The published version of "Practicing Freedom: The Yoga Sutra of Pata˝jali" can be purchased direct from the publisher or ordered through your local bookshop.

Excerpt from "Practicing Freedom: The Yoga Sutra of Pata˝jali"
ę 2006 by Witold Fitz-Simon

The Royal Path

We know next to nothing about Pata˝jali, the author of the Yoga Sutra. Tradition tells us he is an incarnation of the serpent-god Ananta who descended from heaven to teach yoga to the world and is often represented in traditional statuary as a serpent, or as having a hood of many serpent heads. Many texts have been attributed to men of the name Pata˝jali, most significantly an exposition on Sanskrit grammar and a treatise on medicine, both of which are also ascribed to the author of the Yoga Sutra in India Tradition. Scholars date these texts as having come from widely different periods of history, however, with the Yoga Sutra thought to be the latest of them. This means he would have to have lived for several hundred years to have written all three.

Scholarly opinion dates the Yoga Sutra as being from the second century of the Christian Era. From the text we can see that Pata˝jali had a deep understanding of contemporary philosophy, coupled with great skill as a teacher. In his work he was able both to synthesize and add to the body of knowledge of the time. As a rule, yogis tend less to the intellectual and more to the practical side of philosophy. Their concern is to experience directly the higher states of consciousness that lead to emancipation from the continuous and eternal suffering of the material world. Pata˝jali seems to have combined the best of both, providing the how and the why of yogic practice. He outlines, with surprising clarity and detail for such a short work, the underlying rationale of the yogic perspective without getting lost in minutiae. More importantly, perhaps, is the attention he pays to the actual practices the seeker must work on in order to achieve the desired freedom. It is for this reason that the Yoga Sutra has survived for two thousand years and has been referred to and adapted to fit into the schemas of many other philosophical traditions of the Indian subcontinent.

The development of Yoga itself is inextricably tied to the ancient Vedic sacrificial religion, dating back some six thousand years. What we think of as yoga today most likely bears little resemblance to the yoga of Pata˝jali’s time. In the earliest days the union of man with the divine came in the form of elaborate ritual. As time passed a substantial body of work emerged as the great sages of the Vedas retreated into the forest to ponder the nature of reality. Eventually they theorized that the sacrificial rituals could be internalized in personal disciplines. A person could achieve a union with the divine through prayer, meditation and the consuming of specialized herbs enabling him to transcend material existence and rebirth.

There are three principle ways of thinking about yoga. Though to be derived from the Sanskrit verb “yuj” - to yoke, to join, to fasten together – the word can be used as a general term for any form of spiritual or meditative technique or practice. By bringing the mundane and the eternal together, the practitioner is able to realize the transcendent in our impermanent world. Over the centuries this idea has been applied to many of the different belief systems that have emerged from the foundations of Vedic literature. Thus we have Buddhist yoga as well as Jain and Hindu varieties.

Over the millennia, different approaches to liberating spiritual practices have emerged. These can be thought of not as different denominations, but as different bodies of technique. There are five major categories that are still practiced today:

Bhakti Yoga – The yoga of devotion. Involves chanting, religious ceremony and ritual sacrifice.

Karma Yoga – The yoga of action. Involves surrendering the individual sense of self to a larger cause. This involves not only charitable works, but an attitude of surrender and service in everything the yogin does.

J˝ana Yoga – The yoga of wisdom. This is a highly intellectual mode of yoga. It involves careful study and deduction to discriminate between the transient and the eternal.

Hatha Yoga – The forceful yoga. By cultivating what the ancients termed a “diamond body”, the practitioner aims to effect change on both the physical and spiritual plane through the practice of postures and breath work.

RÔja Yoga – The royal yoga. Following the techniques put forth by Pata˝jali in the Yoga Sutra, the yogin achieves freedom through the application of will power in the form of meditative practices.

In writing his seminal text, Pata˝jali codified existing yogic philosophy and practice, adding to it his own gloss and ideas. From this, emerged a whole body of philosophical literature in the form of commentaries and expositions that evolved into one of the six orthodox philosophies of Indian thought, or darshanas. Classical Yoga, so named to differentiate the system from the many other interpretations of yogic ideas, shares with its sister philosophy, Shamkhya, the dualist concept that the eternal and the material are forever separate and it is the realization of this that allows the yogin to free himself from the misery of continued rebirths. Strictly speaking, Classical Yoga does not exist as a separate entity in the present day. Its teachings have survived, but have been re-interpreted to serve the predominant monistic (all reality is one) philosophy of Vedanta and the body-centered transformative practices of Hatha Yoga.

The word “sutra” means “thread”, and refers to the ceremonial thread that members of the priestly caste, the brahmin, wear. The sutra style of writing is common in the main texts of the six classical darshanas. The author lays down a number of terse aphorisms to convey his ideas. These sutras are often no more than strings of words that do not even make up a full sentence. This makes the text easier to memorize, useful in what is primarily an oral tradition, with the added benefit of obscuring the meaning, requiring a teacher to interpret it for the student.

A Note On The Translation

In many of the currently available English versions, translators attempt to stay close to the sutra style. The result is often unwieldy and difficult to read. In this rendition I have done my best to present the concepts in a readable fashion. Wherever possible I have elaborated the sentence structure to deepen the meaning, but without loading the text with too much interpretation, saving that for the following section. In both parts, as in the study guide, I have tried to present Pata˝jali’s concepts in a linear fashion that will allow the reader to master the ideas for him or herself. There are some sections that I have elaborated more completely and some that I have glossed over. The Yoga Sutra is not something that you read once and put away. It is a text that requires continual study, that one must return to year after year. The ideas are profound and must be lived to be fully understood.

As a teacher and practitioner, I come to the material not from a scholarly perspective, but from a practical and personal one. I began this project purely for myself. I felt a need to get inside the text and think through Pata˝jali’s meaning for myself that I could understand it better. My hope is to provide a rendition that is easy enough to read casually, but one that also carries sufficient meaning as to serve as a guide for those who wish to mine its depths. There are many excellent scholarly translations that parse and dissect Pata˝jali’s words, putting them in philosophical and historical context, some of which are listed in the bibliography. I encourage you to seek them out if you are of a mind to learn more. Most of us are not so academically inclined, however. It is with this in mind that I offer “Practicing Freedom” up to you.


One final thought before we proceed with the text. Wherever possible I have tried to present easily useable English words to stand in for many of Pata˝jali’s technical terms. The word samdhi presents a problem, however. It is often translated as “integration” or “ecstasy”. Though not exactly incorrect, they do not embody the full meaning of the word. In his book “Yoga: Immortality and Freedom”, Mircea Eliade coined the term “enstasy”, from the Greek, to refer to samadhi. Whereas in an ecstatic state the practioner elevates consiousness to a higher state by going outside the body, in an “enstatic” state, higher consciousness is achieved by going within. Though the word “enstasy” is not a common word, samdhi is not a state that bears any resemblance to mundane life. For this reason I have chosen to use it in the text.

The published version of "Practicing Freedom: The Yoga Sutra of Pata˝jali" can be purchased direct from the publisher or ordered through your local bookshop.