While Patañjali is commonly referred to as the founder or father of the Yoga Darṣana (one of the six classical systems of hindu philosophy), the Yoga Philosophy itself is deeply rooted in earlier Vedic texts such as the Mahabharata (and thus the Bhagavad Gita), the Vedas and Upanishads. 11 But even these texts are not the beginning of Yoga teachings,12 but rather themselves point back to great yogis such as Hiranyagarbha 13, or even to those of former Kalpas (great cycles) such as Rudra. 14 The yoga woven through these Vedic texts is of a broad definition, treating of several types/branches or applications of yoga, though always relating to the central themes of meditation, restraint of the senses, equal-mindedness, residing in one’s true nature, etc.. 15
What we have with Patanjali is a codifier of yoga (or what has come to be known as Raja Yoga, a term that distinguishes it from other forms such as Hatha Yoga). Patanjali presents a definite treatment of yoga philosophy and practice drawn from the ancient Vedic tradition and formalized through his Yoga Sutras; it is clear that he is not an inventor, but simply a transmitter, who is teaching something already known among the sages of prehistory. From Patanjali’s work the Vedic yoga philosophy became the Yoga Darṣana, which has evolved into the philosophical school we know today. His presentation of yoga, in one succinct volume, has become the central source of yoga teachings in Hindu philosophy, and now worldwide.
“Concentration, or Yoga, is the hindering of the modifications of the thinking principle.”17
This is followed shortly after with a statement of the twofold means by which this may be accomplished:
abhyāsa-vairāgya-ābhyāṁ tan-nirodhaḥ 18
“The hindering of the modifications of the mind already referred to, is to be effected by means of Exercise and Dispassion.” 19
Exercise or practice, and dispassion or desirelessness, thus mark two pillars of yoga. For the latter, the Bhagavad Gita provides all we need in the way of philosophical explanation, which is then complimented by the practical instructions contained in the regulations (yama/niyama) of Patanjali’s sutras. For the former, we have these Yoga Sutras in their completeness, which examine every key facet of the practice required by the yogi.
From these two pillars and the preliminary lessons of the first chapter of the sutras, the yoga philosophy unfolds itself in greater degree throughout the remaining three chapters, centering on what has been called the Eight Limbs of Raj Yoga, namely:
yama niyama-āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo-‘ṣṭāvaṅgāni20
We may translate this as:
The eight (ashtau) limbs (angani) are social-regulations (yama), self-regulations (niyama), posture (asana), pranic-regulations (pranayama), withdrawal from sensory input (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), contemplation (dhyana), and true meditation (samadhi).
It is this eightfold system that comprises the core of Patanjali’s teachings. The first two constitute preliminary training, but in truth are principles of action that carry throughout the life of the Yogi—they are not progressive steps that one passes through in serial order but are the way of life the yogi must adopt if he is to be successful in yoga meditation, and this way of life must be maintained even after he has passed through those later steps. From this training Asana results, and from there a serial order of progression can be traced from Pranayama through to Samadhi.
A brief treatment of each term will lay out the basic foundation of the Yoga practice.
Yama may be seen as those observances that relate to our interactions with others and with the world at large. Five key principles are provided, which, when understood in their true significance are applicable to our every interaction. These are given in the following verse:
ahiṁsā-satya-asteya brahmacarya-aparigrahāḥ yamāḥ 21
These may be translated as: non-violence (ahimsa), truth or truthfulness (satya), not stealing (asteya), continence or self-restraint (brahmacharya), and non-covetousness (aparigraha). Yet each of these words can hold a much wider, deeper meaning. 22
Niyama may be seen as those observances that relate to oneself, or the interactions of one’s inner life. Again, five key principles are given, which provide guidance in every internal struggle of the self. These are given in the following verse:
śauca saṁtoṣa tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni niyamāḥ 23
These may be translated as: cleanliness or ‘purification of body and mind’ (shaucha), contentment (santosha), austerity or self-discipline (tapas), self-study (svadhyaya), and ‘persevering devotion to the Supreme Soul’ or ‘love and surrender to the indwelling divinity’ (ishvara-pranidhana). Just as we find with the five principles of Yama, each of the principles of Niyama are likewise capable of much larger, more expansive meanings.
