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Yogasutra Of Patanjali – A Scientific Exploration

Tradition places the sage Patanjali’s life somewhere in the fifth to third centuries BCE. He is supposed to be a famous grammarian, writing a commentary on the discipline of grammar to better preserve the meaning of vedic literature. He is better known to practitioners of yoga around the world for his seminal treatise, the Yogasutra. His name itself is suggestive of his life’s purpose. “Pata” in Sanskrit means to fall and “Anjali” is a pose familiar to adherents as one of offering and salutation. Patanjali, thus implies the offering fallen from the heavens, to guide people toward a realization of the Unified Self. Yoga means unification and one effect of the Anjali pose is the connection it brings about between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, creating balance in the mind and body.

While a philosophical understanding and the practice of yoga was prevalent in Patanjali’s time as seen from contemporaneous texts, the Yogasutra is likely the only compendium that is solely devoted to the subject. The term sutra in Sanskrit implies the threading of ideas and explanations. The text consists of 195 aphorisms divided into four chapters called pādaḥ, meaning steps. Some versions include an additional aphorism in the third chapter (3:22).

The first of the four steps enumerated by Patanjali is gaining an understanding of the Self at your highest level of consciousness. The second describes ways to practice yoga by applying this understanding in your daily life. The third step is reached when this practice leads to the power of Self, or yogic consciousness, manifesting itself and transforming your experience of life. The final step is liberation of the Self, in a state that is devoid of all the attributes that create the experience and consciousness of non-Self.

This article briefly discusses the Yogasutra in lay terms that describe the meaning of each aphorism in context. Thus it is not a literal translation but an explanation of the import of these verses that attempts to maintain the integrity of the original expression. Each part is followed by a section describing its purport, summarizing how the teaching applies in routine life. It answers the “So what?” question. It attempts to explain the working of yogic principles in a scientifically understandable way, and describes how they promote the journey of yoga.

Samādhi pādaḥ: attaining consciousness of Self

Yoga is the discipline that helps control the vicissitudes of the mind, leading to Self realization. Otherwise, you become whatever your thoughts make of you. [1-4]

Your thoughts create memories and patterns of many types, associated with pain or pleasure. They also create filters which, in the absence of conscious thinking, give you a false understanding of your world. Invocation of memories results in your undergoing the associated emotional states, unchanged from the original experience. [5-11]

Regular practice and persistent efforts to still the mind and detach it from its attractions, creates a firm foundation to build concentration. This concentration begins in an objective state with cognition of ideas and experience of pleasure. It then progresses to a state of objectlessness, devoid of the cognitive principle or emotional experience. The speed with which a practitioner’s concentration grows and the degree to which it leads to oneness with true nature depends upon his dedication and fervor. [12-22]

The highest state of consciousness emanates from its creative source which is devoid of form or function and embodies all knowledge. Enlightened practitioners have connected with this source through the primordial sound from the beginning of time. Experiencing this inner sound and understanding its purpose enables each person to clear the internal path and realize the Self. [23-29]

Various mental and emotional afflictions such as illness, distraction and inertia hinder progress and bring pain. This can be avoided by practicing the single principle of propitiating the mind and clearing its entanglements through love, compassion and joy, while being indifferent to the merits of your experience. Elevating your consciousness to subtler realms of perception beyond sensory experience, paying attention to and regulating your breathing, freeing the mind of attachments, letting go of focused thought, meditating on whatever feels pleasant and experiencing the inner light brings tranquility. [30-39]

When the tendencies of the mind abate, it regenerates like a pure crystal that derives all its value by absorbing the light of its environment and gains the ability to imbibe all knowledge, from the minutest to the grandest truths. Beginning with the objective and describable knowledge of the world, it progresses to formless knowledge that can only be understood as a shining light, but not described. The mind similarly begins with thoughts, but reaches a thoughtless state. The true Self is revealed in the light of the thoughtless state. While in this state, you have access to wisdom of the beyond that is not based on inference or hearsay, but is directly experienced. This wisdom removes all previous encumbrances of the mind and paves the way for a permanent meditative state. [40-51]

