Clarity and Focus
No yogic text is as widely discussed – or misunderstood – as the Yoga Sūtra. Patañjali's teachings are seen as the philosophy behind modern practice, although he says almost nothing about postural yoga, except in terms of sitting still.
Join Daniel Simpson to explore in depth what Patañjali teaches – along with how this differs from contemporary priorities. Together, we'll read the whole text, with reference to the commentaries that help to explain its traditional meaning.
Despite what's suggested today, the "eight limbs" of yoga are not the main theme. They only get so much attention because one of them is āsana, whose meaning has changed. Patañjali's method is one-pointed focus, refining discernment to see through confusion.
If you're curious about the bigger picture of yoga philosophy, this course is an accessible guide to complex topics. Combining scholarly and practical knowledge with humour and insight, its approach is refreshingly clear without oversimplifying.
The overall aim is to reflect on the goals of the Yoga Sūtra, and to see how these relate to our own objectives. By the end of the course, you'll feel clearer on both – and therefore better prepared to discuss this text and the ways people use it.
1 – MEDITATIVE CLARITY
1.1 – Basic foundations
We begin by defining objectives and key terms. Where did yoga come from and what is it for? Is it a state or a practice? Can the sūtras be read by themselves or are commentaries needed?
1.2 – One-pointed focus
Again and again, there's a similar message – focus on an object to limit distractions. With practice, these anchors get subtler, until the mind is transcended with no need for objects.
1.3 – Depths of absorption
The ultimate goal is detachment from matter to rest in awareness. Remaining in that state is defined as liberation, but there are also degrees of freedom based on steadiness of mind.
2 – PRACTICAL GUIDANCE
2.1 – Psychological analysis
People try to control life to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. This quest for gratification is based on a case of mistaken identity. The "yoga of action" can weaken its grip to facilitate focus.
2.2 – Prevention of suffering
Echoing the Buddha and the Bhagavad Gītā, Patañjali says yoga ends suffering. His solution renounces the world. Can its methods be adapted to everyday goals such as causing less harm?
2.3 – Eight-part frameworks
Other systems, including the Buddha's, consist of eight parts. Most of Patañjali's "limbs" are just ways of preparing for concentration – including ethical precepts that steady the mind to look within.
3 – POWERFUL METHODS
3.1 – The inward journey
The main technique is one-pointed focus. This is refined until the mind becomes still, leaving nothing but consciousness. Knowledge of the mind's changing states helps a yogi detach from them.
3.2 – Mystical attainments
Concentration on objects reveals how they change, and since the mind is a material thing, it can be understood similarly. Unwinding it means mastering matter, which yields magic powers.
3.3 – Beyond mind and body
The highest attainment is seeing the difference between matter and consciousness. Once this is perceived, the mind dissolves, which ends attachment to the body and the outside world.
4 – FINDING FREEDOM
4.1 – What liberation means
The outcome of yoga sounds otherworldly – kaivalya, or eternal "isolation". However, the idea of removing suffering still seems relevant. Can this aim be reframed in traditional ways?
4.2 – Competing philosophies
Patañjali's ideas have become obscured by different systems. This process, which started in India, continues worldwide. After so many reinventions, what makes the text so appealing today?
4.3 – Redefining objectives
What if Patañjali's goals don't align with our own? We can either deny it or try to escape from ourselves and the world. Is there also an option to build something different inspired by his teachings?
Daniel Simpson is the author of The Truth of Yoga: A Comprehensive Guide to Yoga's History, Texts, Philosophy, and Practices, which was published in 2021 by North Point Press (an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
He teaches courses on yoga history and philosophy at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies. He also contributes to teacher trainings at Triyoga in London, and offers online talks and international workshops.
Daniel is a graduate of Cambridge University and holds a master's degree in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation from SOAS University of London. In a previous career, he was a foreign correspondent, working for Reuters and the New York Times.
Edwin Bryant's The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali is unique.
Unlike many other modern translations, it accompanies the sūtras with insights from commentaries.
These explanations add traditional context, which Bryant unpacks. He also breaks down the Sanskrit word by word.
How does the course work?
All four modules are available at once, so you can study the materials at your own pace. Each module has three video presentations, plus a recorded discussion with Q&A.
Is it still possible to ask questions?
Absolutely! The course site has online forums for questions and comments, where you can share ideas and links – or request more information on any topic.
How long will I have access to materials?
For three months. Audio recordings of all sessions are also yours to download and keep. An upgrade is available at the checkout, which gives you unlimited access to videos.
What level of knowledge is required?
The course is designed for yoga practitioners. It's accessible to anyone, while providing insightful details that will interest those who are already familiar with the text.
Does the course include assignments?
Each module has an optional quiz to test your understanding. No one sees your results.
Do yoga teachers get accreditation?
All students who finish the course will receive a certificate for 12 hours of study. Teachers registered with Yoga Alliance can log these as continuing education with a YACEP.