Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras outline a path for obtaining divine oneness, self-realization or, as Nicolai Bachman says, in his book The Path of the Yoga Sutras, a deep understanding of the core of who you are. Among yogis and spiritual seekers, this promise is very inviting. What is even more attractive is that the path is laid out in 195 short verses (or 196, depending on the school of thought). You could easily read the entire Yoga Sutras in 30 minutes or less. However, making sense of these pithy lines is a different, and much longer, story. Like yoga, studying the Sutras could span a lifetime. There are dozens of translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, and they vary because the terse verses leave much room for interpretation.

The name Patanjali means “falling from joined hands” (in Sanskrit, the word patat means falling and anjali means joined hands). As with most great Indian mystics, sages and priests, there are mythical stories explaining their incarnation (or reincarnation). The myth widely held for Patanjali is that he deeply desired to share with the world the teachings of Yoga and other knowledge so he chose to be reborn as a seven-year old boy, falling from the ethereal world directly into his mother’s hands, a Brahmin woman named Gonika. For this reason she named him Patanjali (from David Gordon White’s book, The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography).

Although no one is certain, scholars believe Patanjali lived sometime between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Patanjali is not only credited with writing the Yoga Sutras, but also works on Ayurveda and Sanskrit grammar. Because of his prolificacy, some scholars question whether Patanjali was one person or if the name refers to a collective group of sages and teachers. Where everyone is in agreement though is that Patanjali brilliantly codified the vast oral tradition of Yoga into a concise written form. He did not develop Yoga, the science existed thousands of years before Patanjali.

In India, the ancient tradition of orally transmitting knowledge through the chanting of mnemonic verses is still practiced today, helping students recall knowledge passed down from their teachers. In Sanskrit, the word sutra means thread, and each densely packed and succinctly written Sutra represents a large amount of knowledge.  Chanting the verses helps students with memorization and pronunciation. The belief is that students are not ready to question their understanding of a teaching until they have committed the knowledge to memory and have mastered the pronunciation.

The inspiration of the Yoga Sutras comes from the Vedas, which are the most ancient preserved texts in India, as well as the foundation of Hindu spirituality. Today, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras remain the primary text on Yoga philosophy. The first verse of the Yoga Sutras is translated as: “Now the teachings of yoga.”  Today, a reader may assume that Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are about asanas, or postures, which is the modern day connotation of Yoga. Although, after reading just a few lines, it is clear that Patanjali is concerned with meditation and ultimately, Self-Realization. The text says very little about asana. What is shared about asana relates to finding a comfortable sitting position for meditation.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are divided into four chapters, or Padas: 1). Meditative Absorption, 2). Practice, 3). Mystic Powers and 4). Absolute Independence. The Sutras explain the nature of reality, our misunderstanding of the nature of reality and the practices necessary to see reality clearly. As Chip Hartranft says in his book, The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, “Though brief, the Yoga Sutras manage to cut to the heart of the human dilemma.”

The main problem, Patanjali says, is a misunderstanding about Consciousness and Pure Awareness. They are separate, but are often perceived by humans to be one and the same. Patanjali’s solution for this is to allow Consciousness to settle from the whirling thoughts, sensations and emotions to a point where it can reflect Pure Awareness back to itself.  This is addressed right away, in the second verse: Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. When this is achieved, we connect with our source of true happiness – Pure Awareness. The path Patanjali lays out is a journey within, accessible to anyone, offering deep, universal insight that guides practitioners to freedom.

Today, the philosophy from the Sutras that yoga practitioners are most familiar with is The Eightfold Path, or Ashtanga Yoga (unrelated to the asana system founded by Pattabhi Jois), which appears in Chapter 2, Verses 28 – 32. Ancient lore says that when a student approached a teacher to study Yoga, the teacher would require him to master the Yamas and Niyamas, the first two limbs of the Eightfold Path, before returning to learn asana.

In brief, the Yamas and Niyamas are ethical principles and the foundation of Yogic thought. The Yamas, which mean ‘restraints’ in Sanskrit, include:

  • Ahimsa: non-violence
  • Satya: truthfulness
  • Asteya: non-stealing
  • Bramacharya: non-excess (often also translated as abstinence)
  • Aparigraha: non-possessiveness

The Yamas are a guide to having a right relationship with the world. As humans, we are part of a greater whole, and every action we make has a corresponding reaction. When practiced and embraced, the Yamas allow us to live in the world in a harmonious and peaceful way with all people, creatures and the environment, contributing to the health and happiness of society.