These two, Yama and Niyama, constitute the preparational training of the disciple. Just as athletes must prepare for their sport with proper diet, fitness and lifestyle, with preparatory stretching and mental focus, so too much the yogi be thoroughly prepared for the practice of Raj Yog meditation.
Asana may be roughly translated as ‘posture’, but again this has an expanded meaning far beyond that of physical positioning. Posture may be thought of in the sense of one’s poise, one’s composite attitude or state—i.e. the harmonic alignment of one’s entire constitution, inward and outward. It is the ‘posture’ of the entirety of the yogi, the synchronization of the being from the very highest part of its nature down to the very lowest. Thus it can be seen that proper Asana naturally results from the practice of Yama and Niyama, and cannot be forced without them.
While pranayama is often translated simply as ‘regulation of the breath’ or ‘breath control’, it’s meaning is far greater and extends into the very nature of mind. In our normal waking state, the mind is in constant flux, never at rest, never clear and calm; it’s not particularly regulated and has little sustained rhythm, because it is constantly operating through the senses. “Regulation of prana” is essentially the rhythmic regulation of the vital power (the pranas or ‘breaths’) underlying the bridge between mind and sense perception, which has been allowed to flow in haphazard fashion but in the yogi is re-harnessed and regulated by the will.
Once that vital power is well regulated, one can begin to calm the connection between mind and sense perception, and steadily withdraw the mind from sensory input, and this is Pratyahara. Only when this state of complete ‘withdrawal’ is reached is samyama possible, and this samyama constitutes the three remaining limbs: dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Dharana is introduced in the following verse:
deśa-bandhaḥ cittasya dhāraṇā 24
This may be translated as: concentration (dharana) is the binding or holding (bandha) of the mind or consciousness (chittasya) to a singular point or place or object (desha).
In The Voice of the Silence, H. P. Blavatsky defines Dharana as: “the intense and perfect concentration of the mind upon some one interior object, accompanied by complete abstraction from everything pertaining to the external Universe, or the world of the senses”. But as we all know, concentration can be quite fleeting (even intense and perfect concentration), and this leads to Dhyana.
Dhyana is introduced in the following verse:
tatra pratyaya-ikatānatā dhyānam 25
This may be translated as: maintaining continuous singular flow or attention (ekatanata) of the perceiving or knowing consciousness (pratyaya) in that place or point or with that object (tatra) is called true contemplation (dhyana).
Thus Dhyana may be said to be the ability to maintain Dharana (though, of course, it’s meaning goes much deeper). Maintaining this perfect concentration and thus penetrating through to the essence of that which is concentrated upon is what ultimately leads to the final limb, Samadhi.
Samdhi is introduced in the following verse:
tadeva-artha-mātra-nirbhāsaṁ svarūpa-śūnyam-iva-samādhiḥ 26
This may be translated as: when only (matra) that same (tadeva) object (artha) appears (nibhasam), even as though empty (shunyam) of its own form or nature (svarupa), this is called true meditation (samadhi).
In The Voice of the Silence, H. P. Blavatsky defined Samadhi as: “the state in which the ascetic loses the consciousness of every individuality including his own. He becomes—the ALL.”
Through this Eightfold path of Yoga one is said to progress from normal, haphazard and scattered human consciousness to the focused and uplifted consciousness that allows one to self-consciously realize the true nature of oneself and one’s ultimate unity with all that is. The goal is liberation, which is oneness with SELF, and the road to it is given in detail by Patanjali in his sutras.
From a study of the sutras we get a sense of the grandure of the state of the successful Yogi, and we find ourselves admiring the beauty of the message Patanjali brought—not only are we so much more than we think ourselves to be, but there is a path by which we can arrive at a truer sense of Self and re-become that divinity that rests at the core of our being.
