Exploring the Yoga Sutras: A Beginning OverView of the Sacred Text

by Andrea Fulkerson

Mist in trees by Chris Lawton
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Over the centuries, sages and wise men have been sharing wisdom about how to manage human existence. Since the dawn of civilization, and especially during the Axial period (approx 8th to 3rd century BCE),  sacred texts and teachings have been used to find peace within a constantly changing material existence. Civilization allowed humans to move  outside of the tribal collective, the place of safety and security, to a place where one could stand on the outside of one’s family community. This ‘separation’ and autonomy created a less than secure mental environment amidst an ever changing environment. In order to find  some permanence within the often hostile exterior landscape, wise sages developed observatory messages that contain truths. Aphorisms were a way to remember and pass on important teachings to those interested in understanding the human condition and remedies for a better life. Patanjali, a sage, has been credited to writing a book of aphorism called Sutras, a guide book of sorts for anyone wanting some relief from everyday life.

So what were Patanjali’s ideas, and are they important to humans living today? What are some of his teachings, and how does this impact a yoga practitioner? In the West, yoga has gained quite a following as a way to tone and exercise the body, but how much emphasis does Patanjali give to the body?  Is it accurate that the Yoga Sutras offer ‘a yoga of the mind, but not the body’?  In this article, I will try to tackle these questions to shine light on the message that  Patanjali wrote in the late fourth century CE.

In the first pada, Patanjali tells the reader what yoga is, “here is the teaching on Yoga” and then gives the definition and goal of the practice. He says right away that yoga is indeed of the mind, in sutra 1.2, and the goal is to restrict it’s movements. He goes on in 1.3 to say that once this movement is stilled, our true identity can be seen (sva-rupe). This identity  is entirely spiritual in nature, but it is imperative that practitioners of yoga understand that stilling the mind is a prerequisite for being able to see clearly. Once the  fluctuations are stilled, the spirit is liberated from its false position of embodiment in this world. By starting out in this way, Patanjali makes it very clear early on that yoga is primarily about the mind.

He goes on to discuss the 5 categories of the movements of the mind  and how they “afflict” humanity. Webster’s dictionary defines affliction as “a cause of persistent pain or distress”, but the movements can also be an attachment to the pleasurable side of life. It is much harder to see life’s pleasures as afflicting us. However, as a roller coaster goes up a hill to come down with screaming passengers, both positive and negative mental waves can take the soul on a very bumpy ride if not ironed out.

So how do we restrain the mind? This is the challenging part because humans use their senses of perception to identify, categorize, label, and understand the world around them. In order to see the light of our own true nature, practitioners must practice touching steadiness. It has been said that perception leads to interpretation, which leads to feelings and then actions. If the mind is not tethered to something solid, it can interpret the outside world based on its previous experiences, resulting in feelings and outward actions. If we renounce both our interpretation of events, and our desire to be right about our interpretations, then we can begin to see things differently. Imagine a hurricane with an eye in the centre. The hurricane being the outside world with all of its transformations, and the eye being the unchanging essence of who we are — the purusa. Patanjali is asking practitioners to practice seeing through the lens of the quiet still place of awareness while the outside world is happening in all its movements. Eventually with practice, he says, the hurricane itself will be tamed and one will see the essence of life itself. It is here that we find kaivalya — liberation.

In A Course in Miracles, the author (said to be Jesus) discusses what is called ‘level confusion’. Level confusion is defined as “confusing the physical and spiritual levels, especially by assigning attributes of the spiritual level to the physical”. Our identity is really on the spiritual level but we mistaken ourselves for our material embodiment. This is what Patanjali is speaking of in the Sutras. Basically, we are not really a body. Yes, it does exist but is only a tool to be used for the betterment of ourselves and humanity. Once we restrain our minds, our body can be used for a more altruistic purpose.

We are given insight into what serenity of the mind can do for the outside world in sutra 1.33. Here, the course notes tell us that when “the practice is properly executed then one’s attitude towards the world is transformed into a mood that is utterly benign and filled with goodwill”. The result of this serenity extends outward into the world and we feel friendly, compassionate, and delighted. Our attitude to the ‘wicked’ is even tempered and benign because our minds stay tethered to the spiritual aspect of our true nature. Our exhale and retention of the breath can even help us to achieve this if we forget, says sutra 1.34. Does this not remind the reader of the common saying ‘stop and breathe’ when there is turbulence and trouble?  Patanjali discusses breath in both pranayama practice, but also as a ‘power’. He says that by controlling the breath we can “raise oneself upward” and that “there is illumination”. Perhaps this represents the idea of Moses’ staff that protects him from what Patanjali speaks of in sutra 3.39 as “untouched by water, mud, thorns and other obstacles”. Is this statement a metaphor of the challenges that life can bring?  If we stop, breathe and remember who we are (filled with light), the mind will naturally become quiet in relation to an object. In this way, says Patanjali, there is no level of difficulty (in the most minute and the largest thing) in overcoming life’s ups and downs (sutra 1.40).

