Yoga is so much more than asana. The sutras show us how to be our true selves and appreciate every moment— even when life gets crazy.
It was one of those nights: My husband was out, two of our three kids were sick with colds, I had a work deadline the next morning, and one of the dogs found and tore into a dirty diaper, spreading the contents all over the room. And I mean all over. It was a last-straw moment to beat any others, and I was either going to freak out—yell at the dogs, curse my husband for being unavailable, and stomp around the house wondering why all these things had to happen at once—or find a way to draw on the tools Patanjali provides in the Yoga Sutra to accept the situation with as much grace as I could and figure out how to get through it with as little suffering as possible. So, I opted for the latter, managed to laugh a little, put the dogs outside, and cleaned up the mess. This, I realized in that moment, is why I do yoga.
See also Yoga Sutra 1.1: The Power of Now
One of the greatest things I’ve learned from my teacher, T. K. V. Desikachar, is that the true value of yoga is found when you apply it to your daily life—especially in those messy moments (say, when your dog decides to have at a dirty diaper). The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, widely regarded as the authoritative text on yoga, is not just for contemplating on the mat. The sutras are meant to be put to the test and practiced in your work, leisure time, and in your role as a parent, partner, and friend.
The Yoga Sutra, explained
This ancient yogic text is traditionally presented as a guide for refining the mind so one can reach the highest states of concentration and focus. This focus is a means to an end: It leads to a clearer perception and the ability to know the Self, which ultimately results in independence from suffering. The 195 short verses are believed to have been compiled sometime around 350 CE by Patanjali, whom traditionalists also credit with writing texts on Ayurvedic medicine and Sanskrit grammar. Very little is known about the man Patanjali. In fact, it’s unclear whether Patanjali was an individual or simply a name created to represent several people. Yet while factual details about Patanjali are scant, the Yoga Sutra and its lessons are still with us today.
The 195 sutras are divided into four books, or padas, which cover four broad topics: what yoga is (samadhi pada); how to attain a state of yoga (sadhana pada); the benefits of yoga practice (vibhuti pada); and the freedom from suffering (kaivalya pada) that is the eventual goal or result of a consistent practice. The word sutra comes from the same root as “suture,” or thread—each concept is compact and discrete, but it can be woven together with others to present a full tapestry of meaning.
Though composed of few words, each verse is rich with meaning and depth, so that the most advanced student can continue to gain new insights even after years of study. Every carefully chosen word has clear meanings and connotations, which is why the sutras are best learned from an acarya, or “one who travels the path”— an experienced teacher who can help you appreciate the layers of complexity in the text and apply their meaning to your life.
While Patanjali is concerned primarily with calming, focusing, and refining the mind, the ultimate reward of putting the sutras into practice is that you feel better at every level of your human system, and the potential impact of this on your day-to-day life is limitless. When your mind is less agitated, you experience less anxiety and sleep better. When you have clearer perception, your confidence increases as you make fewer mistakes. Your relationships become more fulfilling as you take more emotional risks and connect with others from a place of knowing yourself more deeply. When you are more connected with your own needs and tendencies, you can take better care of yourself, whether that means eating more healthfully, finding a new job, or getting enough rest.
Admittedly, putting the sutras into practice off the mat can be especially challenging, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor, and starting with the eight sutras will give you a brief introduction to the transformative power that Patanjali’s simple but fundamental principles can have in your daily life. Consider them tools that are so universal in their approach and applicability, everyone can benefit from them, regardless of their background, experience, or beliefs. If you’ve never contemplated the Yoga Sutra, think of these eight verses as an entryway for accessing the support Patanjali has to offer you in your own life. Perhaps they’ll serve as an invitation to learn more.
Put in the practice
1.14 sa tu dirgha-kala-nairantarya-satkara-adara-asevita drdha-bhumih
To achieve a strong foundation in our practice, we must practice over a long time, without interruption, believing in it and looking forward to it, with an attitude of service.
Whenever you undertake anything new, whether it’s a relationship, a job, or a course of study, Patanjali advises you to recognize that there is going to be some effort involved. You must consciously create the foundation you hope to build on. Becoming a parent, starting a business, studying piano, taking up rock climbing—whatever you’re undertaking, if you approach it with the attitudes described by this sutra, you will experience more joy in the activity itself and you’ll create a solid foundation on which to build the future.
