Introduction Right now … are you happy? If things are going well, you probably are. If not, you may be feeling low. What if, no matter what was happening in your life, good or bad, you could answer, “Yes! I am happy!”
To find happiness we usually look outward to people, places, and things that bring us fulfillment. But these pleasures are often short-lived and unpredictable, so our quest renews day after day. At a certain point, whether through cynicism or suffering, we realize that external pleasures, however great, do not bring enduring gratification. And regardless of whether we have had an abundance of success or a lack thereof, while we are wasting time in our attempts to secure happiness in the world, life is ebbing away.
We are overdue to experience more than just ephemeral hits of happiness. The good news is, there is a way to feel purpose, meaning, and joy every day, no matter what life brings. A time-tested guide for our personal development of these experiences was given to us in the Yoga Sutras, a comprehensive list of one hundred ninety-six life-expanding teachings compiled over two thousand years ago by a sage named Patanjali. In the Sutras, we find a section referred to as the Eight Limbs of Yoga, a succinct outline of spiritual wisdom integrated with tangible practices showing us how to live life in a state of consistent happiness. The purpose of True Yoga is to illustrate how these specific Sutras can be used to claim deep, lasting joy and fulfillment, far greater than anything the external world has to offer.
Pain is a strong motivator. Although it does not have to be, pain is often the nudge we need to look beyond the temporary pleasures of life and find some new perspective. Sad but true, humans rarely leave their comfort zone unless shaken from it.
Sixteen years ago, I got the big nudge. In a painful low point, I was challenged by a rocky marriage, exhausted from a colicky baby, and frightened as I prepared for a cross-country move away from my friends, family, career, and all things familiar. I had used up my inner resources for getting back into balance and as tempting as eating, drinking, shopping, or avoiding it all in some other unhealthy way was, I knew that none of the above would take me to any kind of true fulfillment. So I started seeking a method to attain inner peace and love that would be permanent.
Coincidentally, at this same time, I was studying for a master’s degree in spiritual psychology. To complete my first year, I had to write a personal theory of counseling, so I decided to use the assignment to imagine my own map to the happiness I was craving. I called it Joy Therapy and it began like this: “Inside each of us is the radiant light of Joy. It is the Divine spark, ignited at our birth. By individual realization of our connection to the Divine Source, we find our true inner joy and our light shines forth.”
Sounds kind of like one of the first Yoga Sutras, in which it is written, “United in the heart, consciousness is steadied. Then we abide in our true nature—joy.” 1
The crazy thing is that I had not studied the Yoga Sutras at that time! When I wrote my thesis on Joy Therapy, I was practicing only the physical aspect of yoga and had no idea that I had created a parallel model to the ancient outline for happiness outlined in the Sutras. When I discovered the full teachings of true yoga and how the headstands and downward dogs I loved were connected to this amazing science of happiness, it made perfect sense to merge my Joy Therapy into Yoga Therapy. Since then I have made Yoga Therapy my profession and shared the life-changing principles of the Sutras with hundreds of clients.
The point of the story here, however, is to illustrate that because I was truly seeking happiness at a soul level, my individual awareness tapped into the all-pervading Creative Consciousness and received the necessary understanding. This is the very essence of the journey the Yoga Sutras lead us in taking, to move beyond our perspective of separate, fearful individual experience to the blissful union with Divine Consciousness in which all is possible, joyful, and secure.
Many years have passed since then and life has delivered plenty of challenges for me to test what it takes to live these teachings personally, including a year of severe depression, the loss of a child and a parent, a divorce, additional cross-country moves, a decade of single parenting, and a lot of financial hardship. But through daily practice of the principles outlined here, I now experience less stress in times of trial and feel more grounded in unshakeable peace and joy. This is the reason I wrote True Yoga. Through this guidebook, it is my intention to show you how to have lasting happiness and spiritual fulfillment—no matter what challenges life throws your way.