What Patanjali does, perhaps better than any other, before or after him, is to simplify the path before us, to show that spirituality is not unscientific or vague, but is an exact science—the science of self-realization. 27 Furthermore, he teaches us that enlightenment is not something unattainable or solely for the elect—we can begin walking the path towards it now, step by step, through the application of a few simple (though profound) rules of conduct and a sincere attempt at yoga practice.
[Read the first portion of this article—a biography of Patanjali—here:
Teachers: Patanjali ]
For more on Yoga see our page on the Yoga Darśana.
Click here to explore the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Aphorisms of Patanjali).
Click here for a complete Biography of Patanjali, with additional materials, quotations, etc.
In the Theosophical Glossary of H.P. Blavatsky, we read:
Yoga (Sk.). One of the six Darshanas or schools of India; a school of philosophy founded by Patânjali, though the real Yoga doctrine, the one that is said to have helped to prepare the world for the preaching of Buddha, is attributed with good reasons to the more ancient sage Yâjnawalkya, the writer of the Shatapatha Brâhmana, of Yajur Veda, the Brihad Âranyaka, and other famous works. …
See also: Introducing Yoga’s Great Literary Heritage, by Georg Feuerstein, Yoga Journal, Jan/Feb 1988
(1) I proclaimed this imperishable yoga to Vivasvān; Vivasvān told it to Manu and Manu spoke it to Ikṣvāku.
(2) Thus handed down from one to another the royal sages knew it till that yoga was lost to the world through long lapse of time, O Oppressor of the foe (Arjuna).
(3) This same ancient yoga has been today declared to thee by Me; for thou art My devotee and My friend; and this is the supreme secret.
—tr. S. Radhakrishnan
^13. See “The Original Teachings of Yoga: From Patanjali back to Hiranyagarbha” by David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri), American Institute of Vedic Studies. This article helps place Patanjali’s Yoga in the larger context of the Vedic Yoga tradition.
“In the Krita age of that ancient Kalpa, Rudra, devoted to Yoga, O monarch, communicated it [i.e. the religion preached by Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita] to all those Rishis that are known by the name of Valikhilyas.”—tr. Kisari Mohan Ganguli
^15. For instance, in the Bhagavad Gita we find treatments of what have become known as Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Jnana Yoga, while elsewhere in the Mahabharata we read of Nirodha Yoga. We find various, though related, definitions of Yoga, for instance:
Bhagavad Gita II:48
“Fixed in yoga, do thy work, O Winner of wealth (Arjuna), abandoning attachment, with an even mind in success and failure, for evenness of mind is called yoga.”—tr. S. Radhakrishnan
Katha Upanishad, III:11
“This, the firm control of the senses, is what is called yoga. One must then be vigilant; for yoga can be both beneficial and injurious.”—tr. Nikhilananda
See also Mahabharata, Book 12 (Santi Parva), Part III (Mokshadharma Parva), specifically Section CXCV, for a detailed examination of yoga.
^16. Yoga Sutras, I:2.
^17. Translation is from William Quan Judge’s interpretation. His version can be compare with several other English translations, for example:
Union, spiritual consciousness, is gained through control of the versatile psychic nature.—Charles Johnston
Yoga is restraining the mind-stuff (Chitta) from taking various forms (Vrittis).—Swami Vivekananda
[Yoga is] “the neutralization of the alternating waves in consciousness,” [or alternatively, the] “cessation of the modifications of the mind-stuff.”—Paramahansa Yogananda (see Yogananda’s detailed examination here).
See also: detailed analysis of the verse.
^18. Yoga Sutras, I:12-16
|^20. Yoga Sutras, II:29||^21. Yoga Sutras, II:30|
|^23. Yoga Sutras, II:32||^24. Yoga Sutras, III:1|
|^25. Yoga Sutras, III:2||^26. Yoga Sutras, III:3|
^27. “[Patanjali’s] renowned Yoga Sutras presents, in a series of brief aphorisms, the condensed essence of the exceedingly vast and intricate science of God-union—setting forth the method of uniting the soul with the undifferentiated Spirit in such a beautiful, clear, and concise way that generations of scholars have acknowledged the Yoga Sutras as the foremost ancient work on yoga.”—Paramahansa Yogananda