The Yoga Sutras

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

Yoga has three components: the theory, the practice and what can be lived. The first component is the theory. For example, the Raja Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explains the theory of yoga in its four chapters: samadhi path, sadhana path, vibhooti path and kaivalya path. What is a vritti, what is chitta, what is anushasana, what is pranayama, what is samadhi, what are the different states of consciousness, what are the different kinds of vrittis, etc. – all these are defined in the Yoga Sutras. This is the theoretical component of yoga.

The second component of yoga is the practices, the techniques. What do you do? There is a theory of pratyahara, but then what are the practices leading to pratyahara? There is a theory of dharana, but what are the practices leading to dharana? There is a theory of dhyana, but what are the practices leading to dhyana? There is a theory of pranayama, but what are the practices leading to perfection at the level of pranayama defined by Patanjali.

There are thousands of techniques, not one or two or three. For example, it is stated in hatha yoga that there are 8,400,000 asanas. Now who can know all of them? Even if we were to practise one asana a day from the time we were born, we would not complete them. In the same manner, there are many, many techniques, practices and systems which can lead to the attainment of the aspirations as set out in the theory.

After the theory and the practice comes the third component of yoga – what can be lived, what you can adopt, what you can practise, which becomes part of your sadhana, your spiritual effort. One should also see the Yoga Sutras and understand raja yoga in this context. From the many theories and many practices, you have to distil what is necessary according to your personal aspiration and live that until the completion of the aspiration. So the entire system of yoga has to be seen in terms of theory, practice and what can be lived.

Samadhi is a theory. Meditation is a practice leading to samadhi. But is samadhi liveable? You can attain it, and maybe one day you will have fantastic experiences, but will you be able to live it for the remainder of your life? If you can, then you become a saint, and then you can’t exist in society as you are now. You can experience samadhi for a day in society, but you can’t live it because the environment will not support it. And if you can’t live the attainment, then cross it off the list.


Patanjali’s first three sutras define the process of raja yoga. In this process a change happens in personal behaviour, which is known as anushasana, discipline. For example, you go to a place of worship with a particular sentiment and you have to abide by the restrictions set by that sentiment. Each sentiment creates a sambandh, a defined relationship, and that sentiment has to be lived. You don’t go to a temple or church or mosque and start disco dancing; you act with decorum. Decorum represents the natural ability to adapt to a situation. At a party there is dancing; in a place of worship there is serenity; at home there is happiness; in the office there is work. You maintain and abide by the disciplines of that environment.

When you abide by the discipline, you are at peace with yourself, but the moment you step out of line, you will find conflict. The moment the mind begins to flirt with this thought, that idea, this desire, that emotion, this feeling, that aspiration, tension, confusion and hardship are created. The inner balance and natural discipline is lost. As long as you are at peace, your mind is centred and focused, not dissipated. So the first step of raja yoga, anushasana, is behaving with decorum and being in harmony with it.

Containing the vrittis

However, that doesn’t happen. Due to the vrittis there is always some struggle, some rejection, some personal thing coming to the forefront. A vritti is just the mind revolving around a particular field. If you love somebody, no matter what you are doing, that person is always in your mind and thoughts – that is a vritti. If you dislike or quarrel with somebody, that person occupies your thoughts – that is a vritti. If a teacher reprimands a student, the student begins to feel he is being targeted – that is a vritti. When one theme or subject becomes obsessive and stays with you, that is known as a vritti. When the idea simply comes and goes, then it is not a vritti.

There is the classic example of the retired man who developed high blood pressure after his daughter-in-law compared him to a dog. The image that came to his mind was of a street dog. When he was advised to imagine a five star, pampered dog instead, the cause of his hypertension, the self-image he had created, was alleviated. This is an example of a vritti which became the cause of a physical imbalance, the cause of mental and emotional conflict and confusion. It happens day in and day out in all circumstances. Misunderstandings create vrittis. Communication problems create vrittis. A state of mind is created, based not only on what you perceive through the senses but also on what goes through the head, through the heart, through the instincts.

The nature of a human being is like a monkey. If you put a hungry monkey in a garden full of fruit trees, what will the monkey do? It will pick a fruit, nibble it, throw it away, take another one and do the same thing, and in no time at all the fruit will be destroyed. The interesting thing is that not a single fruit will have been eaten totally. That is the relationship of the senses with the sense objects, the relationship of an individual with the world, seeking satisfaction, happiness, security and comfort in life. If you look at yourself objectively, you will find that you have never eaten a single fruit totally; you have only nibbled bits here and there. It is this nature that has to be contained.

There is no stopping the vrittis because if the vrittis stop, then we don’t exist. We are able to contain a vritti, but we are not able to stop it. In the second sutra, the Sanskrit word nirodha has been used – Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah. The word virodha, meaning to go against, has not been used. The word avarodha, meaning to block, has not been used. Nirodha means to hold, to contain, to gather, to stop the dissipation and to focus it. It is like a torch which can be focused from a broad beam to a narrow beam.

Imagine a dam full of water. If you make a small hole in the dam, the pressure of the water escaping from that outlet will be much higher and more intense than the normal flow of water in the river. That is the concept of nirodha: to contain, to restrain, to limit the scope of the interaction of the senses with the sense objects. So instead of taking a bite from twenty pieces of fruit, eat one whole fruit, then have a second and after that is complete, have a third. Then, when you are able to come to this point of containing the dissipated nature, an invisible mirror comes up in which one is able to see one’s own nature and one’s own face.

Drashta – expanded awareness

The third statement of the Yoga Sutras is: Tada drashtuh svaroope avasthanam – once the mind is managed and guided, you become the seer, the observer of your real self. That seer is not restricted. You are able to see yourself as a totality, not only one part. The state of seer becomes a living experience. It is not a momentary experience where you suddenly become aware of your self, it is a continuous experience. When the invisible mirror comes up, you see your total self, not just what you experience at one moment in time. It is not like practising antar mouna where you are only aware of your thoughts and ignore everything else, or like practising ajapa japa where you are only aware of your breath and mantra and ignore everything else.

Many things are happening in our body at many levels at the same time. For example, the lungs, heart and circulation are functioning, the brain, the mind, emotions, thoughts, desires, all the mental traits are active. All the systems of the body and mind are working in harmony and unison. Any imbalance will manifest as a disease or illness. Yet, while so many things are happening, we are not aware of them.

When the drashta nature develops, an expanded awareness develops which allows you to perceive the totality of your nature, your interactions and behaviour in one glimpse, in one thought. The focus is not on one point, it is multidimensional. For example, when you look at your face in the mirror, you see your whole face; you don’t count your ears, eyes, nose and mouth, but recognise them as being part of you. Drashta awareness is the same. When this kind of awareness happens and the mental expressions have been stilled and contained, then the expressions have power, like water gushing out of a small hole in a dam. Everything is contained, there is only one outlet, and all the shakti, all the force, is going through that outlet. What you think will happen, what you speak will happen. One becomes a siddha, a perfect being.

The real drashta is a siddha. Siddhas are always watchful of how they live, act and function. But we are only making an attempt to look at our whole face; we are not able to see the total self. Just as you clean your eating teeth every day, you also have to clean your inner teeth which bite other people in the form of anger, aggression, jealousy and hatred. Then pramana is born. Pramana, knowledge based on direct intuitive experience, will come only when the state of stitha prajna, steady wisdom, equipoise, is attained. When the vrittis are contained, then whatever is spoken becomes a reality.

Ganga Darshan, February 14, 2006