To be truly happy is to be successful at life and, like anything worth accomplishing, these practices require dedication. We must choose a peaceful response in times of conflict. We must choose a grateful thought when we feel negative and down. We must choose to tell the truth even when it is not convenient. These are not always easy choices, but if we are ready to claim true happiness and security that can sustain us through all the ups and downs of life, then these choices become a small price for the serenity, power, and wisdom they bring.
For anyone interested in being happy and anyone interested in practicing true yoga, the Eight Limbs outlined in the Yoga Sutras are essential for success. They lead us to ease, harmony, and satisfaction in all that we undertake on a daily basis. And they illumine a concise system that opens the path to joy and connection with our own Divinity. Now, to contextualize the Eight Limbs, let us look into a brief history of the Yoga Sutras.
How the Yoga Sutras Came About
Many earlier teachings and writings contributed to the Sutras, including the Vedas, the Upanishads, Buddhist teachings, and the Bhagavad Gita. These were synthesized and systematized into the foundational text that is essential to our current understanding and practice of yoga, the Yoga Sutras.
Yoga Philosophy and the Vedas
The first documentation of yoga teachings dates as far back as five thousand years ago. Seals excavated from archeological sites in the Indus Valley show figures in meditative postures. Also attributed to this general time are the Vedas, considered the oldest religious text from which yoga philosophy comes. The word Vedas stems from the Sanskrit root word vid, which means “knowledge.” Classical Hindu philosophy recognizes the Vedas as the supreme revealed scripture. It is comprised of six branches, one of which is the philosophy of yoga we are most familiar with today.
To understand how yoga fits with the rest of the Vedic teachings, a short explanation of the six branches of Hindu philosophy is helpful. Stemming from the same root word as Vedas, the first major branch is Vedanta, which translates as knowledge (vid) combined with anta meaning “end,” signifying the last and highest knowledge. Vedanta is the expression of all knowledge and experience as non-dual, attesting that all things stem from One Consciousness and are part of One Reality.
Second is Sankhya philosophy, which explains how the One Consciousness appears as many things when manifested materially. The third major branch is Yoga philosophy, which delineates how we can realize our unity with the One Consciousness through specific practices that lead us from ignorance and perceived limitation to truth and liberation.
The additional three minor branches of Hindu philosophy are Mimamsa, which studies the principles of dharma or right living; Nyaya, which explores the sources of knowledge; and Vaisesika, which reduces all created expression to its basic atomic principles. Although Hindu philosophy forms the basis of the Hindu religion, they are not equivalent and should not be confused. Yoga is not a religion. It is a philosophy and a spiritual science. In alignment with the Vedas, Yoga philosophy acknowledges all religious truth as falling within the One Consciousness. Therefore we may hold any religious faith and blend yoga practice with our current religious customs.
The ancient Vedic ceremonies were presided over by Brahmin priests who held elite status in the caste system present in India at that time. When the early yogis decided to search out direct relationship with the One Consciousness, they went into secluded natural areas to experiment with practices that could take them to a personal experience of and communion with Spirit. From this exploration came the commentaries on the Vedas called the Upanishads, which translates as “sitting down near,” as in sitting near the feet of the teacher or guru.
Written approximately three thousand years ago, the Upanishads focus on the personal journey of spirituality. These writings teach that our true nature, which is our oneness with Spirit, can only be known experientially. The Upanishads introduce many of the basic themes found later in the Yoga Sutras. A mystic named Shankara is credited with writing the ten principle Upanishads, discussing themes like Karma (law of cause and effect), maya (veil of delusion, which causes the perception of duality), prana (Life Force Energy), the chakras (energy centers), mantras (sacred phrases), meditation (state of stillness in which Divine union becomes possible), and yoga sadhana (spiritual practice). These commentaries are thought to be the culmination of the Vedas and are exemplified by the mantra So Hum, meaning “thou art that,” which recognizes the inherent Oneness of all and the need for a personal journey toward this realization.
