|The Ten Most Important Sutras -
by Judith Lasater
As a child, my experience of summer was that of an
endless progression of days filled with infinite time to pursue whatever
seemed interesting to me and the gang of kids who gathered each morning
on our street. Some days it was swimming; others it was the creation of
some elaborate business selling lemonade or perhaps building a fort. But
the most unrealistic and romantic project was the attempt to dig a very
big hole, the classic "dig to China" scenario that all kids
seem to try at some point.
The present task I have set myself is just as
impossible and shows the same type of naiveté. The 156 verses of the
Yoga Sutras create an exquisitely sophisticated map of mind and
consciousness, and to attempt to separate ten that are the most
important is as foolish as digging to China. However, I will attempt to
discuss ten of the sutras which I find definitive for the study of yoga.
It is generally accepted that the Sutras were
written in approximately 200 years BCE, although some scholars believe
that they may have been written as recently as 200 AD (1) Interrestingly,
the vocabulary of the Sutras are somewhat similar to that of Mahayana
Buddhism which helps date the writing at the earlier date. (2) In
addition to the mystery surrounding the date the Sutras, the author of
the Yoga Sutras is also shrouded in mystery. There is some debate as to
whether "Patanjali" was a single writer, a fictitious name, or
the work of a combination of several writers.
Nevertheless, if we accept his existence,
Patanjali is usually considered to have been a Sanskrit scholar, teacher
and physician who codified the extant wisdom of yoga into a book of four
chapters or padas which were written in sutra form. The English word
"suture" is related to the Sanskrt word "sutra" and
underscores the concept that the verses were strung together like beads
on a string. Sutras are terse sentences and were meant to be chanted or
sung. Some sects did indeed chant the entire 195 sutras before each
The fact that the information is found in sutra
form tells us that they had evolved in a time when oral teaching was
important; written teachings were rare. And the brevity of the Sutras
underscores the fact that a teacher/interpreter was considered essential
for the student to understand the depth of the wisdom presented by this
basic text of yoga.
The most important thing however is not
information about the author of the Sutras, or even the form in which
they are presented, but rather what they teach us about ourselves and
how we function as human beings. Below are presented ten of the most
important and well-known sutras. Hopefully this brief introduction will
inspire the reader to study the entire text in the depth it both
requires and deserves.
Definition and Heart of Yoga
1. Atha yoga anushasam (Chapter 1,
Now the discipline of yoga (is being presented)
Far from being a mere introduction along the lines
of "Once upon a time", this is an important verse. Especially
important is the use of the word "now" to begin the sutra.
This "now" implies several things.
First, it implies that now the student is ready to
hear and now the teacher is available and willing to teach. It implies
additionally that the student has learned a great deal on his/her own
before this point and is now willing to undertake the difficult and
sometimes very demanding teaching of classical yoga. Finally it implies
that the understanding of now is the most important thing that can be
learned from the study of yoga. In its most simple and pure form, yoga
brings one deeply into the present, into the now. This is at the heart
of the teachings of yoga and its profound significance can be found in
the very first word of the Yoga Sutras.
The word "anusasanam" is an interesting
one. It is variously translated as "exposition" of
"discipline". It concludes the verse as "now yoga is
explained" or "now the discipline of yoga is presented".
The important point here is to remember that yoga is considered a
coherent discipline which requires focus and determination. Therefore
Patanjali states clearly in verse one that progress in yoga does not
come by accident.
2. Yoga citta vritti nirodhah (Chapter
1, v. 2)
Yoga is the resolution of the agitations of the
This is the most famous verse in the entire Yoga
Sutras, and rightly so, for it is the definition of yoga upon which the
entire text turns.
"Citta" or "cittam" is usually
translated as "mind-stuff"; I prefer to think of it in broad
terms. To me it is the entire sphere of consciousness, as we ordinarily
understand that term. This citta, according to Patanjali and others, is
by its very nature expressed in "vritti" form. These "vrittis"
are agitations which are continual, both conscious and unconscious, and
are the root of our avidya, or lack of understanding about both who we
really are and what reality is. According to the text, our consciousness
is in constant fluctuation and agitation.
"Nirodhah" is sometimes translated as
suppression. I prefer the use of the term resolution to describe the
state of yoga. Thus the verse translates as "Yoga is the state in
which the agitations of consciousness are resolved."
3. Tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam
(Chapter 1, v.3)
Then the seer abides in it own nature
This is one of the most important verses in the
entire book. It is based upon the fundamental concepts of purusa and
prakrti. Purusa is universal consciousness, immutable and untouchable;
prakrti is "that which uses matter as its bed". It is the
constantly unfolding, evolving and changing aspects of the universe.
Together purusa and prakrti are the yin and yang of yoga philosophy They
are expressed in the universe and in the individual as spirit and
"Tada" translates as "then",
meaning when one is in the state of yoga, then the seer, "drastuh",
abides, "vasthanam" in its own, "sva", form, "rupe".
Thus when one is living in the state of yoga, the seer or purusa which
already exists within us, shines out. It is no longer hidden by the
agitations of prakrti which have been resolved.
A simple example can explain this verse. In order
to create a statue, a sculptor merely removes all the stone that is not
the statue; nothing is added to the stone. Likewise, the practice of
yoga is not about adding anything to the individual. Instead, as this
verse explains, the state of yoga is that state in which everything
which is not equanimity is removed from the citta and thus purusa is
free to shine out unabated.
How to Change Your Mind
4. abhyasa vairagyabhyam tan nirodhah
(Chapter 1, v. 12)
By practice and detachment these can be
Patanjali presents one of his most practical
verses here. The author is referring to methods for calming the citta
and thus allowing the practitioner to enter the state of yoga. "Abhyasa"
is translated as determined action or practice, and "vairagyabhyam"
as surrender or supreme detachment. All the practices of yoga can be
subsumed under one of these techniques.
Determined action is discipline, focus, one-pointedness.
The practitioner of yoga is required to apply him/herself in order to
still the agitations of the mind. But letting go of one’s attachment
to the achievement of the goal of enlightenment is also considered an
important part of the formula. Vairagyabhyam therefore can be considered
an expression of strength: the strength to allow, to receive, to be.
The metaphor of a river can make these concepts
more clear. In order for a river to exist, there must be two things,
banks and water. If there are only banks with no water, there is a dry
gulch. If there is water but no banks to give direction and shape to the
water, there is only a swamp. But with the banks of abhyasa to give
shape and the water of vairagyabhyam to give flow and release, there is
a river of awareness.
5. maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha
duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam (Chapter
1, v. 33).
Mind becomes purified by cultivation of
feelings of amity, compassion, goodwill and indifference respectively
towards happy, miserable, virtuous and sinful creatures.
This verse is important not just for what it says
but also for what it implies. Obviously the verse is discussing ways
that the mind can enter the state of yoga in which the vrittis are
pacified. But what is more intriguing about this verse is that it is one
of the few which overtly discusses the yoga practitioner’s
relationship with others as an elemental part of practice. This verse
makes clear that Patanjali considers relationships important and
relevant to spiritual evolution.
Patanjali suggest that we cultivate friendship
toward the happy, compassion toward the miserable, goodwill toward the
virtuous and indifference toward those who are sinful. The choice of his
words is deliberate. By cultivating friendship toward the happy we learn
what it is to be happy and content with what is. By cultivating
compassion toward the miserable we can see our own miserableness.
Practicing goodwill toward the virtuous can help us to overcome our
natural tendency toward jealousy. Indifference toward the sinful keeps
us from judging and hating others. It seems clear that Patanjali expects
the practice of yoga to be carried far beyond the meditation cushion.
6. yatha abhimata dhyanadva (Chapter
1, v. 39)
Or by contemplating on whatsoever thing one may
like (the mind becomes stabilized)
In this section of Chapter I, Patanjali lists a
number of ways that the mind can become stabilized. The final entry in
the list is verse 39 which is a very powerful one. After all the
discipline that is presented in the Yoga Sutras, one could become
discouraged. But this verse gives hope. Patanjali states that it is
possible to for the mind to become stable by the process of focus on
whatsoever thing that it pleases. This verse is important because it
underscores that it is the process of focus and meditation which makes
something yoga practice, not the specific practice itself.
Sometimes yoga students become more and more
narrow in their definition of yoga. They feel that their approach and/or
the approach of their teacher is the best and only way. Patanjali makes
it clear in verse 39 that one can practice from the heart and let the
natural attraction each of us has toward an aspect of life draw us into
Living Your Yoga: Yoga in Action
While there is no doubt that the teachings of yoga
are about liberation, there is also teaching in the Sutras about how to
7. Tapas svadhyaya isvara pranidanah kriya
yogah (Chapter II, v. I)
Self-discipline, self-study and devotion are
yoga in the form of action.
