Yoga Sutras Structure & Overview

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we take a high-level look at the Yoga Sutras.

Objective

Become familiar with the scope and content of the Yoga Sutras.

Description

Define Yoga Darshana. Describe the overall purpose, scope and subject matter of the Yoga Sutras. Delineate the number of sutras and how they are structured, including the name and key topics of each of the four books.

Vocabulary

  1. Kaivalya Pada — Book 4 of The Yoga Sutras, On Absoluteness
  2. Sadhana Pada — Book 2 of The Yoga Sutras, On Practice
  3. Samadhi Pada — Book 1 of The Yoga Sutras, On Absorption
  4. Vibhuti Pada — Book 3 of The Yoga Sutras, On Accomplishments
  5. Yoga Darshana — Philosophy of Yoga
  6. Yoga Sutras — A philosophy of yoga codified by Patanjali

Introduction

  • The Yoga Sutras are a philosophy of yoga.
  • The text is also called Yoga Darshana, translated as “Philosophy of Yoga.” Yoga Darshana has a deeper meaning: “to see the invisible” or “to see with spiritual insight.” In other words, it refers to seeing beyond sensory input and the conditioned mind.
  • “The scripture is regarded as the most precise and scientific text ever written on yoga.” (Swami Satyananda Saraswati)
  • The Yoga Sutras describe human consciousness, how suffering happens, and how to cultivate inner happiness. They describe how to remove the “veil of darkness” and to be free.
  • The text is thought to have been written 200 years before the common era (BCE), or over 2,000 years ago.
  • The Yoga Sutras were codified (arranged in a systematic collection) by Patanjali, said to have been a revered yogi and scholar of many subjects.
  • See more about Patanjali and the sutra style: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Context.

A Method of Higher Perception

The scripture is also called Yoga Darshana, which is widely translated as “Philosophy of Yoga,” but actually the word darsha has a much deeper meaning. Literally, it means “to see.”… Yoga Darshana means to see something beyond the senses and beyond the mind. It is a process of seeing with the eyes and other senses closed, and with the mind under complete control. Yoga Darshana is a method of higher perception; it is a means “to see the invisible” or “to see with spiritual insight.” The scripture is regarded as the most precise and scientific text ever written on yoga. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati

Describes Human Consciousness

The text describes human consciousness in detail, including how our heart-mind functions, how suffering happens, and how to refine our body, breath, mind and heart so we are able to cultivate inner happiness and free ourselves from negativity. – Nicolai Bachman

The Message is to Remove the Veil of Darkness

The message of Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra is simple and straight-forward: Remove the veil of darkness and allow your intrinsic luminosity to illuminate both your inner and outer worlds. Be free here and now, and experience your everlasting self-luminous joy. The goal of Yoga is nothing less than that. – Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, PhD

Structure

In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, there are 196 sutras, divided into four books, or chapters. The following overview uses words that are common to many researchers and translators. The quoted descriptions are uniquely helpful and come from Alan Finger & Wendy Newton.

  1. The first book, Samadhi Pada — On Absorption or “Being in the Now” — has 51 verses. It defines yoga and its characteristics. “The essential task of the first pada is to give us the wide-angle, macro view of our main subject, samadhi.”
  2. The second book, Sadhana Pada — On Practice or “The actions that lead us to experience the Now” — has 55 verses. It provides practices and experiences for changing the mind from a state of distraction to attention.
  3. The third book, Vibhuti Pada — On Accomplishments or “What flows back through us from the universal consciousness in response to our efforts” — has 56 verses. It describes the effects of the practice of yoga as well as the distractions that can arise from the resulting powers.
  4. The fourth book, Kaivalya Pada — On Absoluteness or “The freedom of living every moment from the Now” — has 34 verses. It is a chapter on “absolute liberation.”