The key to Yoga is mastering your thoughts and feelings so your life is not driven by uncontrolled forces. The purpose of Yoga is Self-realization. Your experiences are captured as memories which in turn repeat that experience when recalled. All memories are associated with pain or pleasure to some degree and you get conditioned based on this association to seek or avoid things, people and experiences in your life. Thus you generally live your life in the pursuit of things you experience as pleasurable and avoidance of those you find painful, creating attachment in both cases. Meditation in order to still the mind helps relieve you of the attachment. This begins with concentrating your thoughts to reduce their activity. Deeper meditation relieves you of all thought. Introspection turns your awareness toward an inner experience that is best understood as a current of sound.

There are various practices that train your mind to maintain a healthy state. One is training the mind to hold its ever progressing train of thoughts and focusing on one at a time. Another is to reduce your emotional connection to people and things. Love and compassion toward all, keeping a joyful demeanor and avoiding circumstances that constantly bring you pain, helps achieve that goal. Focusing on your breath is a way to slow down and regulate your thought patterns. Deeper meditation can be achieved by letting go of all thoughts and detaching yourself from the emotional pull of the world’s activities. This inner experience is best understood as a vision of light. Meditative experiences cannot be described in terms of the physical world around you, since they are metaphysical in nature. Regular meditation improves your concentration and cognitive ability which helps you understand the world around you more quickly and clearly. The practice of inner meditation separates your conscious self from all thoughts, feelings and emotional experiences. It opens up the flow of universal wisdom which is not subject to mental-emotional distortions. Extended practice of meditation makes it easier to free your conscious self from the material and live in a joyful state all the time.

Sādhana pādaḥ: practicing Yoga in life

Austerity, study of the Self and constant contemplation of the creative power is yoga in action. It minimizes self-ignorance and develops a meditative disposition. The affliction of self-ignorance is the field where selfishness, attachment, hatred and possessiveness gather and blossom. This ignorance leads to perceiving the ephemeral as eternal, impure as pure, pain as pleasure and non-Self as Self. A person with excessive self-possession may be confused with having achieved his true Self. Attachments breed pleasure and hatreds breed pain. The strong current of self attachment sweeps even the wisest. [1-9]

Self awareness conquers the afflictions and meditation reduces their tendency to recur. [10-11]

You experience pleasure and pain in your life as the fruition of your actions under the influence of the afflictions. A discriminating person sees all pleasurable and painful experiences as opposed to true nature, and thus ultimately leading to suffering. He avoids impending pain by never mistaking the observed for the observer. [12-17]

Material objects and activities exist for the purpose of learning through experience, for the ultimate goal of liberation. They contain worldly qualities in various degrees. The observer should observe this materiality with the correct vision, which is its only purpose. One who has reached the goal can separate the material from the conscious, although ordinary people cannot make this discrimination. The material experience is created in order to recognize the power of the Self and its true nature. Ignorance serves to hinder the achievement of this goal by allying consciousness with materiality. When ignorance is dispelled, the alliance between materiality and consciousness breaks, resulting in enlightenment and liberation. [18-25]

The ability to discriminate is the antidote to ignorance. A discriminating person has seven fields of knowledge to cultivate higher consciousness. This is gained through the light of knowledge that comes from concertedly following the purifying elements of yoga. The eight elements, called limbs are proscriptions, prescriptions, physical postures, regulation of the life force, introversion, concentration, meditation and immersion in the highest level of consciousness. [26-29]

The proscriptions are non-violence, truthfulness, refraining from taking anything from others, controlling your desires as worthy of the eternal Self and not acquiring that which is not needed. These universal vows supersede class, geography, time and situation. The prescriptions are purity, contentment, austerity, study of the Self, and constant contemplation of the creative source. When arguments to the contrary arise in the mind, they should be countered by developing an opposing stance. Contrary arguments enable acceptance of harm to others by invoking various levels of anger, greed or attachment, leading to suffering and ignorance forever. [30-34]

