Patanjali’s ashtanga yoga and the quest for the absolute.
Who was Patanjali and what are The Yoga Sutras?
Patanjali was a great sage and yogi genius, the grandfather of much of the yoga practiced in the world today. His seminal work TheYoga Sutras, estimated to have been written sometime between 200 BCE and 300 CE, is a masterful exposition of yoga philosophy and practice. It was foundational to the entire classical yoga tradition and continues to be a core text of yoga.
Patanjali didn’t invent the practice of yoga, however. His great gift to us was to work an existing body of knowledge and techniques—developed by the forest yogis of India and beyond over the course of who knows how many centuries and millennia—into a precise, coherent and complete system. The authority with which he describes the intricacies of the entire yogic journey shows clearly that it was a path he had himself walked to the end.
His Yoga Sutras detail that path in just 196 short stanzas divided into four books, framing a concise outline of the whole journey of self-realisation in just a few thousand words of Sanskrit.
In essence, the journey that the Yoga Sutras presents is as follows: starting with the cultivation of morally disciplined behaviour, the yogi then moves through what are more commonly considered ‘yogic practices’ (asana, pranayama, meditation) on the way to to the final goal of complete absorption in the absolute—Self-realisation.
A natural progression
The goal of yoga is described by Patanjali as being none other than our own natural state. The path of yoga, therefore, is not one on which we pursue or acquire anything external to ourselves. It is a path of return, of re-connecting to that which we already are.
The Yoga Sutras begin and end with reference to this natural state, and the path laid out in the text is nothing but the process of opening to that which we have always been but which has become distorted or obscured.
Yoga as taught in the Yoga Sutras is very different from much of the yoga taught in the airy studios of the West. For Patanjali, yoga is a complete and intense journey comprising moral discipline, physical practises, psychological insight and spiritual realisation, undertaken in order to perceive reality as it is and become one with the ultimate nature of existence.
And yet, despite the images of austere, naked, ash-covered yogis contorting themselves into inhuman shapes for years on end inside cold caves in the high Himalayas in the pursuit of Self-realisation, the path of yoga as laid out by Patanjali is actually very natural, straightforward and gentle.
A profound optimism and confidence in the intrinsic divinity of the human condition shines through The Yoga Sutras, as it does through the closely related tradition of Vedanta. If the path of yoga is undertaken in this spirit of optimism and confidence, and patiently, it can be a joyful journey. Its natural culmination, attainable by anyone willing to walk its steps, is supreme bliss and the inner freedom required to live beautifully in our world.
Patanjali describes his system as the yoga of ‘eight limbs’—aṣṭ āṅga, in Sanskrit. His use of this term ‘limbs’ is interesting, and worthy of reflection. The body has limbs, and so do trees—both organic, living things. This organic metaphor contrasts with the linear metaphor of the ‘path’ of yoga—and is in many ways more apt.
For as we shall see below, the development of any one of the limbs of yoga requires the development of them all. They are all interconnected and mutually supporting, like the limbs of a tree or the parts of a body. This is very much worth keeping in mind, to balance the linear mindset. We grow in yoga organically, as a whole.
And yet, both metaphors are relevant. In fact, Patanjali actually presents his eight-limbed yoga as a system of progressive stages leading from outer to inner—gross to subtle—and beyond. I’ll be outlining this linear presentation in what follows.
The eight ‘limbs’ are:
yama — injunctions, or behaviours to avoid, namely: violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, and greed.
niyama — observances, or behaviours to cultivate, namely: cleanliness, contentment/cheerfulness, persistence, study/deep reflection, and contemplation of the divine.
asana — physical postures, primarily sitting postures, to enable further yogic practices to proceed without distractions due to bodily discomfort.
pranayama — regulation and expansion of prana—the vital energy—via the medium of the breath with the aim of quieting the mind.
pratyahara — introspection, or withdrawal of attention and interest from sense experience and the external world and also from externally-oriented thoughts.
dharana — concentration, or one-pointed focus of mind upon a given state, subject or topic to the exclusion of all distractions.
dhyana — meditation, or the perfection of dharana, an uninterrupted stream of awareness flowing towards the object of concentration.
samadhi — complete absorption in the stream of dhyana, wherein there is no longer any separation between meditator, meditation, and object of meditation. Patanjali mentions five levels of samadhi, the final one corresponding to the supreme goal of yoga and indeed all spiritual paths.