Yoga is not just a state of being but also the
practices which are associated with that state. The second chapter is
concerned with those practices. "Tapas" comes from the Sanskrt
word "tap" which means "to burn". Tapas is therefore
translated usually to mean austerity or discipline. I prefer to
translate it as "consistency". To me, there is no greater
tapas than consistency. This consistency means we practice the postures,
breathing and meditation of yoga regularly regardless of whether we want
to, whether it is exciting, or whether we have a teacher at that time of
life. Tapas means continuing to practice regardless of the external
"Svadyaya" is self-study; self-study
means being aware of the inner dialogue, the words we speak, the
thoughts we have. Self-study can be practiced all the time, even
eventually during dreams. Self-study is not hard to practice. Rather,
remembering to practice svadyaya is the difficult part. We get lost in
the swirling currents of ego.
Isvara pranidanah is the surrender of all the
fruits of practice to one’s chosen deity. This deity can be whatever
it is that one conceives to be a greater power beyond one’s self. The
choice of deity is not important; what is important is that one learns
to let go of all the benefits and failures alike that are related to
practice. This letting go focuses the practitioner on the process of
practice rather than on the goals of practice.
8. Avidya asmita raga dvesa abhinivesah
panca klesah (Chapter 11, v. 3)
Ignorance, egoism, attachment, aversion and
fear of death and the five afflictions.
Living with clarity is prevented by the active
interference of the five klesas or afflictions, of which the first is
the most important. "Avidya" comes from "a" which is
a negating prefix, "vid" which means to see from the inner
eye, and "ya" which is an activating suffix. "Avidya"
translates then as "actively being in the state of not seeing the
true nature of reality". This is not the ignorance of just not
knowing a fact, but rather a very deep vritti which keeps us from
knowing the Self. In Vedanta philosophy, the equivalent term to avidya
is "maya", the great illusion. Avidya is the root of all the
other klesas. In the state of yoga, the veil parts and one directly
comprehends reality as it is, purely, without any intervening thought,
abstraction or judgment.
The next klesa is asmita or egoism. Patanjali make
another of his important distinction here. Many beginning students of
yoga think that the point of spiritual practice is to destroy the ego.
The destruction of the ego is a state of mental illness, not
enlightenment. Patanjali uses two distinct words, one is "ahamkara"
which is ego and "asmita" which is egoism. The distinction is
that one can have an functioning ego and still be a totally present
being. But w the klesa or affliction is asmita, or egoism. This is the
attachment to the ego and its understanding. Having a functioning
healthy ego is not the problem; unexamined attachment to the products of
ego is the problem according to Patanjali.
The next two klesas are deeply related. The first
is "raga" which is strong desire and the second is "dvesa"
which is strong aversion. Both are actually a form of attachment; one is
a positive attachment and the other is a negative attachment. An
anorexic and an obese person are both attached to food. One is attached
to avoiding food and one is attached to acquiring it. Both think about
food all the time. The important point is that both are attached. It is
this strong attachment, whether positive or negative, that Patanjali
warns the practitioner about in this verse. Pay attention to the strong
swing of your emotional pendulum because you are likely to be drawn away
from the practice of yoga at those times.
The fear of death or the clinging to life can
interfere with our ability to remain in the present. For this reason
Patanjali reminds us to be vigilant about this klesa. If we make
decisions out of fear and attachment, we will not live the life we are
given right now in this moment. Paradoxically, when we are actually
faced with a life and death situation, we usually become clear and calm
and respond appropriately for the situation. The rest of the time we may
become either fiercely attached to life as we want it to be or fearful
that that life will be taken away. Both thoughts keep us from the moment
to moment practice of yoga.
9. Yama niyama asana pranayama pratyahara
dharana dhyana samadhayo’ stavangani (Chapter 11, v. 29)
The practice of restraint, observances,
posture, breath control, withdrawal from the senses, concentration,
meditation and samadhi are the eight-fold path of yoga.
The astanga or eight-fold path of yoga is at the
heart of the practices presented by Patanjali. Interestingly enough,
some scholars believe that this verse may have been added later to the
Sutras. (3) Whether or not this is true, this verse does bear a striking
resemblance to the Noble Truths of Buddhism.
