Winner of the 2014 International Book Award for “Spirituality: General” category.
What happens as we grow spiritually? Is there a step-by-step process that everyone goes through—all spiritual seekers, including those of any or no religious persuasion—as they gradually work their way upward, until they achieve the highest state of Self-realization?
About 2200 years ago, a great spiritual master of India named Patanjali described this process, and presented humanity with a clear-cut, step-by-step outline of how all truth seekers and saints achieve divine union. He called this universal inner experience and process “yoga” or “union.” His collection of profound aphorisms—a true world scripture—has been dubbed Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.
Unfortunately, since that time many scholarly translators with little or no spiritual realization have written commentaries on Patanjali’s writings that have succeeded only in burying his pithy insights in convoluted phrases like “becomes assimilated with transformations” and “the object alone shines without deliberation.” How can any reader understand Patanjali’s original meaning when he or she has to wade through such bewildering terminology?
Thankfully, a great modern yoga master—Paramhansa Yogananda, author of the classic Autobiography of a Yogi—has cut through the scholarly debris and resurrected Patanjali’s original teachings and revelations. Now, in Demystifying Patanjali, Swami Kriyananda, a direct disciple of Yogananda, shares his guru’s crystal clear and easy-to-grasp explanations of Patanjali’s aphorisms.
As Kriyananda writes in his introduction, “My Guru personally shared with me some of his most important insights into these sutras. During the three and a half years I lived with him, he also went with me at great length into the basic teachings of yoga.
“I was able, moreover, to ask my Guru personally about many of the subjects covered by Patanjali. His explanations have lingered with me, and have been a priceless help in the [writing of this book].”
Table of Contents
The First Book
The Second Book
The Third Book
The Fourth Book
by Nayaswami Gyandev McCord
author of Spiritual Yoga
The yoga community has undergone dramatic changes in the
last thirty years. Hatha Yoga has gone from an arcane curiosity to a
mainstream regime for wellness; it’s now practiced regularly by nearly
twenty million Americans, and many other countries are seeing
similar interest. Countless new styles have emerged. Yoga is gaining
acceptance in the medical community as a valid therapeutic selfcare
practice—not only the yoga postures, but meditation as well.
Most thrilling to me, however, is a relatively recent development: the
mushrooming interest in the higher, spiritual dimensions of yoga.
Enjoyable and beneficial though Hatha Yoga certainly is, more and
more people are eager to experience what lies beyond the physical
aspects of yoga.
For these people, the Yoga Sutras (aphorisms) of Patanjali has become
a popular place to begin—and appropriately so, for it’s one of
the main scriptures of yoga, it’s concise, and it’s thought-provoking,
even inspiring. Unfortunately, however, Patanjali is so concise that
many of his aphorisms are wide open to an entire spectrum of interpretations—
and many translators and commentators have marched
boldly through that opening, thereby creating a good deal of misinterpretation,
unclarity, and confusion.
For example, some authors claim that Patanjali’s brief mention
of asana (posture) means that he advocated the practice of yoga postures.
There is no evidence of that; he was simply advocating a suit able sitting
position for meditation, which has always been the central
practice of yoga. Other examples arise time and again in the
myriad confusing translations of certain key aphorisms, such as the
second one, arguably the most important of all: “Yoga is the suppression
of the transformations of the thinking principle.” What can
anyone do with that?
All this caused me much frustration in my own quest to fathom
the Yoga Sutras. The commentaries that I found were either abstruse
or vague, and almost always disjointed. I wanted a straight-to-thepoint
explanation of what Patanjali was really saying, and how to
apply it in my own spiritual quest. And since yoga is widely known
to mean “union [of the soul with Spirit],” I wanted to know what
Patanjali said about Spirit; alas, commentators too often go to great
lengths to avoid even mentioning God.
Still I hoped, for in his Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramhansa Yogananda
stated that Patanjali was an avatar, one who has achieved
divine union and reincarnated in order to help others. “That must
mean,” I reasoned, “that there’s more to these aphorisms than what
I’ve seen. How can I found out?”
In this book, Swami Kriyananda has shown us that there is indeed
more—much more. His training with his guru, Paramhansa
Yogananda, gave him the deep understanding and penetrating, intuitive
insight necessary to unlock the secrets of the Yoga Sutras. His
extraordinary clarity of presentation gives us a fresh and accessible—
yet uncompromisingly deep—perspective on this timeless scripture.
Kriyananda reveals Patanjali’s clear vision of the single, eminently
practical path that underlies all spiritual traditions—that of moving
from ego-identification to soul-identification—and how to walk
that path using the nonsectarian tools of yoga. Here at last is the
thread that ties together these 196 aphorisms.