The path of perfection
Patanjali begins his exposition by defining the essence of the path and the goal of yoga:
—yoga is the cessation of mental activity
Yoga Sutras (1. 2)
tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe’vasthānam
—then the self abides in its own nature
Yoga Sutras (1. 3)
Ramana Maharishi would later say that these two lines of instruction sum up all that a mature spiritual seeker needs to hear in order to realise the Self: (1) cease all mental activity and (2) abide in the natural state.
From this we can understand that such a state is only ever one step away—the step into perfect inner stillness and silence.
Ramana himself famously accomplished that one step in a few minutes on a hot afternoon in Southern India. But for must of us it involves a gradual process. The eight stages of aṣṭ āṅga yoga comprise a systematic method for going through that process.
So, with the essence of the path and its goal clearly in front of us, let’s explore the eight ‘limbs’ of yoga in order to understand how they work together to progressively lead the mind to stillness and to re-settle the self in its own pure, blissful nature.
The path of yoga begins with five yamas: injunctions, abstinences, or behaviours to avoid. These are violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, and greed.
Why does yoga ask us to refrain from these behaviours?
Well, yoga is a very pragmatic philosophy. It determines which actions are to be avoided and which cultivated based solely on their effect on the mind. Remember, citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ is the path.
Violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, and greed all arise from a disturbed mind and only create further inner disturbance, whatever their effect in the external world. Anyone can know this for themselves, if they are willing to examine their own experience closely.
By paying attention to the internal catalysts and repercussions of our actions, or by witnessing those of others, an acute observer can easily learn how different behaviours arise and the different effects they have upon the mind of the performer.
Conscience is an integral part of consciousness. It is a direct link to our own intrinsic nature and to the underlying natural order in the cosmos. When we go against these we feel the effects directly, and these effects are invariably disturbing.
There is no moral judgement in this, but merely a wise discernment. Violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, and greed are not to be avoided because some external authority has declared them to be wrong or bad, but because, as anyone can verify, they disturb the mind. Anyone undertaking the journey of citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ is therefore advised against them.
Patanjali devotes one stanza to each of the five yamas in turn, pointing out the positive, soothing effects on the mind of adhering to each one and, by implication, indicating the negative, disturbing effects of not doing so.
Life is complex, however—moral life especially so. A person can easily abstain from the gross forms of violence, lying, stealing, promiscuity, and greed, and still find themselves in a myriad of disturbing moral dilemmas.
The five yamas are not sufficient on their own to ensure a smooth way through life’s many-textured terrain—nor, indeed, would any number of yamas or proscriptive injunctions be enough. Something more is needed.
That is where the niyamas come in. These are the core positive qualities of character required to navigate through life calmly and gracefully. They are: purity/cleanliness, contentment/cheerfulness, persistence, study/deep reflection, and contemplation of the divine. With these firmly in place, Patanjali assures us, we can feel confident to meet the challenges of the yogic path.
Wonderfully, according to the sages these positive qualities are the most natural expressions of the soul in the world, as well as being those most conducive to self-realisation. Cultivating them is not adding anything to ourselves, but letting our intrinsic light shine through.
Here, again, we see that the path and the destination are in fact one: the spiritual journey is none other than the natural unfoldment of what we already are.
But it is a marvellous paradox that this natural unfoldment often requires extensive groundwork, and the development of spontaneous grace requires a great deal of discipline and self-cultivation.
Yama and Niyama are in symbiotic relationship, such that the cultivation of one both requires and naturally facilitates the cultivation of the other. The two together form the basis of the further practices of yoga.
While much of the yoga practiced in the West at the moment is largely asana-based, this is but one ‘limb’ of yoga. Patanjali assigns only three stanzas of the Yoga Sutras to the subject. In these stanzas and from their context it is clear that for Patanjali asana means a sitting posture suitable for pranayama and the other higher limbs of yoga.