The Bhagavad Gita
Approximately five hundred years after the Upanishads were created, Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, further expounded the need for an individual to seek ultimate understanding of truth through the scientific process of meditation. In addition, the Indian sage Vyasa crafted the epic Hindu text known as the Mahabharata, presenting a philosophical discourse on the four goals of life. Within the Mahabharata is the Bhagavad Gita, a metaphoric tale of yogic wisdom told through a great battle in which a young warrior named Arjuna receives counsel from Krishna on the need for selfless action, non-attachment, and other practices that enable one to place the ego in service to the soul and live in the world but not of it.
Putting It All Together: The Yoga Sutras
The most important elements of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Buddha’s teachings, and the Bhagavad Gita were compiled by Sri Patanjali around two thousand years ago into the text we now refer to as the Yoga Sutras. This is the key text of Raja (Royal) Yoga, which describes the complete yoga path, a scientifically organized spiritual technology for living joyfully and ultimately achieving liberation and unity consciousness.
Within the Yoga Sutras, there are four books or sections. Book One is called the Samadhipadha and discusses the advanced stages and essential nature of enlightenment—to show us the goal. Book Two is the Sadhanapadha, which outlines necessary spiritual practices to attain this liberation, as well as the obstacles we can expect along the path. It is in this book we find the essential Eight Limbs of Yoga. Book Three is the Vibhutipadha, which overviews the spiritual powers that can be expected through dedicated yoga practice. And Book Four is the Kaivalyapadha, which describes the experience of full spiritual absorption from a more philosophical standpoint.
The word sutra means “to string or sew,” and indicates a thread of universal wisdom on which teachers would add their beads of interpretation or expansion, depending on the time, culture, and needs of their students. They were written in concise language, kept short for easier memorization. It was expected that students not intellectualize these teachings, but rather seek direct experience through reflection and personal application of the lessons.
We, too, must heed this example. Take time to contemplate and digest each one and recognize the multidimensional interpretations and applications that are possible. The Yoga Sutras are considered a living scripture, that is, a teaching that will deliver different messages depending on our level of perception. They reveal what we need at any given time for our evolution. Like a personal love letter telling us how to live better, how to avoid the pitfalls of life, these aphorisms offer non-sectarian practices and philosophical guidelines to help us experience the Divine Joy within and become free of all suffering.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
In the second book or section of the Sutras, we find the Eight Limbs of Yoga. In Sanskrit these are called Asthaanga Yoga, astha meaning “eight” and anga meaning “intertwining limbs.” They delineate external practices first and then lead into more internal, introspective ones.
True Yoga follows the order of the Eight Limbs, dividing them into three parts for clarification of how each builds on the next. Part one covers the qualities of our highest nature that we must reconnect with for inner harmony. Part two integrates actionable outer practices with inner devotion. And part three describes the deeper, more contemplative practices that take us to a blissful, unified consciousness. Eventually all are practiced simultaneously.
The stated goal of the Eight Limbs is to awaken our consciousness to its true essence beyond the stories we create about ourselves, others, and the world. As we embody these teachings personally, we achieve a clear conscience, an unprejudiced intellect, an unbreakable will, and the ability to manifest what we need when we need it, including wisdom and guidance for right decisions. Using the practices within the Eight Limbs, we become nobler, more compassionate and happier people until one day we find ourselves in joyful liberation. Our lasting happiness is measurable by the sustained inner peace we feel and our ability to remain grateful and even-minded regardless of external circumstances. Then we are true yogis.
Getting to Happiness through
Willingness, Humility, and Guidance According to yoga philosophy, enduring happiness can only come when we stop identifying with the incessant thoughts and feelings of the personality self (small s). This “I, me, mine” perspective is called the ego and it is what we normally associate with and think of as who we are. The Sutras proclaim that all of our struggles in life are because we have forgotten the truth of our being and have strayed into a belief of separation and inadequacy. Suffering will continue until we realize that our real nature is not material but spiritual and that we cannot possibly be separated from joy and peace, because they exist within our consciousness rather than in the external world.
