Patañjali’s Yogasūtra is one of the most important texts on the practice of Yoga and essentially an instruction manual for living a satisfying and meaningful life. Of course, as the gold standard of yoga manuals, it presents the principles of Yoga as well as the possible goals that may be achieved through Yoga. However, its main purpose is to provide instructions for developing the state of Yoga and maintaining it in your life.
It is More Curriculum than Textbook
Composed in Sanskrit in India approximately 1700 years ago, it is only 195 sentences long. This brevity is because it was composed in the sūtra style, which tries to keep texts as succinct as possible. Each and every word in the text is important, there is nothing superfluous or extra. The text does not describe in detail how to do postures, breathing techniques, or even meditation. Rather, it lays out the principles underlying all practices, as well as those specific to the categories of techniques just mentioned, and then leaves the details to be taught by the teacher. As a result, the text functions more like a curriculum than a textbook.
The Yogasūtra is Incredibly Organized
Patañjali’s Yogasūtra takes all the different aspects of Yoga practice and presents them in a way that is both incredibly organized and amazingly interconnected. Every single sūtra cross-references numerous other sūtras. When understood together, they create the kind of picture of Yoga that is both complete and multi-dimensional.
For example, in examining a sculpture, it is necessary that we look at it from more than one angle. As we look from multiple angles, different aspects of that sculpture express themselves. When joined together, these different views fill out what the sculpture is in ways that are not possible if we only look from one or two perspectives. This is what Patañjali’s Yogasūtra does for the understanding of Yoga. It takes all the disparate aspects of Yoga and shows how they fit together as a single, cohesive process.
Yoga is a State of Being
The difficulty of defining what Yoga ‘is’ lies in the fact that it is a state of being. As with love, there is no single thing we can point to and label. Instead, we see the expressions of love, the actions taken to demonstrate love, and we know that that person is ‘in love.’ Yoga is an optimal state of being in which the body, mind, and emotions operate to their highest potential and we feel a deep sense of peace and contentment. As Patañjali describes, this state expresses in many different ways.
Yoga is a System of Intentionally Engineered Experiences
As a process for obtaining that state, Yoga is organized around perception. Specifically, it is interested in how we experience events in our lives. In every moment that we are awake, we are experiencing. We see and hear things and each of those experiences influences how we feel, think, and act. Different experiences influence us in different ways. For example, a cup of coffee will energize us while a glass of wine will relax us. A feather pillow is so comfortable and soothing while a pinprick is so annoying and uncomfortable. Each of these experiences not only changes us but also changes how we will respond to the next experience.
The same can be said of anything we do with our body, breath, or mind. A posture, breathing technique, or meditation object will all generate experiences that, in turn, change how we feel, think, and act. Patañjali’s Yogasūtra explains how to use our experiences to refine our state of being. Or to say it another way, Yoga is a system of intentionally-engineered experiences that are intended to influence how our entire system (body, breath, and mind) functions. Imagine how many different aspects of our being and life will be touched by such a practice! This is what Patañjali’s Yogasūtra presents in incredible depth and breadth. And also brevity!
Everyone Can Benefit
Studying Patañjali’s Yogasūtra will not just deepen your practice of Yoga, nor will it simply broaden your understanding of Yoga; it will accomplish both of those things and so much more! Embracing this ancient text will touch every part of your life and bring about many shifts along the way. It will reduce your suffering, increase your feelings of satisfaction and wellness, and improve your presence and patience. It is that powerful and that applicable to your everyday life.
How to Study
It is not necessary to study the sūtras in order! Since every sūtra relates to multiple other sūtras in the text, topics are revisited again and again from different angles as you move through the text studying it. Where you start is not nearly as important as simply starting. Because no matter where you start, you will definitely need to skip forward and backward in the text to review other related sūtras to understand whatever concept is being expressed in the sūtra you’re examining. My advice is to get started as soon as you can!