I often hear Yoga teachers and students alike confess that they’re excited to learn more about the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and take their yoga practice off the mat. The challenge is that they either don’t know where to turn or they feel intimidated by the mystery of ancient yoga texts.
It isn’t easy or sexy to sit with a dense text written in a foreign language and attempt to unpack hidden gems by yourself (unless of course you are a mega-yoganerd like me who geeks out on this stuff!).
That’s why I’ve distilled some golden nuggets of wisdom from the Yoga Sutras into 4 mindset shifts that will provide an opportunity to see both your practice and your Self in a new way. These nuggets may be simple, but don’t let that fool you! If you apply these insights to your everyday life, you will undoubtedly experience a sense of peace that can create lasting change.
What are the Yoga Sutras?
The Yogasutra of Patanjali is the foundational text on Yoga and dates back to 400CE or earlier. Patanjali is the sage who gathered the insights about Yoga passed on for centuries through oral tradition, and composed these teachings into195 pieces of wisdom divided into 4 chapters.
The word sutra means “thread” and is essentially a sentence or a verse packed with time tested solutions for living abundantly.
In a world that seems to be continually creating separation between groups of people and ways of thinking, I adore the fact that the Sutras are available and applicable to everyone!
Let me be clear: Yoga is not a religion!
Although the Yoga Sutras are a part of Vedic tradition, the tools outlined in this text can be practiced whether or not you ascribe to a particular religion. These teachings describe a wide variety of tools to support the Yogi in arriving to a state of Samadhi, or bliss.
Having a God-consciousness is one of the options, but it’s just that: an option. Whether your relationship with God is paramount in your life, or you don’t believe in God at all, the wisdom of the Sutras pair beautifully with any worldview.
My love for the Yoga Sutras has grown over the years as I implement the wisdom into my daily life and witness suffering be replaced with joy! If you’re a student or teacher of Yoga and you have yet to fall in love with this text, hold on to your horses ‘cause this stuff’s good!
Radical Truth #1
You are not your mind
Before I found my practice, I was riddled with anxiety and depression and felt confused and helpless. I felt like the victim of my mind and was burdened by the constant flux of thoughts. Most of the time my thoughts were self-deprecating and heavy. When my mind was buzzing with worry, my days felt miserable. Being at the mercy of my own inner dialogue felt like a prison.
When I began to practice Yoga regularly, slowly but surely I experienced a shift; I noticed that there was space between myself and my thoughts. This was one of the most pivotal realizations in my life. It was the beginning of freedom! I recognized that I am not defined by the contents of my mind. I understood for this first time that I could have anxious thoughts, depressed thoughts, angry thoughts, and none of them determine who I am.
Patanjali calls the unchanging part of you, purusa. This is your truest self. Your mind, on the other hand, citta, is a part of the changing world. It is the lens through which you view the world, your filter, but it most certainly is not you.
This can be confusing because the voice in our mind is so familiar. I mean, it sounds just like you, right? But if you can become aware of the fact that you are having thoughts, then that’s evidence enough that those thoughts and “you” are two separate things.
Whoa – are you having a mind-blown moment? I know I did when this hit me for real!
Radical Truth #2
Your mind creates your reality
Now that you can distinguish between your mind and your true self, it is important to understand the power of your mind.
According to the Yoga Sutras, what you focus on expands! It’s as if your mind is a magical magnifying glass. When you shine the light of your attention on something, it becomes more and more real.
Have you ever seen a video of a kid learning to ride a bike in a wide-open street, and they somehow manage to crash into the one car present? Why is that? They have so much open space, yet it’s like they are drawn to the car by a magnet. It’s because they’re looking at, and focusing on, the car! They quite literally draw themselves into the crash by setting their attention on what they are trying to avoid. Rookie mistake!
This truth applies to everything we do! When we focus on a problem, the problem becomes bigger and bigger. If we imagine the worst possible outcome, guess what happens? We help to bring that unwanted outcome into existence!
As a co-creator of your experience, as a conscious Yogi, you can use the power of your mind to work in your favor! Instead of focusing on what you want to avoid, focus on the solution!
Do you feel lonely and isolated and crave community? Notice every positive interaction with a stranger you have throughout the day. Choose to smile at each person you pass in the grocery store. Focus on the one friend you can count on to lend an ear when you need it. Use the magic of your attention to focus on what is working, and watch it grow!
Radical Truth #3
Yoga is not a practice of the body
This is the practice: gaining tools to become skilled at using your mind as an asset!
So often I see Yogis hyper-focused on asana, the physical poses of Yoga. Although the poses are highly effective in creating positive change at multiple levels of the Self, they are only one tool of the practice! Having an aesthetically pleasing, or “strong” physical practice is not the goal. The goal is to experience less suffering in our inner world, and we do that by becoming the master of our minds!
Asana as we think of it today, was not even introduced until thousands of years after the Yoga tradition arose. The physical poses were added to the practice as a means of cultivating more energy and creating comfort in the body so that a Yogi could sit in meditation without pain or distress.
Think about it this way: how comfortable is it to sit on the floor cross legged if your ankles, knees, hips and spine have limited mobility and minimal strength? Pretty unpleasant!
According to the Yoga Sutras, the role of asana is to care for the physical layer of the Self, the Annamaya. The aim is to be unencumbered by the distraction of illness, injury, or other ailments. If we spend all our time and energy working on asana, we miss out on the opportunity to experience the true liberation that comes from time spent training the mind to focus on one thing at a time.
Radical Truth #4
You are not broken
Yoga is not about fixing you. It’s not about getting a six-pack, losing weight, or holding a handstand. This lifestyle is about learning to see yourself for who you truly are: a radiant light of clarity and peace. My teacher, Katie Allen of Be The Change Yoga, refers to Yoga as a waste removal system. It’s not a practice of addition, but rather of subtraction.
You are already whole, lovable, and worthy. There is nothing you need to do to earn this state of wholeness. The problem is, as humans we accumulate junk that can dim our light, or cover it completely. Thankfully, the Yoga Sutras provide us with a variety of tools (asana, pranayama, affirmations, etc.) to do the work of clearing away this debris so that we can live our lives from the place of stillness and connection that lies beneath the surface.
Let your practice be one of love and compassion for yourself. Understand that you, like every other human being, experience suffering because the mind is a trickster! You have the choice to allow your mind to lie to you, to tell you that when you achieve x,y,z you will be happy, or lovable.
The truth is, a deep sense of wellbeing is available to you at any moment, because who you are is beyond circumstance, beyond this moment, and beyond the thoughts or feelings you have about this moment.
This practice is not about changing yourself, or even improving yourself, it’s about unlearning everything that has come between you and your innate joy!