The Sutras begin by noting that we must learn to quiet the constant fluctuations of the individual ego mind in order to experience our true Self (capital S). To realize true Self does not mean to have a deeper understanding of our individual needs, drives, desires, and dislikes, but rather it means to have the unshakeable knowledge that we are so much more than all that. We are one with the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of the Indwelling Spirit. Then we experience life through the consciousness of our soul, the unique expression of the Divine within. In this state, we function as our human selves but see from the perspective of the true Self within. Liberated from the limitations of ego consciousness, we manifest Divine Consciousness in joy and ease here and now.
To begin the journey from where we are now to this state of expanded awareness, two qualities are essential—willingness and humility. We must be willing to turn away from the common standard of pleasure-seeking and turn our humble hearts toward a greater understanding of what brings true fulfillment.
In addition, we need a guide and, although thorough, even Google does not have GPS to take us to our Divine home. Thankfully the spiritual seekers (rishis) of India experimented with natural and spiritual laws in their quest for fulfillment. They used their own bodies and lives as the testing ground to find ways and means of achieving peace and enlightenment permanently. They systematized this information and passed along the perfect guidelines for generations to follow.
Consistency Plus Commitment Equals Success
As any traveler can attest, reading a guidebook is not enough to know a destination personally. The map is not the territory, as they say. So the next thing that is required is the effort of movement from here to there. The beauty of yoga as a spiritual science is that we need not rely upon anyone else’s theories, beliefs, or reports. Metaphorically, it is time to pack our bags and board the plane. Like the saints and yogis of the past, we can seek tangible proof in the laboratories of our own bodies, minds, and souls. Everything yoga teaches can be understood by direct experience, resulting from correct and consistent practice. Only we are responsible for the creation, preservation, or destruction of our happiness.
Sadly, many will choose to be armchair travelers and stop with intellectual information. Others may orient themselves on the map but stop with just a bit of planning. Only the committed few will take the full ride and reap the results.
It takes time to comprehend the layers of meaning in each Sutra. And to succeed in achieving an expanded awareness permanently, perseverance is essential. True Yoga is meant to spark your interest and give you a foundation of understanding to build from as you assimilate these teachings from the inside out. The rishis gave us the keys to the kingdom, but we must unlock the gate, not by theorizing but by applying the practices outlined in the Eight Limbs.
Inevitably, on any journey difficulties will arise. The Sutras identify five major obstacles (Kleshas) we may encounter on our way to true happiness and liberation. All human suffering—whether it is physical, psychological, philosophical, or metaphysical—is attributed to these five Kleshas: ignorance (Avidya), ego (Asmita), attachment (Raga), aversion (Dvesa), and fear of death (Abhinivesa). Fortunately, the suffering caused by these obstacles actually serves as motivation for us to find new ways of thinking and acting in order to relieve our discomfort.
If we persevere through trials and discouragement, offering all that we are and all that we long to be in wholehearted devotion to the practices of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, we will find every need and desire satisfied. We will have personally documentable results of greater peace and joy. And we will know the Divine Self as the Yoga Sutras describe it, within and without, in form and in formlessness.
Through this unified awareness and the continued practice of true yoga in its entirety, life becomes a peaceful playground of profound joy and love. It is our Divine right to know our blissful, perfect nature and nothing can keep us from this realization if we diligently undertake the practices given for its discovery. No external pleasure will ever compare or fulfill us in the same way.
Interpreting and Using the Sutras
Because of the complex nature of most translations of the Yoga Sutras, it is difficult for the average student or even the dedicated yoga teacher to apply these teachings personally. True Yoga’s exploration of the Eight Limbs is not meant to be a scholarly translation, but rather a look at the practicality of the Eight Limbs of Yoga and their relevance today as guidelines for establishing harmony in both our inner and outer lives.