Another area where we can see that yoga is ‘of the mind’ is in the Sadhana Pada where Patanjali talks about the kleshas: ignorance, egotism, desire, aversion, and attachment to life itself. Lack of understanding of who we truly are breeds egomania, lust, repulsion, and clinging. The thing we cling to mostly is our ego and our lives — who we think we are. The more ‘successful’ we think we are, the more we are attached to keeping up the image. We become entangled in our material existence and the masks that go with it. In this case, our spirit is veiled and unseen and level confusion has swung in the direction of embodiment. Fear is the only outcome, and Patanjali warns us that even wise ones can get trapped in the longing of life to remain.

Additionally, the eight limbs teach us that yoga is of the mind. One could argue that some of the limbs discuss the body, such as stealing (asteya) or engaging in sexual activity (brahmacharya). However this is mostly because those activities carry with them a bondage to the physical world which can be less than loving. Patanjali speaks of “sitting comfortably” in his section on asana (sutra 2.46), but again, this is because a sitting posture aids in the relaxation so that an inward exploration can be observed. In BKS Iyengar’s book titled Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, he states:


The practice of yoga helps the lazy body to become active and vibrant. It transforms the mind making it harmonious. Yoga helps to keep one’s body and mind in tune with the essence, the soul, so that all three are blended into one.

Mr. Iyengar is known for his asana practice, and he is a proponent that postures (like sitting)  can be used as a way to focus the mind and achieve kaivalya. His interpretation is that infinite poise in an asana allows the “finite vehicle, the body, to merge in the seer”. Sometimes we have to use the grossest level to focus deeper within — to reach what has also been called the perceiver. His teaching helped thousands connect their bodies to the more subtle mind and breath — a place of stillness.

Even the third pada from Pantanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Vibhuti Pada, filled with all of its ‘superpowers’, could be interpreted as a realization of what a calm serene mind is capable of. With the advent of the internet, it is not uncommon to see animals of two completely different species doing things unimaginable together. A leopard visiting a cow during the night to cuddle, a dachshund playing soccer with his friend the turtle,  a cat cuddling with birds. Our human conditioning, and perhaps animals as well, are “educated” by their caregivers to view the world in a certain way. Humans, and particularly western humans, have been indoctrinated into a violent and survival-of-the-fittest-mentality. It seems quite possible that once our ‘human’ minds — our indoctrination — have been removed through the practice of yoga, anything is possible. One sees this possibility when a human picks up a car or something heavy in a panic to save a child and then has no idea how it happened (sutra 3.24). Could this be an example of the samyama that Patanjali speaks of? Once we understand that our existence does not rely on the senses, we open to knowledge that seems impossible, such as knowledge of previous births, other people’s minds, perception, and invisibility (sutra 3.18-21). Psychotherapists have been studying these very things in relation to how humans make meaning, and egoic structures are built in the same manner as building a house with Lego.  The only difference is that each Lego piece (we call words) is attached with a meaning.  Wipe away the ‘meaning making’ machine — the active unfocused mind — and one opens to infinite possibilities (purusa) that can be viewed as miraculous. If we understand how the mind works, we can see our own and others minds (ego) as merely a reflection of previous imprints.

Doesn’t the body follow the thinking of the mind and not the other way around? When the mind is still, Patanjali ultimately answers the above question and says that the “great detachment from the body” occurs (sutra 3.43). Our ego begins to dissolve and we can move away from the confusion of being an ego in a body, and start owning our spiritual nature. Have you ever been in the company of someone who oozes love, honesty, compassion, kindness? Their ego is small, their spirit is large, they appear light, but also very grounded, others will follow, and want to help spread the joy, and they appear free of the bondage of the world ( sutra 3.45). They do not do their work for fame or fortune, but because they are filled up with absolute transcendence of desire of any kind (sutra 3.50).

Vyasa’s comments of Sutra 4.3 in the Kaivalya Pada sum up the argument of whether yoga is of the mind or body very well, stating that no external cause can bring liberation. He uses the idea of crop irrigation. By removing the obstacle to the water flow, the water will naturally move down the irrigation canals to the crops. He says:


 In the same way, dharma (virtuism) does not create the transformation of existence, but it removes barriers such as wickedness, so as to allow the natural flow into a new state of being. It is really about purification of the mind by the removal of barriers such as greed, self-centeredness, and a lack of compassion, so that there is then a natural movement towards a higher state of being.

Some would say that if we remove the blocks to our soul’s (loves) presence, the shining light of our embodiment will naturally shine forth, and the rebirths will end. First, the rebirths of the fluctuations within the mind, and eventually the end of birth and death.

Imagine a large sun and a very small blue earth. The sun represents our spiritual identity; the earth our embodiment. When we begin the journey of yoga, and indeed many spiritual paths,  the embodiment is large and the light of our true self very small. The yogi is taught how to uncover their own true nature so that the sunlight of existence itself can shine forth in all its splendour — touching everything and everyone it meets.


This article by Andrea Fulkerson, was originally written and submitted to Dr. Nick Sutton at Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies as part of a philosophy course and printed here with permission.

About the Author

Andrea Fulkerson

With over her 30 years of health practice, Andrea has developed a holistic approach to working with others. Iyengar Yoga has given her the tools required to have a quieter, healthier, curiosity-filled life which includes the love of movement she’s always enjoyed. The study of Yoga continues to enlighten her as she practices with her teachers and at workshops.