only (Ekagrata); the mind has to be focused, not interrupted, for a long period of time.
Dhyana – Meditation. This is the actual meditative state. If like me you like to ‘meditate’, it usually results in a ‘fight’ with your mind for a certain length of time – an hour making us feel like a super-star meditator! Here, it is the stage of total emptiness, where the mind is not longer focused on anything at all… We can have glimpse of that in our ‘meditation’ practice where the fight with the mind sometimes drops and total emptiness is there… but because we lack practice we then immediately realise that and go all crazy like ‘yes I’m doing it’! And then it’s over as we have though that. But I do trust that with time it is achievable. Yes it is… and that’s the ultimate freedom to me, total emptiness and surrender.
Samadhi – Total bliss. There is nothing left but just the body, the mind is gone and the soul is with the infinite… It is said that in Samadhi, one can stay for hours without moving, thinking, hearing or feeling anything. In this state, all suffering is gone and the soul is pure, reunited with the divine.
What else could be said? Many more really but that would be too long for me to write and for you to read. If you are interested how to apply this ancient philosophy in today’s world, the more we can learn and apply that into our daily life, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org, I’d love to hear from you!