Kriyananda has written more than 140 books, and in this one,
he shows once again that he is an unsurpassed exponent of the yoga
science. Although Paramhansa Yogananda never wrote a commentary
on the Yoga Sutras, I feel that he has now done so through his
direct disciple, Swami Kriyananda. A veil has been lifted, and Patanjali’s
teaching is revealed as it truly is: a deep and inspiring scripture—
yet also a practical scripture, accessible and applicable to any
This book is a blessing. It shows the eternal way to lasting happiness
and freedom. It’s not just another intellectual exploration; it’s
a handbook for the true practice of yoga.
The First Book
1-1 | The subject now being offered is yoga.
Atha=now; yoga=of yoga; anusasanam=explanation.
There are two important keys to understanding this first aphorism.
One is that these teachings offer no mere debate on the subject.
Patanjali is giving us his own realized wisdom.
The second key lies in that insignificant-seeming word, “now.”
Now suggests that there has been another dissertation, prior to this,
on a subject fundamental to the study of yoga. That subject is the
first of the three basic philosophies of ancient India. But even that
word, philosophies, is inadequate here, suggesting as it does the mere
love of wisdom: philos (love), and sophia (wisdom). But what is
taught in every one of those so-called “philosophies” of India, rather,
is wisdom itself. If we call them, “philosophies,” it is simply because
the English language offers no adequate substitute for the word.
Even the word, system, which has often been applied to these yoga
aphorisms (or sutras), is misleading. For Patanjali offered no particular
system for achieving anything. Rather, he was saying, “These are
the stages through which every truth seeker must travel, regardless of
his religion, if he would achieve union with the Infinite.”
Of the ancient “philosophical systems” in India, then, these three
were basic: Shankhya, Yoga, and Vedanta. The purpose of Shankhya,
the first of them, was to persuade people of the uselessness of seeking
fulfillment through the physical senses, since our physical bodies are
not our true Self.
I won’t go into that system carefully here, since the subject of
this book is yoga. Still, it is important for students of yoga to have a
right understanding of the entire subject. All the three philosophies
are, in fact, aspects of a single truth. Shankhya offers the whys of
the spiritual search; yoga, the hows; and Vedanta, the what. In other
words, why is it important to renounce attachment to the world?;
how can we direct all our energy toward the heights?; and what to
expect, once our energy and consciousness have become one-pointedly
Why should we—why should everyone—embrace the spiritual
search? This is, essentially, the subject of Shankhya. The answer is
partly that we, as earthly beings, are divided in two. We are drawn
upward, toward soul happiness, but at the same time downward, toward
our past worldly habits.
There is also a universal, twofold impulse that guides us all: We
all want to escape pain; and we all want also to find happiness. These
basic needs manifest themselves on different levels of refinement—
octaves, we might call them. At the highest octave, the desire to escape
pain is seen as the true devotee’s intense desire to shake off the
delusion of separateness from God, and to unite the soul with Him.
On a lower octave, those twin desires are experienced as a longing
for worldly fulfillment, and a wish to avoid the disappointment
that accompanies such fulfillment. What do I mean by worldly fulfillment?
I mean three things, basically: ambition for money; the
desire to escape worldly pain through drugs or alcohol; and the drive
for sexual satisfaction. These are the three main delusions under
which humanity labors as if under a yoke. True fulfillment can never
be found in any of them. Subsidiary to those basic delusions, but
disappointing nevertheless, are the desire for power; for fame; for
popularity; for emotional excitement and emotional fulfillment; and
for all kinds of ego-satisfaction.
There is a philosophical explanation for those disappointments.
Underlying the restlessness at the surface of the ocean are its calm
depths. Underlying our rippling thoughts, similarly, is the underlying
vastness of God’s consciousness. Waves, regardless how high they
rise, cannot affect the over-all ocean level, for each wave is offset by
an equally deep trough. Similarly, our emotions have no effect on
our deeper consciousness, for every emotional high is balanced by a
comparable emotional low.
Creation is ruled by the law of duality. For every up there is a
down; for every plus there is a minus. Every pleasure is balanced by
an equal displeasure; every joy, by an equal sorrow. The greater the
pleasure, the more intense, also, is the displeasure. The greater the
happiness, the greater, also, is its comparable unhappiness.
Test these truths in your own life. Isn’t it true that all your pains
and pleasures, your sorrows and joys, are being constantly evened
out sooner or later by their opposites? The pleasure of a “night on
the town” is erased by the discomfort of a hangover. Less obvious
“binges”—an evening of good, clean fun, for example; or the fulfillment
of a long-awaited meeting; or the thrill of a long-desired kiss;
or the satisfaction of promotion at work; or the long-delayed egofulfillment
of a significant award—all these are inevitably balanced
by their opposites. The one follows the other as the night the day.