When non-violence is fully rooted in you, a fully armed opponent loses the will to fight. When truthfulness is fully rooted in you, your actions bear fruit. When you reflexively shun all that belongs to others, all the wealth you need is present around you. When you master your desires, you gain vitality. When you steadfastly relinquish the need to possess, you learn the purpose of your worldly journey. [35-39]

As your mind-body purifies, you are less inclined to associate with others you are not in harmony with. With true purification comes an exhilarating focus on Self mastery that qualifies you for Self Realization. With contentment you gain unrivaled pleasure. Observing austerities absolves impurities and sharpens the physical faculties. Studying the Self leads to communion with the desired source. Constant contemplation of the creative source perfects the depth of meditation. [40-45]

A steady and balanced posture brings comfort. It is achieved by relaxed effort and can be held forever. All sense of conflict is lost in that state. Controlling the movement of breath and exhalation in that state is called Prānāyām. Breathing occurs in three stages – inhalation, exhalation and holding, is observed to be longer or shorter, and is regulated by time, place and count. There is a fourth stage that transcends the consciousness of external versus internal. Then the veil hiding the inner light disappears. And the mind becomes capable of concentrating. Pratyāhār is the state when faculties of the mind turn inward toward the Self, separating from their own desired objects. Perfect mastery of the mental faculties is thus achieved. [46-55]

Self-knowledge is a key principle of practicing yoga in life. A disciplined focus on your object in life helps place the objects in your life, in perspective. This breeds detachment from the mental emotional entanglements that bring pain. The purpose of human life is to experience the materiality of this world and learn from it. All your activities and thoughts span the continuum between material and conscious. When you understand that the true nature of the world around you is different from the nature of your true Self, you develop the power of discrimination between the two. This knowledge dispels ignorance, paving the way toward liberation from the materiality and freedom from the shackles of the mind.

There are eight limbs of yogic practice in life. The first is a set of things to avoid, namely violence (in thought, word or deed), digression from the truth, taking ownership of that which belongs to another, straying from the path of purity or collecting unneeded material things. The second is a set of universal rules to live by, namely purity in all aspects of life, contentment, unerring dedication to your goals and knowledge of your Self and your Source. To maintain a stable, healthy state at all times, train yourself to vanquish negative thoughts as they arise. This technique, called Pratipaksha Bhāvanā, is useful in countering emotional responses that can lead to pain, and conditioning that accepts it. Following a yogic life keeps your away from harm by others, brings your intent to fruition, brings abundance, vitality and wisdom in life. As you connect more with your inner Self, you achieve Self Mastery and reflexively gravitate toward lifestyle choices that help you on your path.

The next three limbs are balanced postures, regulating the life force through breathing and introversion. The first brings comfort, relaxation and equanimity. The second prepares you for meditation by collecting the mind and the third orients the mental-emotional faculties toward self knowledge.

Vibh ūti pādaḥ: manifesting the power of Self

Dhāranā is holding the mind in a single region of thought. Dhyāna is continuous flow of consciousness around that thought. Samādhi is the disappearance of all form, with only the objective of the thought remaining in consciousness. Dhārana, Dhyāna and Samādhi together are called Samyama or self-control, the practice of which gives rise to the region of higher consciousness. The three practices of Samyama are internal relative to the previous ones, but innermost still is the Nirbīja Samādhi, which gives rise to nothing else. [1-8]

Thus emerges the ability to negate the effect of previous impressions on the mind and create new ones with undisturbed flow of tranquility. With advanced practice of Samyama, the mind’s range of fluctuating thought patterns converges toward a singular idea that moves in and out of focus. The physical manifestation in the form of actions changes in tandem with the mental states. Clarity of mind explains how and why things happen around you, as they follow their nature, creating detachment from their occurrence. The common reality of the natural progression of events with their cause and effect is revealed, even as they appear to show up in different times, places and situations. Samyama thus helps understand why and how things happened in the past, and why and how they will happen in the future. Samyama enables understanding the language of all creatures, since reality is no longer bound to a definition in form or language. All history of conscious experience becomes apparent, as well as the content of another person’s mind, albeit without the underlying causes that created it. [9-20]

