Interpretations of 5 Timeless Yoga Sutras

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The wisdom of any given day reflects the beliefs and values of that time. Wisdom about how to get from point A to point B in the 1800s, for example, likely had to do with how to get your horse to keep at a steady pace—information that is unlikely to be helpful to inhabitants of the 21st century.

However, there is some wisdom that holds true over time, over centuries, and even millennia. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one such text; it stands the test of time, grows along with you, and uncovers more Truth than you can realize. No matter what the external trappings of the world may suggest, the lessons contained within the Sutras remain just as relevant now as they did between 2,000-5,000 years ago, when they are said to have been codified by Patanjali.

While the Yoga Sutras consist of 196 aphorisms (or concise teachings), here are five of them that can continue to shape your spiritual practice no matter when or where you may be living.

1. Yoga is to calm the fluctuations of the mind. (Sutra 1.2)

It’s easy to forget the true definition of yoga. No matter what you do (whether it’s a yoga posture, driving a car, or running a marathon), yoga is the practice of calming the turbulence of the mind so that you can be fully immersed in whatever you are doing. If a woman is fully focused on her breath, the felt sensations in her body, and her mind is calm and centered, then she is doing yoga. If she is struggling, however, to create the perfect shape with her body, and her mind is engaged in a cycle of negative self-talk about the experience she’s in and the results she will create from wrenching her body into an impressive and uncomfortable act of acrobatics, then she is not practicing yoga.

The Yoga Sutras are clear about what yoga is, and you should be, too. It’s a practice and also a state. When you are one with whatever you are doing—in physical body, mind, and heart—then and only then, are you experiencing true yoga.

2. Yoga (which is a form of action) consists of three parts: self-discipline, self-inquiry, and devotion to God. (Sutra 2.1)

You may think that to be a good yogi you should just sit back “in peace” and let the world move around you without reacting to anything. Yoga, however, is an active practice (read the Bhagavad Gita for more about yoga as a call to action), and requires diligence in thoughts, words, and actions. Sutra 2.1 says that yoga consists of three parts: self-discipline, self-study, and devotion to the Highest.

  • Yoga takes discipline—in how you allow yourself to be distracted by your sensory experiences, in how you speak and express yourself, and how you purify your body and mind of toxic pollution.
  • Yoga is a practice of study and inquiry into the Self (note the capital “S”). Elevating the mind by reading texts and studying with teachers who help you to know your true Self more fully are guideposts on the yogic path. To live in a state of yoga is to consistently grow, learn, and expand. 
  • Yoga calls for a longing and a willingness to yield to the higher forces that unite people—sometimes called God, Source, Higher Consciousness, etc. By dedicating yourself to the greatest good, to something bigger than yourself, you are contributing to the good of humanity and, therefore, you are living your yoga.

3. Om is the sound of God, made manifest (Sutra 1.27)

Many people recognize the sound Om as a salutation that marks the beginning and ending of a yoga practice. In Sutra 1.27, Patanjali identifies Om as the expression of God; or in other words, the sound Om means “God.” The sound wasn’t arbitrarily chosen—the sound “mmm” is a long, full, unlimited vibration that reflects the humming of the inner sound.

The next sutra (1.28) says that when you repeat the sound, its meaning will become clear—that is, you will know God. Om is also called pranava, which translates to “humming.” When you chant the sound Om, or when quiet yourself and turn inward, know that by connecting to the pranava Om, you are connecting to God energy.

4. Before all else, cause no pain. (Sutra 2.30)

Perhaps the most well-known of the yamas, or moral guidelines, of the Yoga Sutras, ahimsa means non-harming. In his commentary on the sutras, Swami Satchidananda defines ahimsa as “not causing pain,” which provides subtle yet substantial direction on how to engage with the world around you. Ahimsa is, in many ways, the foundation of yogic philosophy. Ethically speaking, “cause no pain” holds the crux of the teachings—cause no pain for other beings, cause no pain for the self. When faced with decisions, it will do your heart and spirit good to choose the path of least pain.

5.  May we inhabit a posture of comfort and steadiness. (Sutra 2.46)

Of all 196 sutras, only three refer to the asana practice. The most well-known—sthira sukham asanam—says that the yoga pose (or seat) should be both comfortable and steady. The sthira (stability) and sukham (comfort) refer to both the inner condition as well as the outer form of the pose.

This aphorism can be transformative when held as a focal point for your asana practice. Whether it consists of a strong and powerful backbend, or a soft and restorative child’s pose, the posture should be balanced within and without. Of course, this sutra can extend beyond the mat, that you may attentively maintain strong boundaries with an air of openness in all that you do.

There’s a reason every yoga teacher training still talks about the Yoga Sutras, and it’s not because it is simply an interesting piece of history. The Sutras are the foundation of the philosophical approach to yoga and to life, and lays out the path for mindful and purposeful living. If you consider yourself a yogi to any degree, it is useful to contemplate how (and why) these teachings continue to guide the way after thousands of years.

Ultimately, you’ll find that the sutras speak to the human condition, which is a steady through-line from the earliest days to the present. While your mode of transportation has changed, the inner struggles and challenges of the mind connect you fully and completely to your ancestors. The details may be different, but the principles are the same. And so, the Sutras continue to guide the way for you now, and for all time. For that, you may be truly grateful.


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About the Author

Karson McGinley

Yoga Teacher, Life Coach, and Joy Seeker
Karson McGinley is the founder of Happy-U ( H olistic A pproach to P ositive P sychology & Y oga) and the co-owner (along with her husband) of Happy-U Namasté Yoga Center in San Diego, CA. A teacher for over a decade, Karson works to bridge the gap between the ancient wisdom of yoga and the modern science of happiness through her yoga classes, workshops, and Happy-U’s Teacher Training program. Karson’s classes are inspired by what goes on in the modern day life of a joy-seeker, using the power of music, laughter, and storytelling to take her students on a journey within. Drawing upon her...Read more