Only a little reflection should suffice to convince you of this
truth. Unfortunately, the mind is restless, and lights only briefly, like
a fly, upon any given object of contemplation. If you would gain the
benefits of contemplation (yoga), and of spiritual realization (Vedanta),
the first necessity is stillness of mind. And that stillness is
the fruit of yoga practice. Without yoga, there can be no true understanding
of Shankhya. Moreover, without some inkling of Vedantic
realities there can come no true understanding of either Shankhya
or yoga. It may seem like a hopeless puzzle. To achieve perfection
in any one of the three philosophies, perfection is needed in all of
them! The three philosophies are interconnected.
Without some awareness, however slight, of the need for yoga,
there will be no incentive to practice it. And awareness of this need
is provided by Shankhya. Indeed, most people stumble through life
heedlessly, not knowing why they keep on suffering; not knowing
why fulfillments are never permanent; and never realizing why their
happiness flickers away even as they gaze at it. Indeed, happiness
flickers before their eyes like a candle flame, burning them briefly
even as they extinguish it. The poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote:
“My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!”
Light? Yes. But lovely? Perhaps for a moments or two—but then?
Accompanying that light, moreover, is always the menace of approaching
darkness. And beside every pleasure, beating its wings to
get in, hovers the moth of sadness.
Yes, it all seems so simple, so obvious! And yet, people wander
for countless incarnations before they become willing even to consider
the perfectly simple and completely obvious truth of their existence!
How many incarnations do they wander? Let me not frighten
you by answering that question! Indeed, how long each person
clings to his delusions is nobody’s choice but his own.
But if you really want to understand Patanjali’s yoga aphorisms,
you must be ready to ponder at least a little the underlying truths
of the Shankhya philosophy. For even the oft-quoted aphorism of
Shankhya “Ishwar ashiddha, (God is not proved),” is an invitation to
go beyond the intellect, and realize truth intuitionally, on a superconscious
“The Yoga Sutras has generated almost as many translations and commentaries as there are sutras in Patanjali’s masterpiece. Inevitably, the takeaway for readers is different in each instance because the nuances of interpretation lead the student in radically different directions. Many versions were written by the gurus who brought the ancient tradition to the West, but one important voice, Yogananda’s, was missing. We will never have a Yogananda translation, but now we have the next best thing: a direct disciple’s interpretation of the master’s perspective. Because Yogananda’s role in bringing Yoga to the West is unsurpassed, Demystifying Patanjali is a welcome and illuminating contribution to the ongoing transmission.” —Philip Goldberg, author of American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation, How Indian Spirituality Changed the West
“Swami Kriyananda has provided an immensely readable translation of and commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. This central text outlines all the basics required for a balanced Yoga practice. It effortlessly describes and explains the various states of meditation. Patanjali outlines the foundational ethics of Yoga, including abstention from impure, distracting, and deflating actions. By rising up into the state of spirituality, one can overcome the myriad troubles of life. Swami Kriyananda adds yet another jewel to the treasure trove of Yoga Sutra interpretations.” —Christopher Key Chapple, Doshi Professor of Indic and Comparative Theology and Director of Yoga Studies, Loyola Marymount University
“I think Brahmarshi Yoganandaji was a direct incarnation of Patanjali, and that Swami Kriyananda is a pure instrument of his guru. Demystifying Patanjali should pave the way for right understanding of the universal principles for living a happy, healthy, prosperous life as enshrined in the Yoga Sutras. Hearty, respectful congratulations to Swami Kriyanandaji.” —Ram Karan Sharma, Former President, International Association of Sanskrit Studies, presently Visiting Professor (Sanskrit), University of Pennsylvania
“Read Swami Kriyananda’s version of the Yoga Sutras and you will be convinced why even after two thousand years, this book remains the best practice manual for achieving positive mental health and spiritual fulfillment.” —Amit Goswami, PhD, Quantum Physicist and author of The Self-Aware Universe and Creative Evolution
“After reading many translations of the Yoga Sutras over the years, I found Swami Kriyananda’s commentaries and writings so lucid and practical in their application to everyday life. It is a blessing to have Patanjali’s teaching accessible to everyone seeking the divine within.” —Dennis M. Harness, PhD, psychologist and Vedic astrologer
"Demystifying Patanjali is particularly recommended for readers who are already familiar with 1) yogic philosophy, 2) Yogananda’s teaching, or 3) Swami Kriyananda’s numerous published works." —Birgit W. Patty, NY Journal of Books