Other people’s ability to perceive the physical person can be hindered by withdrawing the energy emanating from the body. The ability to perceive the expanse of destined experience, free from mental emotional filters, enables an understanding of the extent of the human journey. Regulation of mental-emotional memory creates friendliness toward all, helps project great physical strength and perceive objects hidden from view. As meditation on the inner Self progresses, cosmic realms containing the astral forms of heavenly bodies (of which the physical ones are a projection) such as the sun, moon, sky full of stars and the pole star, are revealed. [21-29]

Focusing consciousness on the body and organs provides knowledge of their state and fulfils their physical needs. Visions of adepts on the path are seen. The highest and purest state of consciousness, devoid of mental-emotional coloring, is experienced. All such yogic attainments are impediments to the ultimate goal. An adept can break all bonds of attachment with the body and can enter another, physically project upward, project radiance or project different physical forms. [30-47]

Mental faculties and physical actions are mastered. The illusory nature of physical reality is revealed. Once the separation between pure consciousness and everything else is experienced, it becomes an exclusive state ready for liberation. Greater clarity leads to improved discrimination between the true Self and everything else. When the intellect attains the purity of pure consciousness, liberation occurs. [48-56]

The last three limbs of yoga are concentration, meditation and complete absorption, together called self-control. The previous limbs dealt primarily with the material conduct of life whereas now the yogic journey turns inward toward the conscious state. These practices relieve the mind of all previous baggage and train it to focus, resulting in life-changing experiences. Instead of getting caught up in the mental-emotional entanglements of your material life, you begin to see the essential commonality in all human experience. You achieve clarity that shows you why and how things are happening in your and other people’s lives as a result of indiscriminate thought and action. Higher states of consciousness also bring mystic powers that allow you to alter the state of the material world around you, as experienced by others. Such capabilities are usually an impediment to further progress on the yogic path as they create a false sense of achievement.

Meditative practices train you to regulate your stored memories and thus their ability to affect your mental-emotional state at any time. They effectively change your conditioning and make it easy to be pleasant and joyful under all conditions with all people. Deep meditation reveals inner cosmic vistas which are the astral source of the heavenly bodies that you see projected in the physical world. While meditating on the body relieves it of afflictions, meditating on the mind connects your consciousness to the higher consciousness which all adepts inhabit. Ultimately, the illusion of experienced reality is broken and pure consciousness is seen as separate from it. Liberation occurs when this pure consciousness pervades the cognitive faculties and all else ceases to exist.

Kaivalya pādaḥ: liberation of the Self

Yogic attainments can accompany birth or are gained by curative techniques, austerities and absorptive meditation. Nature tends to provide individuals so inclined with a lifetime of opportunities. These attainments are not gained with intention alone, but require overcoming of obstacles just as a farmer cultivates his field. Consciousness of the individual self builds the faculties of the mind by itself. The nature of the mind is universal, but it manifests in a myriad separate ways in the form of tendencies. The tendencies born of meditative states are eternal and carried forward. A yogi’s actions cannot be classified as white or black, good or bad, but others’ are expressed as desires and have consequences. While conscious memory and conditioning appear to be seamlessly connected due to their similar impact, they may develop at different times, places and in separate conditions. The desire for self perpetuation has encouraged conditioning of the mind from the beginning of time. The tendencies of the conditioned mind disappear when the conditioning disappears. It is the nature of the past and the future to appear separate, although both exist in the present. A person’s attributes resulting from conditioning are expressed to varying degrees. The attributes of an object are a manifestation of its essential nature. [1-14]

