The history of Yoga is loooooong, so this will be brief, giving you a general idea of how the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali came to existence.
Around what is believed to be 5,000 years ago, the Vedas were written. The Vedas are a collection of 4 books, which are believed to be divinely inspired and written by sages who were in a deep state of meditation, so no one takes credit for writing them. These books include mantras, stories and rituals which lead humans to a happier life. With time, however, the meaning of these teachings became somewhat debatable and about 2,500 years ago, many philosophers discussed what the Vedas were really about.
This is when 6 different darshanas, or schools of thought (lenses of viewing the world) were born. One of them was Yoga. Another one was Samkhya. Yoga is based on Samkhya’s fundamental philosophy. In a nutshell, Samkhya defines every living being (from you to a mosquito) of being made up of 2 things:
1. Matter (Prakriti) – the body, thoughts, emotions. These are constantly changing, from the day we were born to the day we die, our bodies will be in continuous transformation. Our thoughts change from one second to the next, like a monkey jumping from one branch to the next. Our emotions, like many of us know well, travel from excited to angry, to depressed, to grateful, to loving, to scared…several times a day sometimes.
2. Consciousness (Purusha) – is that part of us which goes beyond the body and mind. It is our inner potential to peace, joy, wisdom. It is the Seer, the witness to all of our actions. This part of us is unchanging, from the day we were conceived to the day we die, it will always remain the same. Purusha is what gives Prakriti life. When we die, the Purusha vanishes, though the Yoga Sutras never tell us what happens after death.
Okay, great, but what do I do with this information? Well, according to Samkhya, suffering exists because Consciousness can only see through the mind. Unfortunately, for many of us the mind is pretty ‘dirty’. Before you misunderstand my “Brazilianisms”, what I mean is that the mind is covered with misunderstanding, unclear perception, anger “y otras cositas mas” (a few other things). Alright, great. I have an unclear mind. Now what do I do?
Well, this is where Mr. Patanjali came in. He compiled the teachings he had received from his teacher, which we now know as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. These teachings are a roadmap to “cleaning” the mind. And by cleaning I mean a roadmap to self-awareness, to understanding that we create habits everyday, to changing some of those habits through action, and to practicing reflection every single day, because we can spend the rest of our lives learning more about the beautiful potential we have inside!
The text is divided into 4 chapters. Below is a summary:
Chapter 1 is for a person whose mind is stable (slowly but surely we’ll get there!). Here the word “yoga” is introduced, and its meaning, goal, benefits and purpose explained. It shows the obstacles we may come across on the path and gives various suggestions (tools) for overcoming them. It concludes with a special category of Yoga meditation, Nirbija Samadhi (meditation where the object of meditation is consciousness itself).
Chapter 2 is for the unstable student with a distracted mind and problems (now here we go!). These people need more specific guidelines. It contains more specific tools to achieve happiness/sattvic mind. The cause lead to the real cause of suffering, Samyoga, confusing two things which are similar, but which lead to different results (one to joy, one to pain). The solution to this universal human tendency is Viveka, or discernment, being able to tell the difference between two similar objects. The method to cultivate this Viveka is described through the 8 limbs or Ashtanga. The first five limbs are described: Yamas (relationship guidelines); Niyamas (lifestyle recommendations); Asana (posture); Pranayama (breath control); Pratyahara (control of the senses).
Chapter 3 completes the eight-limb model with: Dharana (concentration); Dhyana (meditation); and Samadhi (absorption or flow). The process of these three is called Samyama and Patanjali then gives many examples for meditative practice, but also offers warnings of being sidetracked by any powers gained along the way.
Chapter 4 tells us that although powers can be gained in various ways, the only reliable path is through the Ashtanga path to Samadhi. It is someone who has taken this route that is the most reliable teacher. Patanjali then picks up earlier themes and concludes with the term Kaivalya, a concept from increasing freedom from suffering which requires the clear mind created through the practice of Yoga.
Enjoy your beautiful journey!