The first guideline Patanjali offers is dirgha-kala, or “long time.” This means recognizing that what you are undertaking cannot be perfected overnight, that you have to commit over time to get lasting results that you are happy with. Nairantarya, the next guideline, translates as “no interruption,” which addresses your continued commitment to the process. Your efforts must be wholehearted; an attitude of a little bit here and a little bit there is not going to help you reach your goal. Imagine trying to learn how to play the piano without practicing regularly, or trying to lose weight while eating healthfully only once in a while.
Satkara, the third guideline, means belief in what you are doing. If you approach a task with uncertainty, or with the attitude that your endeavor will fail, you set yourself up for disappointment. Patanjali advises that if you believe in what you are doing, your efforts will have greater impact. If you’re an activist lobbying for stricter clean-air protocols, for example, you have to believe in the cause if your efforts are going to effectively inspire others to support your work, and it helps you maintain your own momentum and enthusiasm.
Adara refers to the fact that you must look forward to what you’re doing. Whatever you set out to do, Patanjali advises that, on some level, you must enjoy the job at hand. Even if what you’re doing is difficult or tiring, there can still be joy and satisfaction in the effort if you know that you are experiencing something positive from it. Adara is important because, without it, you are prone to burnout or to abandoning your commitment.
Lastly, Patanjali mentions asevita, meaning that you must approach each endeavor with an attitude of service. You can do this by asking yourself, How can I best serve my work? My relationship? This practice? If you are parenting, one way you can serve that practice is by making sure that you get enough rest, time for yourself, and healthful food, so that when you are with your kids you can be at your best. Service to your efforts might mean getting a good night’s sleep before making a big presentation at work. Or it could simply mean approaching your work—whether it’s volunteering at a nonprofit or running a huge international corporation—with a positive attitude.
See also The Roots of Yoga: Ancient + Modern
Get to know your true self
2.17 drashtr-drshyayoh samyogo heya-hetuh
The cause of our suffering is the inability to distinguish between what is the truth (what perceives) and what appears to be the truth (what is perceived).
2.23 sva-svami-saktyoh svarupa- upalabdhi-hetuh samyogah
The inability to discern between the temporary, fluctuating mind and our own true Self, which is eternal, is the cause of our suffering, yet this suffering provides us with the opportunity to make this distinction and to learn and grow from it, by understanding the true nature of each.
Patanjali says that the cause of suffering (heya-hetuh) is the inability to distinguish (samyoga) between two entities—the Self, or seer (drashtr), and the mind (drshyam), which includes your thoughts and emotions. Distinguishing between the two closely related entities—and understanding the role of each and the relationship between them—is a central goal of yoga and the key to your happiness and peace. Think of it this way: Imagine you’re a personal assistant who works closely with your boss and functions as her representative in public. Now, think about what would happen if you began to feel and act as if you were the boss, eventually forgetting to consult or even recognize your boss. Obviously, some problems would likely occur if this distinction were blurred. So, think of the Self, or seer, as the boss, and the mind as the boss’s instrument or assistant, recognizing the distinct role each one plays. That’s when you will acquire clearer perception.
Of course, one might say that Patanjali recognizes the value of both entities. It’s not that the mind is bad or the Self, or seer, is better. You need your mind, emotions, and identity to live in the world, just as you need your inner compass, or true Self.
What’s crucial is discerning the role of each and making sure that each entity is acting according to its proper role. The good news is that while the difficulty of distinguishing these two entities can be frustrating, and can even cause you a great deal of discomfort and pain, Patanjali says that the suffering that results when you mistake one for the other actually helps set you on your road to greater clarity.
The mistakes you make, and the pain you feel as a result, serve to guide you toward a greater understanding (upalabdhi—literally “to obtain or go near”) of both the true nature (svarupa) of the mind and the true nature of the Self, or seer—“the external that is seen and the internal that sees,” as T. K. V. Desikachar describes them. It is only through this increased understanding of the nature of each and the relationship between them that you are able to differentiate between the two, and hence prevent future suffering.
Instead of being too critical of yourself when you make a mistake, the message here is that you can let go of self-blame, regret, and criticism. By holding on to those thoughts, you are only making yourself more miserable, adding suffering on top of the suffering, so to speak. Patanjali is concerned with the present: You are here now, so it’s irrelevant how you got here, whose fault it was, or how badly you messed up. The important thing is that your mistakes give you a chance to learn something about yourself and to potentially do things differently the next time.
