Patanjali was a great spiritual master of ancient times who distilled the essence of the spiritual path into 196 pithy aphorisms or words of wisdom called the Yoga Sutras. He outlined the steps every soul must go through in its journey back to the infinite spirit from whence it came.
This is the essence of yoga.
The Yoga Sutras is one of the most important texts in the Hindu tradition and the foundation of classical (Raja) Yoga.
When Did Patanjali Live?
Most scholars date the Yoga Sutras from a couple of centuries before Christ to a couple of centuries after. Based on their analyses of the language and the teaching of the sutras, modern scholars place Patanjali in the second or third century CE.
It’s confusing because different teachers have called themselves Patanjali and written on Ayurveda and Sanskrit grammar, but they were not the original Patanjali.
Also, anonymity is typical of the great sages of ancient India. They didn’t have their ego or personal identity invested in their work. They recognized that their teaching was divinely given and passed down through generations of teachers. So they refused to take credit for themselves, deflecting it toward God or their guru. They gave their experience as a free gift for the upliftment of mankind.
It is said Patanjali lived in Kashmir, Sri Lanka, or several places in India. And there are stories about his spiritual powers and miraculous birth.
The truth is that nobody really knows much about his life—not even when he lived.
But it doesn’t really matter because we know him by his works.
The important thing is that he has given us the ancient wisdom of yoga for our spiritual guidance.
An Oral Tradition
Scholars date Patanjali based on the written version of the Yoga Sutras that has come down to us. But it is very likely that Patanjali himself lived in a much earlier age.
Wisdom in ancient India was transmitted orally, from master to disciple, with an enormous emphasis on accurately memorizing and repeating the original Sutras.
Thus, as an aid to memorization, sutras were concise, terse, often rhythmic statements of the key points of the teaching—abstruse to say the least. But they were not meant to stand alone and be understood without the guidance of a teacher.
Sutra means thread and they assisted the student to “thread together” in memory and recall the meaning of the more extensive body of material with which the student would become thoroughly acquainted over many years of study and practice.
Thus, each sutra served as a mnemonic device to structure the teachings and facilitate memorization, almost like a bullet point that would then be unpacked and elaborated upon by the master.
Ancient Beginnings of the Science of Yoga
In terms of literary sources, the oldest Vedic text, the Rig Veda (c. 1200 – c. 1500 B.C.E.) contains evidence that there were yogi-like ascetics in the Vedic world.
In terms of archaeology, seals found in Indus Valley sites (c. 3000 – c. 1500 B.C.E.) with representations of figures seated in a clear yogic posture (the most famous figure is seated in padmasana, lotus pose, with arms extended and resting on the knees in a classical meditative posture), suggest that yoga has been practiced on the Indian subcontinent for well over 5000 years.
However, a collection of texts called the Upanisads (c. 800 – c. 600 B.C.E.) first described in written form practices that are clearly related to classical yoga.
Patanjali’s Contribution to the Science of Yoga
Patanjali is not the founder or inventor of yoga.
As we saw above, the origins of yoga had long been handed down in an oral (mostly secret) tradition over thousands of years from primordial and mythic times.
There was never one authoritarian school of yoga (or of any Indic school of thought for that matter). Yoga is thus best understood as a cluster of practical methods and techniques for attaining an experienced-based transformation of consciousness that pervaded the landscape of ancient India.
Patanjali codified and organized these much more ancient teachings into principles and practices of the science of yoga. His particular expression of these techniques was in time to emerge as the most dominant, but by no means exclusive, version.
Although much of Patanjali’s teachings come from ancient times, much is original and more than a mere compilation.
The Yoga Sutras were thus seen by all schools, not only as the orthodox manual for guidance in the techniques and practices of meditation, but also for the classical Indian position on the nature and function of mind and consciousness, for the mechanisms of action in the world and consequent rebirth, and for the metaphysical underpinnings and description of the attainment of mystical powers.
The clarity and unity he brought to divergent views prevalent until then has inspired a long line of teachers and practitioners up to the present day.
Not Really a System
Also the word, system, which has often been used to describe the Yoga Sutras, is misleading. For Patanjali offered no particular system for achieving anything. Rather, he was saying, “These are the stages through which every truth seeker must travel, regardless of his religion, if he would achieve union with the Infinite.”