The Niyamas, which means ‘observances’ in Sanskrit, include:

  • Saucha: purity
  • Santosha: contentment
  • Tapas: self-discipline
  • Svadyaya: self-study
  • Ishvara Pranidhana: surrender

These observances guide our relationship with self and how to live meaningfully and soulfully. One of the most beautiful, and accessible, translations of the Yamas and Niyamas can be found in Donna Farhi’s book: Yoga Mind, Body and Spirit: A Return to Wholeness. Volumes have been written on just the Yamas and Niyamas, and like the Sutras, can be a life-long practice and study.

Following the Yamas and Niyamas on the Eight-Limbed Path, are Asana, Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) and Samadhi (a state of ecstasy).

Let’s look at a few of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and how they have been translated by modern day teachers and academics. Here are translations of Chapter 1, Verse 21:


For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, liberation is near.  

(The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, by Chip Hartranft)

With keen and one-pointed practice this (highest) attainment comes easily.

(Demystifying Patanjali, The Wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda, presented by his direct disciple, Swami Kriyananda)

 This state of samprajnata (discernment) is near for those who apply themselves intensely.

(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant) 

For those compelled by intense ardor, the goal is near.

(The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Bernard Bouanchaud)

As you see, the language differs, but the essence of the translations is similar. This Sutra essentially describes a one-pointed or concentrated focus, with the mind not being distracted by anything – thoughts, emotions, sensations – no matter how interesting. Achieving this focus, allows the practitioner to see reality clearly.

With each Sutra, the respective authors also offer many paragraphs of commentary, including thoughts and insights, historical and religious references, as well as personal experiences.  Below are translations from Chapter 2, Verse 25:


With realization the appearance of indivisibility vanishes, revealing that awareness is free and untouched by phenomena.

(The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, by Chip Hartranft)

Without this ignorance, no such identity occurs. Thus comes complete freedom of the Seer.

(Demystifying Patanjali, The Wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda, presented by his direct disciple, Swami Kriyananda)

By the removal of ignorance, conjunction is removed. This is the absolute freedom of the seer.

(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant)

When ignorance vanishes, so does union. Its absence brings serenity.

(The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Bernard Bouanchaud)


You can see from these verses how commentary would be helpful, if not necessary, to understand the verse. This Sutra discusses ending ignorance and illusion, or maya. As ignorance gradually dissolves, the practitioner becomes a Seer – one who sees reality clearly. Once illusion disappears, the Seer experiences everlasting serenity, peace and happiness, which Patanjali dedicates his final chapter to. Below are translations from Chapter 4, Verse 19:

Consciousness is not seen by its own light but by awareness.

(The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, by Chip Hartranft)

The mind is not self-luminous, for it is perceptible from without.

(Demystifying Patanjali, The Wisdom of Paramhansa Yogananda, presented by his direct disciple, Swami Kriyananda)


Nor is the mind self-illuminating, because of its nature as the object of perception.

(The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant)

The mind cannot perceive itself as object.

(The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by Bernard Bouanchaud)


With this Sutra, Patanjali conveys that the mind has no light of its own, or in other words, the source of Consciousness and Awareness has nothing to do with the mind. The mind, out of habit, is the object of Awareness, until there is clear seeing. Again, the above translations reflect one another, although their literal translations differ, as do the respective commentaries given by the authors.

With the many translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras available today, deciding on which one to read may feel overwhelming. In choosing a translation, you could approach this similarly to finding a yoga teacher – someone you resonate with and enjoy spending “time” with – Edwin F. Bryant’s translation is 598 pages long with 8-point font!

Like Ayurveda, Yoga’s sister science, Yoga was given to humanity as a gift. Ayurvedic philosophy is focused on longevity and leading a life of well-being. In the case of Yoga, the practices are dedicated to ending the ‘mundane’ cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Ultimately, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras speaks to the greatest desire of every human being – how to end the cause of suffering and find eternal happiness.