The first limb is yama; the yamas are considered
the foundation of the house of yoga and begin with the most important
teaching of "ahimsa". Ahimsa is nonviolence, or in the
Buddhist tradition, non-harming. Upon examination it is clear that
harming others or self can come as easily from thoughts as from deeds.
The next yama is "satya" or truth, which
is followed by "asteya", non-stealing, "brahmacharya",
clarity in sexual relationships, and finally by "aparigraha"
or non-greed. Patanjali tells us that without these yamas all other
attempts at the practice of yoga will fail eventually. It is sad that
most Western yoga classes make no mention of these yamas.
The second limb is "niyama" or the
observances. Three of the niyamas, tapas, svadhyaya, and isvara
pranidanah have been discussed previously as kriya yoga in verse 1 of
Chapter II. The other two niyamas are sauca, purity, and samtosa, which
is contentment. The yogin/yogini is taught to actively to practice these
two virtues before he/she can begin the third limb, asana.
Most familiar to Westerners as "yoga",
the practice of asana or posture is the first of a subset of limbs which
also includes pranayama and pratyahara. Pranayama is the restraint or
"yama" of prana, the energy associated with breath. While
pranayama is most commonly considered to be just breath control, it is
actually the restraint of the energy of breath, not just holding the
actual physical breath. The yogin/yogini is attempting to learn to
channel and contain this energy so that it will be available for
self-study and transformation.
Pratyahara is the conscious movement of the energy
away from the senses. In the state of pratyahara one still experiences
the input from the senses but importantly, this input no longer agitates
the mind as it does normally. This fifth limb of the eight-fold path is
the bridge to the so-called "spiritual" limbs of dharana and
Dharana is the practice of focused attention. The
vrittis are still active but are now flowing in one direction. In
contradistinction, in dhyana this focus has become awareness which can
be said to be the paradox of focus without a focal point. All spiritual
practices are basically either about focus or about awareness. In
dharana and dhyana one can see how the transformation is made from
focusing "on" something like a mantra, the breath, or a chosen
deity, to focusing "with" something so that the residue is
I have not translated from the Sanskrt the final
step of the eight-fold path: samadhi. This is a state of oneness which
has a number of levels or graduated states. It can be variously a state
of pure clarity, pure bliss or pure oneness with all that is. The
difference between dhyana, meditation, and samadhi is the difference
between a sense of the union of two into one, dhyana, and a unitary
consciousness existing with no distinctions between self and all else,
samadhi. If these concepts seem confusing and arcane, it is because they
are. They are not written about well by any author and like all the
important things in life, defy description. As all the great teachers
tell us, they are best understood by experience not by words.
10. samtosad anuttamah sukhalabhah
(Chapter II, v. 42)
From contentment unsurpassed happiness is
An even bigger problem than how to choose the ten
most important Sutras, was how to end the list. I have chosen one of my
favorite verses because I think it gives hope and joy.
This verse states several important things. First,
that happiness is indeed obtainable. This is a very hopeful statement to
anyone past babyhood. Secondly, the way to happiness is to follow the
path of contentment. Contentment is not a sissy concept. In order to be
content, one must have won and lost, gained and given up, been up and
been down. In order to be content, one must have lived fully.
What this verse means to me is that contentment is
the willingness to live in this present moment. Contentment is the
willingness to accept the failure and success of this very minute. In
order to do this we must become a wider container so that we can hold
all of this moment. Contentment is letting go of greed, letting go of
the desire to change anything, including one’s self. In order to be
content one must embrace perfection and imperfection equally as part of
the great panoramic of life. Most of the time, we just want
"it" to be different, whether that "it" is one’s
body, mind, relationship, job or an unpleasant task.
Samtosha is the ability to remain present with,
and in fact remain happy with, the circumstances of just this moment.
What an important attitude with which to live! This may be, in fact, the
secret to life --- simply be content with hard work or no work, riches
or not, difficulty or ease. If one lives with samtosha as Patanjali
suggests, then one can live in joy regardless of what happens next. What
a delightful concept; what a delightful way to live.
(1) Georg Fuerstein. Personal communication.
October 6, 1996. San Francisco, CA. back
(2) ibid. back
(3) ibid. back
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Copyright © 2005 Judith Lasater - All Rights