The myriad poses and variations that we have in the yoga world today are entirely absent from the Yoga Sutras and the other early yoga literature. Some of the postures we learn today under the title asana no doubt did exist in Patanjali’s time, but how many we cannot say. All that is important in the Yoga Sutras as far as asana goes is being able to sit undisturbed for periods of time.
In the first of the three stanzas on asana, Patanjali briefly defines what asana is:
—asana is any steady, comfortable posture
Yoga Sutras (2. 46)
In the second, he instructs on how to achieve this comfort and steadiness:
prayatna śaithilyānanta samāpattibhyām
—by relaxing restless effort and meditating on the infinite
Yoga Sutras (2. 47)
And in the third he describes the effects of mastering asana:
—as a result, one is not disturbed by the dualities
Yoga Sutras (2. 48)
How uncomplicated yoga is in its pure, classical conception. What could be more straightforward than developing a steady and comfortable posture, relaxing deeply into it and opening to the experience of what we essentially are—the infinite? And the consequence? Unsurprisingly, freedom from disturbance.
It would be difficult to even begin to develop a steady and comfortable posture, relax into it, and open to the infinite, without having already practiced the yamas to some degree: our mind would simply be too disturbed by our troubled conscience to ever to allow us to remain comfortably in one position for long.
Similarly, the more we cultivate the positive qualities of the niyamas in our lives the more these will translate into our bodies and minds and give us the lightness, brightness, persistence, wisdom and motivation to master asana.
But even then, developing comfort and stability in asana can be tough. Depending on what kind of life we’ve lived before beginning to tread the path of yoga our bodies might have all sorts of issues and ailments preventing us from sitting comfortably. Not to mention the tensions of the mind built up over the years, which make keeping steadily still in one position very difficult.
It’s no wonder that over time the various poses and techniques to loosen, relax, strengthen, purify and energise the body and mind were developed to help us achieve the simple feat of a stable and comfortable sitting posture.
Beautifully, we seek to gain mastery in asana in order to be able to practice the higher limbs of yoga, but at the same time perfect mastery of asana—in the deepest, fullest sense of the term—is equivalent to the final goal of those practices.
For what is citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ other than perfect stability and comfort of the mind? And what could be more stable and comfortable than svarūpe’vasthānam, abiding in one’s natural sate?
So, we’ve regulated our outer lives to optimise for inner calmness by refraining from disturbing behaviours and cultivating conducive qualities; and we’ve developed the ability to sit comfortably in one stable posture. Now we begin to turn to the inner path of yoga, starting with pranayama.
Here we work directly on the subtle, vital energy which powers the whole of our psycho-physical-spiritual system: prana.
Ultimately, like all yoga practices in the Yoga Sutras, we do this for one reason and one reason alone: citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ.
The mind and prana and intimately connected, in much the same relationship as a horse and rider. The mind rides the prana, and can either be in control of its steed or not.
If uncontrolled by the rider, the horse will wander where it likes and the rider will be carried here and there at whatever pace the horse determines. But the rider who is able to control the horse can determine where and how fast the horse goes, or even to stay still.
In pranayama we seek to calm and still the mind by regulating prana via the medium of the breath. The breath is the rein by which the rider can take control and guide the horse.
Through the breath we can sooth and slow down the mental processes, purifying and energising the mind and harnessing its latent power, coming much more fully into the present moment and opening the door to inner experience. For only with a reasonably calm mind can we begin to observe and work with the more subtle layers of our being. As Patanjali puts it:
tataḥ kṣīyate prakāśa āvaraṇam
—as a result (of pranayama) the veil covering the inner light is destroyed
Yoga Sutras (2. 52)
dhāraṇāsu ca yogyatā manasaḥ
—and the mind becomes fit for concentration
Yoga Sutras (2. 53)
Indeed, with much practice we can gain such mastery over our prana that we are able, eventually, to still it completely for periods of time and in this way to still the mind, induce deep states of meditation, and realise the goal of yoga.
