a blog by Ellen Davies

What are the Yoga Sutras?

What are the Yoga Sutras?

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are considered the spiritual text of yoga, and contain 196 teachings, written down about two thousand years ago. They share several characteristics with the Bible, actually, starting with their age. Like the Bible, they were written in a language that is no longer spoken (Sanskrit, Aramaic, Latin, plus Greek and Hebrew) so in order to study them today, we rely on translations. And there are several translations of the Sutras (but probably not as many as there are of the bible).


The first time I heard about the Sutras was in a workshop with Beryl Bender Birch, the woman who helped popularize Ashtanga and power yoga in the United States. Beryl insisted we all gather in a circle and read the Sutras out loud, comparing one translation with another. At one point, Beryl said emphatically: “These words are two thousand years old, people!”


As a life-long Christian, I was worried about being struck by lightening. Okay, maybe nothing that dramatic. But it made me feel hugely uncomfortable, because the reverence Beryl (and the other people in the workshop) showed for the Sutras was something I had only witnessed with people talking about the Bible. My response was fear-based. Was it okay to be reading these Sutras? Was I joining a cult? Was this one of those moments when God tests you, and you have to chose between right and wrong? Nervously I prayed for forgiveness, and I stayed quiet in the back of the circle. 


Two years after that experience, I was in the middle of my 200-hour YTT, and one of the required readings was the Yoga Sutras. By then I wasn’t as afraid of the Sutras, probably because I knew more about yoga by then, and I was more comfortable with them. In my teacher training, we had studied the Yamas and the Niyamas, which are outlined in the Sutras, and I loved those.


The Yamas and Niyamas are the moral codes of yoga. The Yamas are restraints that guide us to live in harmony with others. The Yamas are lovingkindness and non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, moderation, and non-attachment. The Niyamas are observances that teach us to cultivate our highest selves: purity, contentment, discipline, self-study, and surrender to the Divine.


These ideas dovetail beautifully with the teachings of the Christian church. My studies of the Yamas and Niyamas led me to dive deeper into the Sutras. I was eager to learn more, and to discover how God reaches out to all of us. My faith was broadened that day, and I saw how God acts in the world beyond Christianity. 


In my next post, I write more about the Sutras. 


What has your experience with the Sutras been like? 

Leave me a note in the comments section — I’d love to hear from you!


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