You may wish to remind students that describing spiritual experiences is notoriously difficult. The word “ineffable” — meaning “unspeakably beautiful” — points to this difficulty, as does the fact that so often, humans use poetry, art, metaphor and story to describe the mystical (direct experience with ultimate reality). By necessity, a book progresses from beginning to end, in this case from sutra 1 to  sutra 196. However, the process being described is not a linear procedure. In contrast, the process of spiritual growth is “cyclic, dynamic, and expansive rather than static or linear.” Thus, the structure of the text is more like “pillars that support the body of the wisdom of yoga” than a linear pathway.

First 2 Sutras Explain the Goal & 194 Sutras Explain How

In the first two sutras Patanjali says that when the mind is stilled, the self rests in its abode. If things were as simple as that, then Patanjali could have ended there. But he goes on to amplify those two sutras with a hundred and ninety-four further sutras in which he defines the technical ways of reaching that state. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

Four Books

There are four books, or padas, within the Yoga Sutra… The first book, Samadi Pada, sets forth the underlying vision of what yoga is and describes the basic techniques of yoga that stabilize that vision. The remaining three padas describe and deepen this understanding of yoga from slightly different points of view and with different emphasis. The additional padas allow us to get more comfortable with the basic subject matter of yoga, and they also invite us to explore a little more deeply. – Richard Freeman 

To Perfection

The first chapter [takes] us down the five paths to perfection. The next two chapters [take] us there through the eight limbs. The final chapter takes us through the mental details to the same place. – Geshe Michael Roach 

Describes a Process of Spiritual Evolution that is Cyclic & Dynamic

The process the Yoga Sutras describe is one of spiritual evolution and growth. Like the physics of our own universe, it is cyclic, dynamic, and expansive rather than static or linear… The idea that yoga is a process of spiritual evolution rather than a linear progression to something that we must find “out there” is essential to understanding the Sutras from a Tantric perspective… The Yoga Sutras are arranged in four sections, called “padas.” … In Sanskrit, “pada” means “foot, or pillar.” If you think of the feet, or legs, of an elephant, they are like pillars that hold up its body… Metaphorically, the pillars are the teachings that support the body of the wisdom of yoga, and the structure of the Sutras reflects this. Each of the four padas reveals a unique and essential aspect of the teachings about samadhi. Together, the four padas lead us to an awareness and embodiment of the greater intelligence of our universe through the experience of samadhi.  – Alan Finger & Wendy Newton 

Book 1: Samadhi Pada (On Absorption)

  • 51 verses
  • Sutra 1: Beginning
  • Sutras 2-4: Yoga & the Alternative
  • Sutras 5-11: Activities of the Mind
  • Sutras 12-22: Practice, Non-Attachment & Samadhi
  • Sutras 23-29: Devotion to Ishvara
  • Sutras 30-39: Four Locks and Keys
  • Sutras 40-51: Samadhi

Defines Yoga & Discusses Problems

The first chapter defines Yoga and its characteristics and discusses the problems encountered in reaching the state of Yoga and ways in which these problems can be handled. – T.K.V. Desikachar 

Samadhi is Essential Technique of Yoga

The first section deals with the general nature of Yoga and its technique. It is meant really to answer the question ‘What is Yoga?’ Since Samadhi is the essential technique of Yoga, naturally it occupies the most important position among the various topics dealt with in this section. This section is, therefore, called Samadhi Pada – I.K. Taimni 

What Samadhi Is in a Conceptual Way & the Routes & Roadblocks

Samadhi Pada is like a road map of the yogic process, showing us the big picture of what samadhi is in a general, conceptual way. It lays out the routes that we can take to get there and also shows us what the roadblocks are. In doing this, the first pada introduces us to the profound concepts that underlie all of what will come later in the book as we move through the four padas. – Alan Finger & Wendy Newton 

This Chapter is Not for All

[The Samadhi Pada] is meant for people who have reached a certain level of spiritual development. It is clearly explained that this chapter is not for all, but for those who have reached the stage of development where they maintain an even attitude in all circumstances. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

