Yoga Rockford: The philosophy behind yoga

By Jennie Williford

Pranayama Yoga Studio

Behind the twisting, folding and bending that most of us view as “yoga,” there lies an ancient, universal and ultimately quite practical philosophy.

More than 2,000 years ago, Patanjali, a great sage and expert on yoga, Sanskrit grammar, and Ayurveda, codified and wrote down the practices of yoga that had been present in Indian culture for ages. This treatise on yoga, known as The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, describes the moral, physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the eight-limbed practice of yoga, and is a “must-read” text for any serious student.

In four chapters composed of 196 short aphorisms, Patanjali gives us all the clues, both subtle and obvious, to be successful in our practice. From simple definition to in-depth explanation, it is approachable by any level of practitioner, and there are many translations from which to choose.

The Sutras begin with a general overview of yoga. Mainly set out to aid those who might already be on the path, the first chapter starts with a simple definition: “Yoga is the means to still the fluctuations within the consciousness” and continues to give hints about how to stay focused. Patanjali speaks more about the mind and how to concentrate it, how to watch for the obstacles faced on the path, and general guidance for those already more involved in the practice.

The second chapter of Patanjali’s Sutras is the one most necessary to the general yoga public, detailing the step-by-step process by which to accomplish the “goal” of quieting our fluctuating mind.

The path of yoga is a two-part process of practice and detachment. There is much practice needed to prepare the mind, body and inner self for the deeper work of “letting go,” detaching from all our accumulated distractions.

The external work starts with moral values and self-observances, yama and niyama. These are things like truth, non-violence, cleanliness and self-study. With those precepts in mind, we can then begin work with the body through posture, or asana.

Asana is what most of us think of as yoga, but it is really only one small step in the process. Through focus and control of the body in specific postures, we find more focus of the mind, and ultimately prepare the body as a perfect vehicle for all the life energies, prana (both positive and negative), that move through it.

Prana is carried primarily by the breath, and pranayama, breath control and manipulation, is the bridge between external and internal awareness, moving the practice toward mental concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and ultimate spiritual freedom (samadhi).

Chapter three of the Sutras takes us into the “internal quest” and explains the benefits that might come with expert and perfected practice. With a mind free of distraction and the ability to concentrate and meditate fully on certain aspects of being, we may experience such “powers” as mind-reading, becoming light or heavy in body, and understanding all the workings of the universe. But, even though these are a by-product of perfected yoga practice, it is warned many times that they are not the goal. We must continue in diligent practice to overcome the temptations of even these distractions.

The final chapter of the Sutras describes the “goal” beyond the superficial powers. Patanjali describes the qualities of a true yogi and explains the benefits that are ultimately possessed through spiritual freedom. Although possibly the least-understood chapter for the general student, it does give reason for deeper, more diligent practice, and allows a glimpse of the ultimate goal that we may only experience after many lifetimes of practice.

For me, the philosophy that sits behind what we normally see as yoga is like the rest of the iceberg hiding under the water. We are distracted by the small beauty we experience on the surface, and may ultimately miss the larger amazement that actually exists underneath.

Come dive in with us and explore the depth that the Sutras have to offer! Every Saturday in February from 10 a.m. to noon, Pranayama Yoga Studio will offer a Yoga Philosophy Course based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Each class will cover topics that stand alone, but full attendance is recommended. Cost is $20 per class or $70 pre-paid for all four sessions. To register or for more details, please visit the Web site at, call the studio at (815) 968-9642, or contact Jennie at

For more information about Pranayama Yoga Studio, visit or call (815) 968-9642.

From the Jan. 27-Feb 2, 2010

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