Walk in someone else’s shoes
2.33 vitarka-badhane pratipaksha-bhavanam
2.34 vitarka himsadayah krta-karita-anumodita lobha-krodha-moha-purvaka mrdu-madhya-adhimatra duhkha-ajnana ananta-phalah iti pratipaksha-bhavanam
To avoid hasty actions that may be hurtful, we must practice trying to imagine or visualize the opposite of our first, instinctual reaction. We must see things from a different point of view and weigh the potential consequences.
Often, Patanjali’s most powerful advice broadens your view, shifting your frame of reference or offering a new vantage point from which to see things (pratipaksha- bhavanam). These shifts might seem simple, but they can have a profound impact on your experience. Patanjali advises that to avoid doing harm by acting hastily, you must try to “visualize the opposite side.”
Patanjali is quite specific in these sutras, explaining that hasty actions that cause harm to others can happen in three ways: You hurt someone directly (krta: I am angry, so I kick someone); you hurt someone by way of someone else (karita: I ask my friend to kick another on my behalf); or you approve, encourage, or feel glad about harm done to another person (anumodita). Patanjali explains some reasons that people harm others, including greed (lobha), anger (krodha), and delusion or infatuation (moha). He then warns that, whether you harm someone a little bit (mrdu), an average amount (madhya), or a great deal (adhimatra), the result for you is the same: endless suffering (duhkha) and a lack of clarity (ajnana). To avoid this, practice pratipaksha-bhavanam.
Patanjali is a realist. He is not saying that you should not have legitimate feelings, or that you should judge yourself for feeling the way you do. He is reminding you that if you think badly of another, that person doesn’t suffer—you do. If you actually harm another person, you will likely suffer as much as, if not more than, the person you harm.
Patanjali offers this advice not so that you can become the citizen of the year, but so you can be happier and more fulfilled. It might sound selfish, but the most supportive thing you can do for the world is to focus on your own personal growth and transformation, and then act from that place in the world.
Tap into your inner strength
1.20 shraddha-virya-smrti-samadhi-prajna-purvakah itaresham
For those of us who were not born into states of higher consciousness or knowing, we must cultivate self-confidence and conviction to help us maintain our persistence and strength, and to remember our direction so that we may attain our goal of a focused mind and clear perception.
Often translated as “faith,” shraddha is more appropriately translated as “self-esteem,” “personal conviction,” “self-confidence,” or “determination.” If you are consciously making an effort to achieve greater clarity (itaresham), your conviction (shraddha) will be followed by the strength and persistence (virya) to remember your direction (smrti) and to reach your goal of total and clear understanding (samadhi-prajna).
Practically speaking, shraddha is your inner strength; when you’re lost in the woods and it’s getting dark, shraddha is your deep inner trust that you will find a way to make a fire, get warm, and find something to eat. It’s the guiding force inside that urges you to keep putting one foot in front of the other until you come out of the woods. This resource is one of your greatest assets—a way to help you connect to your own true Self or the place of quiet light within.
Later, in sutra 1.22, Patanjali indicates that shraddha is apt to wane and fluctuate. We all have days when we feel more confident and self-assured, and days when we doubt ourselves. Shraddha is unique to each person: You might have just a little bit, or you might have a lot. The potential to cultivate shraddha is within you, though you might not be aware of that potential, or use it to your advantage. The right support (a good teacher, friend, partner, or mentor) can help you cultivate and strengthen shraddha.
Most daily challenges aren’t as dramatic as being lost in the woods. But if you’re facing a stressful time at work or dealing with an illness or a difficult relationship, it helps to remember that within you is the strength that can carry you through the hardest of times. Even if things become so difficult that you forget your inner strength, it is still there.
See also Is Yoga a Religion?
Align your attitude
1.33 maitri-karuna-mudita- upekshanam sukha-duhkha- punyapunya-visayanam bhavanatah-citta-prasadanam
An attitude of friendliness toward those who are happy, compassion toward those who are suffering, pleasure and delight at those who are doing good deeds in the world, and nonjudgmental watchfulness toward those who do harmful deeds will help us to attain a peaceful and balanced mind.