The same object or event is experienced differently by different minds based upon their separate journeys. The existence of the object itself is not a function of any one mind, for that would make that mind its creator. The type of attachment of an object with the mind determines whether it is known or unknown. The higher consciousness being independent and superior to the mind, always observes the play of memories and tendencies. [15-18]

The mind is not the source of wisdom, since it is observed by another entity. The two cannot be accessed together. One mind cannot provide the wisdom for another, for that would result in an endless succession of opinions. When the mind is stilled, the forms it creates cease to exist and it can experience the intellect. The observer observes all the creations of the mind in their myriad forms through the latter’s agency. The mind creates the countless forms only with the help of this other, the observer. The separate Self, distinct from all non-Self, is experienced when all responsive feelings cease to exist. Then the power of discrimination pollinates the mind which turns the consciousness toward liberation. [19-26]

Any discontinuity in that state allows dormant tendencies to enter the mental consciousness. The afflictions arising from these awakened tendencies are the same as the original ones stored, and may be dealt with as discussed earlier. When there is no interest left in accounting for the results, the power of discrimination breaks through the cloud of duty to achieve the highest level of consciousness. Thenceforth, the consciousness is rid of all afflictions resulting from the stored tendencies. When all the veils of impure consciousness (that of the non-Self) are removed, infinite knowledge is gained and little remains to be learned further. Thus all attributes of experience come to an end, one by one, as their purpose (learning) is fulfilled. The temporal sequence of cause and effect ends, dissolving the concept of successive time. Consciousness becomes devoid of all forms and attributes, giving birth to liberation and establishing its true nature and power. Thus, in the end, the supreme goal is achieved. [27-34]

Some individuals are inclined toward a life of yoga from birth and nature provides opportunities for them to follow the path. Benefits of yoga are attained after concerted effort channeled in the right direction. The higher consciousness of Self enlivens each mind which is a manifestation of the Universal mind, built with the person’s unique experience, desires and tendencies. The mind relies on this conditioning to perpetuate itself, because when this conditioning is broken, it loses all power over the intellect and higher consciousness. Your actions are a result of your desires and thus have commensurate consequences. A yogi is not attached to his actions with desires of any kind, so they have no consequences for him. Linear time appears to move successively in a single direction in the physical world. However, consciousness pervades the past, present and future seamlessly and a yogi can transcend the boundaries of time to experience all of it in the present moment.

Physical objects are recognized only because of the attributes that describe them. Each person experiences the same thing (or event) differently based on how he relates to those attributes, and on his previous history with those attributes. A given object may not be recognizable at all, if its attributes do not make sense to the mind’s faculties of observation and understanding. Mental emotional filters create your experience, so each person sees a different aspect of the same reality, and responds to it accordingly.

You can gain wisdom only by connecting with it yourself. Another person can only show you the way, not give it to you. The purpose of the mind is to create a reality based on memory and sensory experience through perpetual motion. When this motion stops, the mind goes dormant, allowing intellect, and potentially wisdom to fill the void. For as long as the mind is operative, it occupies all the cognitive space and keeps others out. The observer (Self consciousness) enables the mind’s faculties to create the experience. Mind cannot exist by itself without the observer. Consciousness, however, can exist without the mind. When it experiences itself as distinct from the mind through meditation, it realizes its power and seeds the intellect with the idea of separation. With extended meditation, this separation bears fruit in the form of liberation.

Without the experience of meditation, conditioning drives your experience, repeatedly recalling memories which invoke associated emotions. Dogmatic beliefs can hold you back by clouding your thinking with baseless expectations. Personal experience and discrimination allow you to break through this barrier and see the light of higher truth beyond this barrier. Once the highest state of consciousness is experienced, it becomes your permanent reality. The purpose of your worldly experience with all its pain, pleasure, memories, attributes and tendencies is fulfilled. None of those factors can hurt you anymore. The temporal world ceases to exist along with its rules of phenomenal cause and effect. In the end, the supreme goal is reached when the true Self is experienced, liberating itself and establishing the power of yogic consciousness.

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