Of course, as all mystical traditions know, it’s possible to still the mind without the use of the breath. The ancient sages of Patanjali’s lineage were undoubtably able to enter meditation directly in this way too. They would have known that the relationship between mind, prana and breath works both ways. They would have observed, as we can today, that, in deep states of meditation, when the mind is stilled the prana naturally stills and so does the breath. And it wouldn’t have taken them long to experiment with applying that sequence in reverse, thereby discovering the core secret of pranayama.
Pranayama is a powerful practice, occupying the threshold to the inner temple of yoga. All the authorities agree that it should only be practiced carefully and developed gradually, under the guidance of a qualified teacher and having already worked on the preceding three limbs of yoga.
In fact, if yama, niyama, and asana have been practiced correctly then pranayama will already be underway indirectly, for there is a two-way relationship between prana and all areas of life. By regulating our behaviour and stabilising our body we regulate and stabilise the prana, thereby regulating the mind. But the enhanced way to work with prana is directly via the breath.
svaviṣayāsaṁprayoge cittasvarūnukāra ivendriyāṇām pratyāhāraḥ
—pratyahara is the withdrawal of the senses from their objects, whereupon they reflect the nature of the mind
Yoga Sutras (2. 54)
In yoga philosophy, the senses are considered to be like doors with mirrors on the inside of them. Open, they let in sense impressions formed by the various sense-objects. Closed, they reflect the nature of the mind back upon itself.
One way to think of pratyahara is as the process of withdrawing perception from the external world and closing the doors of the senses, so that the inner light of the mind can come to perceive itself. But this isn’t just a matter of closing the eyes and blocking the ears. It’s a more subtle and profound reorientation that occurs at the deepest layers of the mind.
On the eightfold path of yoga pratyahara is a crucial turning point, and one which cannot be forced. It can, however, be induced. Yama, niyama, asana and pranayama are tools to accomplish this, by harmonising, calming, soothing and stabilising the mind sufficiently for it to begin to encounter its own light and begin to turn inwards towards that light.
For only when there is a fair degree of inner stillness can the mind even recognise that it has the choice of introspecting in pratyahara. Without that stillness there is just too much commotion for it to really be able to differentiate between itself and its objects of perception. Mind and world are mixed-up together, co-fused, such that the mind identifies itself exclusively with its external world and its world-derived contents. Its own light is hidden behind these.
And so, paradoxically, yoga, which is rightly translated as ‘union’, actually first requires a long process of separation in preparation for the higher union to come. This separation culminates in pratyahara, in which the mind’s perception is dissociated from its objects of perception (both external and internal) and turned back upon its own nature.
Through this encounter the mind itself starts to lose interest in the external world. This is the essence of pratyahara. It’s important to emphasise that in yoga this disinterest arises naturally from the mind’s encounter with its own light, and not as the consequence of despising the world or the forced abnegation of the senses.
Prayahara deepens naturally and in its own time through treading the path of yoga. In this there is no rush. With patience and persistence in practicing the preceding four limbs, the mind eventually and of its own accord ceases to crave sense experience or to associate sense experience with satisfaction. It comes to recognise by itself that true satisfaction lies in the further unveiling its own nature. Desire for enjoyment through the senses then naturally withers, to be replaced or superseded by the longing for self-realisation.
So pratyahara is a joyful process, when unforced. It opens the door to the mysteries of the inner temple of yoga. For when the mind is no longer agitated and distorted by association with the turbulent world of the senses and sense desires, it begins to associate instead with the realm of pure Consciousness, the Self, whose nature is sublime peace and supreme bliss.
At the sixth limb of yoga we begin to move towards the realm of the soul, aiming ultimately towards full immersion and compete absorption in its light. Here we begin the end-game, the final ascent to the summit. Our goal remains perfect stillness of mind, and we now centre firmly upon that goal.
The five stages outlined so far have all been preparations towards this point of departure into the subtleties of citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ. We’ve worked at the levels of behaviour, the physical body, and the pranic body, now we set to work directly on the mental body itself.
Dharana is what most people would consider to be meditation.
Until now there were still too many conflicts and disturbances in the mind to begin this higher practice. Doing so would have likely only exacerbated these conflicts and disturbances. It would have been like trying to subdue a rampaging wild adult elephant with our own hands. Not a good idea.