Book 2: Sadhana Pada (On Practice)

  • 55 verses
  • Sutras 1-2: Kriya Yoga
  • Sutras 3-11: Kleshas
  • Sutras 12-14: Karma Yoga
  • Sutras 15-27: Jnana Yoga
  • Sutras 28-34: Ashtanga Yoga + Pratipaksha bhavana
  • Sutras 35-39: Yama
  • Sutras 40-45: Niyama
  • Sutras 46-55: Hatha Yoga

Meant for Beginners

[The Sadhana Pada] is meant for those who have not begun their spiritual development, or who are just beginning. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

From Distraction to Attention

The second chapter is called sadhanapada. It describes the qualities necessary to change the mind effectively and gradually from a state of distraction to one of attention and why these qualities are important and what the practice of them entails. – T.K.V. Desikachar 

Getting Real

After laying out the basics of yoga in the first pada, [Patanjali] begins to “get real” in the second pada. In the Sadhana Pada, Patanjali explores life as it is as the central aspect of the teaching, offering the idea that insights from life can help extend the brief moments of clarity. – Richard Freeman

Moving Us Forward, But Not Necessarily a Linear Process

Pada 2, the second leg holding up the body of yoga, provides us with sadhana. It gives us information and direction on how to be in the world in a way that helps us respond consciously to the challenges created by karma, rather than reacting from the limited perspective of the mind with all its patterns and beliefs. Sadhana is a dynamic process that focuses our actions and move us forward but is not necessarily linear. – Alan Finger & Wendy Newton

Encouraging the Reunion of Consciousness

Book II will reveal the practices and experiences that encourage the reunion of Consciousness. – Nischala Joy Devi 

Book 3: Vibhuti Pada (On Accomplishments)

  • 56 verses
  • Dharana
  • Dhyana
  • Samadhi
  • Samyama
  • Parinama (transformations of consciousness)
  • Nature of external appearance
  • Psychic powers

The Effects of the Practice of Yoga

[The Vibhuti Pada] speaks of the wealth of the effects of the practice of yoga, which may disturb the harmony of evolved souls because of the temptation of yogic powers. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

Vibhuti is What Flows Back Through Us

If sadhana is the planting and tending of the seeds of spiritual evolution, then vibhuti is the growing and blossoming of the plant.  Once we have created our connection with universal consciousness through sadhana, then vibhuti is what flows back through us from the universal consciousness in response to our efforts… The third pada describes both the transformative process initiated by samadhi and the fruits of the transformation themselves, which are the psychic experiences called the “siddhis.” … Some of the siddhis are relatively accessible to a modern reader, but some may sit right on the cutting edge of what science can explain… It may be that they are describing how to tap into what modern physics calls “the quantum world.” – Alan Finger & Wendy Newton 

Book 4: Kaivalya Pada (On Absoluteness)

  • 34 verses
  • Means of attaining psychic powers
  • Cause of individuality
  • The individual and the cosmic mind
  • Karma (predestined actions and thoughts)
  • Unity of all things
  • Theory of perception
  • The mind as an unconscious instrument
  • The path to kaivalya
  • Kaivalya

The Chapter on Absolute Liberation

When the soul is freed from the bondage of body, mind, power and pride of success, it reaches the state known as kaivalya, or aloneness, where the body and mind are as it were in quarantine and the soul is free. This is the subject of Patanjali’s fourth chapter, the chapter on absolute liberation. – B.K.S. Iyengar 

Whom We Become & How We Experience the World

Pada 4 describes whom we become and how we experience the world as a result of understanding, practicing, and weaving the experience of samadhi back into our living. Kaivalysa is what we experience when we live with the awareness of pure consciousness in every moment, which is essentially beyond the duality created by the mind. – Alan Finger & Wendy Newton

Source

The list of topics included in each chapter above are those highlighted Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Four Chapters on Freedom 2008