Recognizing that you can change your mood by shifting your attitude is an important step toward easing suffering. But implementing the attitudes Patanjali suggests is not always easy. Patanjali says you should feel friendliness (maitri) toward those who are happy (sukha). This seems like obvious advice, but how often, when others are happy, do we find ourselves feeling jealous, or bad about ourselves, with thoughts like “Why didn’t I get that raise? Why didn’t I win the lottery? Maybe that person cheated! They don’t deserve it!”
Likewise, Patanjali says you should have compassion (karuna) for those who are suffering (duhkha). But instead of compassion, you might feel responsible for saving them, guilty about their misfortune, or fearful that what happened to them could happen to you.
When others are doing good deeds in the world (punya), instead of feeling joy (mudita), you might feel critical of yourself for not doing the same, or even suspicious about their motives or integrity. Perhaps most difficult of all, Patanjali says that you should try to maintain an attitude of nonjudgmental watchfulness or observance (upeksa) toward those people who are doing harmful deeds in the world (apunya). This can be extremely challenging. How often do you jump in and place blame, taking sides without knowing the full picture?
Patanjali uses the word upeksa intentionally: He’s not telling you to hide your head in the sand, but to observe from a safe distance and with nonjudgment. If you can adopt these attitudes, you will receive the blessings of a calm, peaceful, and balanced mind (citta-prasadanam). And through this, your path will become clear.
Remember, the Yoga Sutra is a guide to feeling better in daily life, not to becoming a saint, and sometimes the best action isn’t the most heroic one. I once got between two dogs that were fighting to break them up. Without thinking, I tried to pull the dogs apart and ended up getting a bad bite. Had I not reacted so quickly, I might have thought of a better solution, like using a stick to separate them, or asking for help from someone more experienced. Similarly, if you witness an injustice on the street and get in the middle of it, you’re putting yourself in a position of conflict, and could become injured. But if you observe, trying not to pass judgment, you will be able to respond more clearly and act effectively while preserving your peace of mind and your personal well-being.
Find your inner compass
1.29 tatah pratyak-cetana adhigamo’py antarayabhavas ca
Those who have a meaningful connection with something greater than themselves will come to know their own true Selves and experience a reduction in those obstacles that may deter them from reaching their goal.
Once you are linked with something beyond your own identity, two things happen, says Patanjali: First, the inner consciousness (pratyak-cetana) is revealed (adhigamah) as the Self; second, the obstacles that deter you on your path (antaraya) are reduced and eventually extinguished (abhava). Coming to a place of independence from these obstacles of the mind facilitates a deeper connection with your own inner compass—that quiet, peaceful place within. When you are connected to this inner compass, you are better able to handle the twists and turns of life. You don’t take things so personally. Your mood generally remains stabler. You see things more clearly, and so you are able to make choices that serve you better. As Patanjali says, it is almost as though you become independent of the effects of whatever is occurring around you. You can experience it without absorbing it or identifying with it. You have the distance and perspective to see that what you’re experiencing is not who you are, but rather something that’s happening to you, and you can therefore move through it with greater ease.
I experimented with this soon after a friend’s wife died, when he started shouting at me one evening in front of a group of people. Somehow, without effort, I understood that he was not really angry at me. I recognized that he was in fact extremely sad about his wife’s death, and, even though he was saying terrible things to me, my ego did not step up and feel humiliated. Nor did I get defensive and retaliate by saying terrible things back to him that I would later regret.
Instead, I had an awareness that extended beyond my own immediate experience, which, while it certainly wasn’t pleasant, was not devastating or even hurtful because I was clear that it was not about me. I did not feel anger, embarrassment, or any of the other things I might have felt had I been acting from my ego or emotions. Instead, I felt deep compassion and understanding for my friend. I knew he did not want to hurt me, and I knew how much he was hurting.
The results of putting the principles of the Yoga Sutra into practice show up in moments like this, when you least expect them, with gifts of clarity and compassion. It’s here, in your relationships with others, in your moods, in your reactions to life’s situations, that you know your yoga practice is working, helping you to stay anchored, calm, and stable.
In these moments, you are able to respond from a place of love and trust, of compassion and nonjudgment. You shine from your center as a result of being connected to something deep within you as well as beyond you. When you are connected to your core and acting from that place within, you will find that you can handle almost any situation with much greater ease and clarity.
Kate Holcombe is founder and executive director of the nonprofit Healing Yoga Foundation in San Francisco and a longtime private student of T. K. V. Desikachar. Visit her at healingyoga.org.