Patanjali’s meaning of the word “yoga” is this union with the Infinite, for yoga means “union.” This union is primarily achieved through the practices of meditation.
Yoga Is Meditation, Not Physical Contortions, Stretching Exercises or Bodily Poses
The physical postures we call “yoga” today—as enjoyable and beneficial as they are—play a very minor role in classical Raja Yoga.
The oldest text that mention Hatha Yoga are dated from the 11th century CE and come from a tantric Buddhist tradition—much later than Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Patanjali himself only dedicates three brief sutras to asana. Indeed, the term asana means “seat” rather than bodily postures. Asana only means being able to sit still, firmly, and comfortably so that the mind can concentrate without being distracted by the body.
Ashtanga Yoga—Eight Limbs to Self-Realization
Ashtanga Yoga—the “eight-limbed” yoga taught by Patanjali consists of eight progressive stages on the path to Self-Realization and serve as a roadmap to enlightenment.
It can be helpful to see these eight “limbs” as concentric rings.
The first two outer rings give us the ten “rules” of right attitude and moral principles for how to behave. Proper behavior helps create a harmonious life, which is a necessary foundation for enlightenment. But it is not enough only to control our outer behavior—we must also learn to have a harmonious consciousness.
To practice the five yamas and five niyamas properly one must understand that they apply to both outward behavior and inner attitudes.
The next three concentric rings show us the progressive control of prana, and the resulting interiorization of energy that allows us to still the mind.
The final three rings describe the ever-deepening stages of true meditation, leading finally to Samadhi, or union with the Infinite.
The stages are:
These are the controls or “don’ts” of life, the tendencies in human nature that end up creating disharmony and pain if allowed expression.
Therefore, we must learn to control or stop the flow of energy in these directions.
The five yamas are: nonviolence, non-lying, non-stealing, non-sensuality and non-greed.
The five niyamas are the non-controls or the “dos” of spiritual life—the types of behavior we should encourage in ourselves.
The niyamas are cleanliness, contentment, austerity, self-study, and devotion to God.
The next three steps lead to the interiorization of energy, which is necessary before we can really meditate.
3. Asana—Seat or Posture
Asana does not mean hatha yoga postures, but the ability to sit unmoving with a straight spine for long periods of time. (Hatha yoga postures can help one to do this, if one is physically able to practice them.)
4. Pranayama—Energy Control
Pranayama means control over our energy or life force. When we can control our energy, we can withdraw it from the outer senses and move it up the spine, thereby raising our consciousness.
Pratyahara is the interiorization of one’s attention and thoughts.
After we withdraw the energy from sense input, we must interiorize the mind itself by withdrawing the thoughts and attention from all distractions and especially calming the feelings of the heart.
With these three stages—asana, pranayama, and pratyahara—we have eliminated the sources of mental agitation and set the stage for real concentration and deep meditation.
The sixth, seventh, and eighth limbs of Astanga Yoga are not different practices, but a continuation and deepening of increasingly deep meditation.
In true dharana all body-consciousness and restless thoughts cease and we become able to fix our full attention on one place, object or idea at a time without distraction.
Dhyana means steadfast meditation on higher aspects of reality.
Concentration is fixing the mind one-pointedly on one thing at a time. Meditation is turning that concentrated mind toward God or one of His attributes.”Paramhansa Yogananda
By meditating deeply on any aspect of God, we lose self-awareness and become completely absorbed in That. A yogi who meditates on love becomes absorbed in a universe of love. A yogi who meditates on light becomes absorbed in that light, expanding outward beyond the limits of material space. A yogi who meditates on sound becomes absorbed in, and one with, AUM throughout the whole cosmos. And so on!
Samadhi simply means the state of oneness with God!”
Practical Wisdom for Modern Spiritual Life
Patanjali’s teaching is a deep and inspiring scripture—yet also a practical scripture, accessible and applicable to any spiritual seeker.
The Yoga Sutras show the eternal way to lasting happiness and freedom. It’s not just another intellectual exploration; it’s a handbook for the true practice of yoga.
However, if you wish to study further, it’s very important to pick an accessible translation and commentary. Some translators turn Patanjali into a dry and technical propounder of the philosophy, but with others he is an empathic and humorous witty friend and spiritual guide. I recommend Demystifying Patanjali by Swami Kriyananda.