“Without yoga (union), liberation from karma is impossible… Burn the delusion of the mind in the fire of yoga!” ~ Bhagawan Nityananda of Ganeshpuri
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a 2000-year-old map of the journey of Self-discovery. It’s the earliest text that brings the core teachings of yoga into a coherent framework. The Sutras have been used as a teaching tool by countless yoga traditions and woven into many Indian philosophies, including Advaita Vedanta and Kashmir Shaivism.
Patanjali’s core message:
- You are more than your limited egoic sense of self, which suffers from fears and attachments.
- You are pure creative potential–the Power of Awareness.
- Through yogic training, you can overcome your false sense of self and abide in recognition of your true nature.
Chiti Shakti – The Power of Awareness
The inspiration for the title of this commentary on the Yoga Sutras came from an article written by Dr. David Frawley titled: Shakti, the Yoga Sutras and Patanjali. Dr. Frawley points out that the last term in the Yoga Sutras is Chiti Shakti and that it implies what the tantras call Kundalini Shakti, meaning “coiled energy or power.” Kundalini Shakti is our dormant spiritual energy that can be awakened through intentional yogic practice.
“When the purposes of the primal forces of nature have been fulfilled, they are returned to their original, balanced state. The free soul then abides in their own essence, the Power of Awareness (Chiti Shakti).” ~ Sutra 4.34
Patanjali’s final sutra describes the end state of the yogi’s journey–abiding in the Power of Awareness. It’s the recognition of the unity between Power and Awareness, or in tantric terms, between Shakti and Shiva. It’s the total uncoiling of That which we already are.
When viewed through this lens, Patanjali’s Sutras are a way of engaging in an intimate relationship with conscious energy. Developing an awareness of that manifesting power, both in our seated meditation and as we go about our day, brings our practice to life. We become radiant, energized and uplifted.
The Sutras themselves are imbued with shakti, and by contemplating and attuning ourselves to each of their unique vibrations, we’re guided along the path of awakening.
Embracing not Escaping
Some scholars have interpreted Patanjali’s yoga as an escapist retreat from the world into a nonlocal static state of being. They reduce his system to a radical dualism that seeks to forever silence all thoughts and emotions, abandon nature, and live in a disembodied state of bliss. To support this argument, they cite his definition of yoga in Sutra 1.2:
“Yoga is when the fluctuations in the field of consciousness are still.”
But as Professor Ian Whicher notes in his lecture at the 2018 Science and Nonduality conference, the stillness (nirodha) that Patanjali is referring to is not the final annihilation of our thoughts, emotions, and experience of nature. Instead, it’s the cessation of our mistaken identity. In other words, the mind and world are not the problem. Our attachment and identification with them are.
In the second chapter, Patanjali explains that the purpose of our practice is to remove the painful barriers (kleshas) that create suffering by preventing us from perceiving truth. All of those painful barriers, he says, arise from avidya, the “lack of Self-knowledge.” So it’s avidya and the false-self it creates that we must overcome, not our involvement in the natural world.
Far from a path of escapism, the Sutras teach us how to embody the virtues, enhance our relationship with others, live in harmony with our environment, and align ourselves with a higher power and purpose.
Reading the Yoga Sutras
I recommend reading this book from the beginning to the end for the first pass. As you proceed, try to get a feel for the trajectory of Patanjali’s system rather than hold on to the information. You’ll always be able to drill down into the details during subsequent passes.
The conciseness of the Yoga Sutras, especially without the commentary, makes them easy to access and navigate. Because of this, they can be read over and over again. And as your yoga practice develops, so will your understanding. New insights will come with each reading.
The most effective approach to the Sutras is contemplative rather than intellectual. In contemplative reading, you move through the material until you reach a passage that opens something inside you–a word, line, or concept you feel an intimate resonance with.
At that point, you take the passage as an object of meditation. You hold it in your consciousness, probing it with your attention and curiosity until a deeper meaning is revealed from within. During this process, you might notice connections between sutras you overlooked before or see new ways of applying them in your life.
The contemplative approach is often nonlinear. You might open the book to a random page, jump from a later section back to an earlier one, or focus on a single sutra for weeks before moving on.
“The continuous flow of intuitive knowledge is the way of freedom.” ~ Sutra 2.26
After you’ve become familiar with the Sutras, you may wish to read them without the commentary. I’ve included a Sutra-only section toward the end of the book for that purpose. You’ll also find links to all four chapters with and without commentary on the website.
For those who wish to take an even deeper dive into the study, I’ve also included the Sanskrit words and meanings.
May your study and practice of yoga be filled with endless blessings and revelations!