In order to extrapolate a consistent meaning from each Sutra, five different translations were consulted to attain a significant overview and application to modern life. The first was the classic The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Sri Swami Satchidananda, disciple of Swami Sivananda and founder of Integral Yoga Institute. He is one of the most revered Yoga masters of modern time and this translation was originally published in 1978. Second was The Secret Power of Yoga published in 2007 by Nischala Joy Devi, a twenty-five-year monastic student of Sri Swami Satchidananda, one of the few female translators of the Sutras. Third was The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar, son of the great yogi Sri Krishnamacharya, a well-respected publication from 1995. Fourth was The Essence of Yoga: Reflections on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Bernard Bouanchaud, a French student of T.K.V. Desikachar published in 1997. And finally, a more obscure and esoteric look at the Sutras was included from The Holy Science by Sri Swami Yukteswar Giri, disciple of Mahavatar Babaji, originally published in 1949.
The following is an example of how translations differ using Sutra ii.40 to illustrate.
Sri Swami Satchidananda in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translates, “By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.” 2
Nischala Joy Devi in The Secret Power of Yoga translates, “Through simplicity and continual refinement (Saucha), the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the Self within.” 3
T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga translates, “When cleanliness is developed it reveals what needs to be constantly maintained and what is eternally clean. What decays is the external. What does not is deep within us.” 4
Bernard Bouanchaud in The Essence of Yoga translates, “Perfect mastery of the vital energy of assimilation and equilibrium brings radiance.” 5
Sri Swami Yukteswar Giri in The Holy Science does not give a specific translation of this Sutra but states more generally, “By the practice of Yama and Niyama, the eight meannesses of the human heart disappear and virtue arises.” 6
These vastly different explanations of the principle of Saucha (purity and simplicity) show how the Sutras can be confusing at first. With study and reflection one starts to find the common elements and meanings. I am not a Sanskrit scholar, therefore the interpretations given at the beginning of each chapter are not meant to be exact, literal translations of the original Sanskrit Sutra, but rather a synthesis of the five versions, offering the reader a condensed overview and study of the essential message.
For these ancient yoga teachings to be relevant to our lives today, we must see how every aspect is applicable to our needs, as well as how it leads us to the goal of lasting happiness, freedom from suffering, and spiritual fulfillment. Philosophy does not pay the bills and theories do not comfort the children. After a day of work and family responsibilities, no one has time or energy to sit down and absorb esoteric concepts, so in each chapter the meaning of the Sutra is explained and also applied to specific challenges and stressors we might encounter in normal life. Every chapter ends with Daily Practices, Questions for Further Reflection, and Affirmations that encapsulate the theme to use as inspiring reminders. Instructions on how to accomplish these are included, and it would be helpful to have a journal or notebook handy as you work through this material.
The book’s three parts follow the order of the Eight Limbs. Part one covers the first limb called the Yamas, which instruct how to align more completely with our soul nature. Part two outlines the second limb called the Niyamas, which give further practices to integrate our material and spiritual lives. All of these practices have both an internal and an external expression, initiating in our thoughts and inner experience of the world, and then radiating through our words and actions into our outer world. Part three covers limbs three through eight, the deeper ways to address health, energy management, concentration, and finally Self-realization or enlightenment.
The timeless wisdom of these teachings binds together all aspects of who we are as human and spiritual beings, suturing us so that we become integrated and whole. True Yoga teaches us how to manage the pressures of working, parenting, and relating, how to live healthy and purposeful lives, and how to ultimately reconnect our souls with Source.
This ancient system of living was not created to give us flat abdominals and the ability to stand on our heads. When we live and breathe our yoga, not just as pretty postures in class but also as real-time practices in every moment with family, friends, and colleagues, we will be happy. True Yoga enables us to transform challenge into inspiration, cultivate clarity and compassion, overcome the ego, and develop Self-awareness.
Now it is time to make an important choice. That choice is simply to be happy. If we make this one, then no one can stand in the way of our happiness. And if we do not, then no one and no thing can make us happy. The choice and the work are ours alone. I invite you to choose happiness now. Let us start the journey.
2. Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications, 2012), 133.
3. Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007), 206.
4. T.K.V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1995), 178.
5. Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga (Delhi: Indian Books Centre, 1997), 124.
6. Sri Swami Yukteswar Giri, The Holy Science (Dakshineswar, India: Yogoda Satsanga Society of India, 1990), 112.