But having developed a solid existential base through yama and niyama, attained a stable and comfortable physical and mental base through asana practice, regulated and calmed the pranic body and the mind with pranayana, and made the inward turn towards the inner light with pratyahara, our mind has now become more like a tame baby elephant.
Sure, it’s still quite unruly, and definitely in need of training, but we can work with it in relative safety. This process begins with dharana.
The Yoga Sutras declare:
—binding the mind to one place, object or idea, is dharana
Yoga Sutras (3. 1)
Dharana is generally translated as ‘concentration’. While this is in many ways correct, we tend to associate concentration with mental effort and often tension—especially where meditation is concerned. But it is only when 1) our minds are in a state of agitation and 2) we try to hold our attention somewhere that it doesn’t really want to be, that effort is required. So these are unhelpful associations to bring to this stage of the yogic path, and unnecessary. For if we’re walking our path skilfully then dharana follows on comfortably from pratyahara without much stress or strain.
‘Relaxed one-pointedness of mind’ is perhaps a more helpful way to think of dharana. It’s the state that occurs naturally when our body-mind is calm and our attention is turned towards a subject of great interest.
Within the calm space of introspection arrived at in pratyahara, created by all the preceding stages of yoga in general and by asana and pranayama in particular, concentration is natural. So Patanjali advises that we practice dharana immediately after performing asana and pranayama, once the state of pratyahara has arisen. Our body-mind is then at its most relaxed, energised, balanced and calm, and our mind has introspected. The mind is quiet and spacious, and somewhat suffused with the light and joy of the soul shining within. In this environment the constantly arising bubbles discursive thought can be seen more clearly as ephemeral creations of the mind, and have less power over us.
At this point we offer the mind a single point of focus—on object to concentrate on. It could be a candle flame, the Aum symbol, a mantra, the natural breath, a chakra, the subtle sensations of the body, or the light of awareness itself. At the beginning, something that isn’t too subtle and yet which is still meaningful to the mind turned inward in pratyahara is best—something that we can hold onto and yet which points beyond itself towards the formless stillness and blissful silence of the inner self.
The practice of dharana then involves fixing or ‘binding’ the mind to this point of focus to the exclusion of everything else. With the preparations already outlined, and an appropriate point of focus, this is not such a challenge as it would otherwise be. And yet it is a subtle art, requiring great skill and patience.
The mind is lightening quick, and protean in its transformations. Moreover, we have been habituated over many years (and maybe countless aeons) to identification with the contents of the mind and relentless intimacy with its creations. Even having given ourselves the best possible conditions for the work of dharana through the preliminary practices, distracting thoughts will arise again and again to pull the mind away from its focus; powerful and compelling narratives appear on the screen of the mind, insisting on urgent attention; strong emotions arise, demanding a response. To keep on returning the mind to its object of focus again and again and again can be tricky, but this is the entire practice of dharana.
We needn’t be in a hurry in this, but nor should we view it as an interminable task. If we are thorough in our preparations and persistent in our practice then gradually we come to know intimately through direct observation and experience how our mind works, and with this understanding comes mastery. Moreover, through this practice we gradually purify the mind, slowly exhausting the subtle agitations and hidden desires of our deep psyche through the repeated witnessing and letting go of thoughts and emotions arising from them. Eventually, through this mastery and purification of the mind, our relaxed one-pointedness becomes deep, strong and incredibly stable.
At that point dharana becomes dhyana.
While dharana has been our training in meditation, dhyana is meditation itself. It is the first ripe fruit of our efforts in practicing all of the preceding stages of yoga—our first taste of citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ.
Dhyana is an uninterrupted stream of present-moment awareness flowing towards an object of concentration. In this state the mind-flow becomes as smooth and continuous as a stream of poured oil. Technically, what is happening is that the mind itself is completely still in the moment and the flow of awareness from one moment to the next finds the mind in a succession of identical forms. As Patanjali puts it:
śāntoditau tulyapratyayau cittasyaikāgratā pariṇāmaḥ
—when the subsisting past and the rising present forms of the mind are identical, there is one-pointedness
Yoga Sutras (3. 12)
To understand this idea we need to know that in yoga philosophy the mind is considered to take the form of whatever it perceives or conceives. The mind-stuff is itself formless, but from one moment to the next it assumes the form of whatever is presented to it—either from outside via the senses or from within its own store of impressions. During the waking or dreaming states it is continuously morphing from one form to another, relentlessly changing, never still.
