Yoga is one of the six āstika darśana, or orthodox schools of Indian thought, all of which take their inspiration from the Vedas. The seminal text on Yoga, Pātaňjala Yoga Sutra was compiled or composed circa 350BCE and its author, Pātaňjali, is regarded as the architect of Yoga as we know it. The essence of a sutra is that it be concise, using as few words as possible, as well as clear and precise, conveying its meaning unambiguously.

If we are to accept that Pātaňjali is successful in meeting these criteria in his Yoga Sutra, how then are we to explain the many different interpretations and commentaries of PYS which exist today, sometimes seemingly much at odds which other. The original commentary on PYS, by the sage Vyāsa, is regarded as the ‘gold-standard’ and most other commentators base their works on his. Each, however, depending on their own personal interests, give an individual slant, or perspective to their commentary. Thus, a scholar or grammarian approaches it from a linguistic point of view, while Vedantists, like Shankaracharya or Swami Vivekananda, view it from the perspective of Vedanta, giving rise to commentaries with much in common, but which also have differences. To avoid the confusion that this might create for students, it is important to look at what drives the Yoga Sutra; what was Pātaňjali’s purpose in composing them.

our true nature

The purpose of the Sutra is to answer one key question; ‘Who am I?’ The entire text can be looked at as describing the journey of an individual to seek themselves. This is made clear in the opening sutra of Samādhiḥ Pādaḥ, which state that when citta is undisturbed and still, we experience our ‘true nature’ as ‘draṣtuḥ’ or the Seer. So, who is this Seer and how can we know or experience it? To achieve this, we need to understand what citta is, what disturbs it and what we need to do to remove this disturbance. Citta is the combination of body, mind and intellect, expressing itself through which, the Seer ‘experiences’ the world.

Through the sense activity of the body, the Seer ‘perceives’ the world, through the emotional responses in the mind, it ‘feels’ about the world and through the mental activity of the intellect, it ‘thinks’ about the world. These perceptions, feelings and thoughts are the vṛtti which disturb citta, resulting in us identifying with body, mind and intellect and remaining unaware of our true ‘Seer’ nature.

ashtanga yoga - eight limbs

Pātaňjali’s Ashtanga Yoga is the means by which we curb the vṛtti, allowing stillness to enter and bringing an end to physical and emotional disturbances, and mental conflict. In this context, it is āsana, the third of the 8 limbs, which is used to quieten, or bring balance to, the sense activity of the body. The importance of Pātaňjali is that he:

  1. establishes a definition of the practice of yoga postures, āsana, which became the foundation of yoga tradition. (Sutra 2:46);
  2. He gives a clear protocol for how to perform āsana (Sutra 2:47) and
  3. He explains the benefits that accrue when the protocol is followed. (Sutra 2:48)

pātaňjali’s defininition of asana

One of the confusions that arises for people today when reading these Sutra, is that they interpret āsana here to mean solely a ‘seat’, or a position one might take for prānāyāma or meditation. The root of āsana is indeed ‘as’ or ‘ās’ meaning not only ‘a seat’, ‘sitting’, ‘to sit on’ but also ‘to be’ or ‘to stay’. Thus, 2:46 - Sṭira sukham āsanam means ‘Āsana is a posture in which we are ṣtira, stable and sukham, comfortable. If this is not the case, then what we are doing is not an āsana, but merely an arrangement of limbs. In practical terms, being stable and comfortable, means we can breathe easily and that there is no need to use force to stay in the posture; we will feel no impulse to move or change the posture.

This is, of course, perfect if it is our intention to sit for prānāyāma or meditation but holds just as true whether you are talking about a meditative posture or any other āsana at all. When steady and comfortable, there is a good balance between the muscles which are contracting and those which are relaxing and, as a result, between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous activity. In this way, Pātaňjali, even if he was focused mainly on the postures useful for meditation, is giving a general definition for what any āsana is. The sutras which follow detail how we should move into and out of a posture (dynamic phase) and what our condition should be as we maintain a posture (static phase). This is also clearly a prescription applicable to all postures.

effortless effort

Sutra 2:47- Prayatna ṣaitilyānanta samāpatthibhyāṃ. Two words describe the dynamic phase, prayatna, which means effort and ṣaitilya which, literally, means wilting. This tells us that no force or undue effort should be expended, which is in keeping with the principle of practice and non-attachment as the two principles needed to quieten Citta (PYS I:14).

This absence of force is restated in Hatha Pradīpikā of Swātmarama (I:15) in which it is stated that too much effort is an obstacle to Yoga and by Gorakshanath ‘āsanena rajohanti’ – asana is for removal of hyperactivity (hypertonicity) of the body. In the state of an āsana we are told that our condition should be ‘ānanta samāpatthibhyāṃ’ or merging with the infinite.

This means our attention should not be on ‘getting somewhere’, or ‘achieving some physical accomplishment’ but our awareness should be settling into quietude and diffusing into our innermost being. This is a state of peacefulness, acceptance, and release, and if we allow ourselves to surrender into it, we are no longer disturbed by physical or, indeed, emotional agitation, and we become calm.

the process of calming

The third of Pātanjali’s āsana related sutra describes the culmination of the process of calming when, 2:48 - tatodvadvānabighātaḥ - then all conflicts come to an end. This is the result which we can expect if we follow Pātaňjali’s protocol: the removal of hypertonicity, the balancing of the nervous and endocrine systems and the settling into ‘rest and digest’ rather than ’fight or flight’, all of which expresses as the relief of any physical disturbance in the body, the calming of the nervous system and finally, the cessation of inner mental conflict. This is moving towards the state of citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ, the stilling of citta, which allows us to experience ourselves as we really are.

This methodology of āsana has been shown to be effective; to ‘do what it says on the tin’ and has been reiterated in many subsequent traditional texts as mentioned above. Swami Kuvalayananda originally, at the Kaivalyadham Institute in Lonavala, India and many others since, have undertaken much research into the physiological impact of following the Pātaňjalian protocol, and have found that it has greater health benefits, measured in terms of systematic and organic function, than if āsana are practised in other ways. Naturally, āsana alone is not usually enough to bring us to the state of total quietness, and so we have the remaining limbs of Ashtanga to call on as we progress through the Body, Mind and Intellect.

Nonetheless, it is perhaps the first and most fundamental practice that we undertake, and one which we should maintain throughout our Yoga life. My own experience is that if we follow the guidance of Pātaňjali, we are certain to make the most of every Yogāsana practice we do and can avoid the common pitfalls of attachment, disappointment, lack of perseverance and, all too often injury, that can so derail our progress on our journey of self-discovery. So, whatever the posture, effortless effort – no pain, much gain!