This restlessness is what we work on in dharana, by giving the mind one single object to form itself around. And when the mind accepts that object and settles down upon it for a some successive moments, dhyana has occurred.
At first this happens only in flashes, as the mind briefly stills and concentration becomes utterly one-pointed for a short succession of moments. These flashes are incredibly beautiful experiences which, although they quickly pass, leave a lasting impression and create a powerful desire for more. Then with continued practice these brief flashes gradually lengthen and deepen, until eventually the experience of samadhi dawns.
tad evārthanātra nirbhāsam svarūpa śūnyam iva samādhiḥ
when the flow of awareness alone—empty and shining—becomes the form of the mind, this is samadhi
Yoga Sutras (3. 3)
—upon assuming the form of the unchangeable (Consciousness), the mind becomes conscious of the Self
Yoga Sutras (4. 22)
sattva puruṣayoḥ śuddhi sāṁye kaivalyam
—in perfect tranquility the pure mind is the same as the Self, Absolute
Yoga Sutras (3. 56)
Taking a step back for a moment and looking at the situation in dhyana a little more closely, we find that in there are actually three things present there: the meditator, the meditation (dhyana), and the object of meditation. These three together—not merely the object of meditation—constitute the full form of the mind in dhyana. It is this threefold form of the mind which is in fact identical through successive moments.
Now, with this in mind, we could say that we enter samadhi when dhyana itself becomes the object of meditation. Meditator, meditation, and object of meditation all then dissolve into the flow of awareness—empty and shining. As they do so the mind assumes the form of awareness alone, and in this form is perfectly still, tranquil, and pure, as if completely transparent to itself.
At this point there is no inside nor outside, no before and after, no self and other. There is only, as Patanjali puts it:
—a conjunction between the mind and the present moment
Yoga Sutras (3. 9.)
In this state there virtually is no mind. Or, to put it another way, the mind has become the same as the Self, one with the Absolute. This is citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ, the complete cessation of mental activity, whereupon the Self then abides in its own nature.
This is yoga.
Yoga—a holographic art
In the above discussion the stages of yoga are laid out in a progressive linear sequence starting with the yamas culminating in samadhi.
This is basically how Patanjali presents it in the Yoga Sutras, and it makes sense to our linear way of thinking and seeing the world. We do as individual beings generally operate in a linear fashion: in order to travel to any given destination—physical or existential—there are steps that must be taken.
But when it comes to yoga, this way of seeing has its drawbacks. The main drawback is that it places the goal of yoga far away, at the end of a long series of stages, instead of in the all-pervasive Absolute.
In reality, there is no path, no linear sequence of stages to progress through, and no distant goal to attain. The goal of yoga is always already right here, right now, closer to us than our own breath, our own thoughts, our own samadhi even.
For the Self abides always in its own nature, and there is, ultimately, nothing apart from that Self. It is helpful to remember this as often as possible, and to infuse our yoga practice with the constant presence of the final goal.
The more we do this the more we realise that the entirety of yoga is actually present in each of the limbs, in each of the practices. Yoga is a holographic art. Everywhere on the yogic path contains the whole journey.
In the most obvious way, this can be seen in the following sutra dealing with the fifth niyama:
—samadhi is attained through profound contemplation on the divine
Yoga Sutras (2. 45)
Here we are told that this one practice of the second limb opens straight onto samadhi. An interesting wormhole! There are many more instances of these kinds of wormholes within Patanjali’s aṣṭ āṅga yoga. It seems the more you look for them the more you find.
The Yoga Sutras is both a treasure map and a holograph. It outlines a systematic path of self-realisation while revealing the presence of its goal within each of its parts.
By holding this holographic awareness while simultaneously working patiently through the progressive stages of the yogic path we make the journey easier and also find fulfilment along it each step of the way.
om praṇamāmi patañjalim
–salutations to Patanjali