[YS 201] Classical Yoga: The History, Philosophy, and Practice of the Yogasūtra

A 7-Week Online Course (Oct 21-Dec 7, 2018)

Looking to deepen your understanding of yoga beyond āsana? Curious about Classical Yoga philosophy? What is the Yogasūtra, and who was its author Patañjali? Why is the Yogasūtra often hailed as the “Bible” of yoga? Where does Aṣṭāṅgayoga come from? And how does the Yogasūtra relate (or not) to contemporary postural yoga practice?

Join Seth Powell, PhD Candidate at Harvard University, for an exciting 7-week online course that will provide you with an in-depth immersion into the history, philosophy, and practice of the Yogasūtra. Through weekly video lectures, Q&A sessions, slides, PDF handouts, quizzes, and optional readings, together we will immerse into a close and thorough study of one of yoga’s most ancient, important, and mis-understood scriptures.

The Yogasūtra of Patañjali, written some 1,500 years ago, is the earliest extant systematization of Yoga philosophy and practice. Rendered into 195 short, dense, Sanskrit aphorisms or “sūtras,” the YS is the root text for the Yoga philosophical tradition (darśana). It is a profound treatise on the nature of the human condition—the mechanics and layers of the mind-body, the cause of human suffering, and an outline or map of psychophysical practices that can be cultivated in order to obtain complete freedom.

Today the YS has reached a height and importance it had perhaps never known in premodern India, as it has beome the scriptural authority and source text for modern postural yoga. Regularly assigned in Yoga Teacher Training programs around the globe, translated into dozens of languages, it is often hailed as the “Bible” of yoga, and the definitive guide for yoga praxis. But as we will learn in this course, the YS says very little about āsana or postural yoga. Rather than a treatise on physical or postural yoga, the YS is a philosophically rich exposition on meditation and deepened states of concentration. It speaks of the the ability for the aspiring yogi to cultivate discriminative discernment (viveka)—to distinguish between the real and the unreal—ultimately, to perceive reality clearly, and to know and rest in one’s true nature (svarūpa) completely.

In this new cutting edge online course, Seth will offer in a personable and truly accessible manner an opportunity to explore the YS deeply within its own historical context—drawing upon the latest advances in critical yoga studies. We will give very close attention to the Sanskrit language of the sūtras themselves. We will consider the nature of authorship and audience. Who was Patañjali? Was he the originator of yoga, or what was the yoga before Patañjali? Who was he writing for, and why might this be important to consider as modern readers? What are the philosophical and religious influences of the YS? In particular, we will examine the close relationship between the Brahmanical, Buddhist, and Jain traditions in Classical India and how they each influenced the Yoga tradition.

A unique aspect of this course is that we will be giving close attention to the Bhāṣya, the earliest layer of Sanskrit commentary (in English translation, don’t worry!). This will allow the rich philosophical context and meaning of the YS to be illumined more fully, especially where the Sūtras say so little.

Once we have a more solid understanding of the YS within its own historical time and place, we will be in a much better position as modern practitioners, teachers, and human beings living in the 21st century to ask what the YS means for us today, and what we might gain through its deep and careful study.

"An accessible, Harvard-quality course in Yogic Studies.”


This course offers you an exciting overview of the latest yogic research, delivered through weekly video lectures and slides in a digestible and easy-to-follow manner, using the latest technologies in online learning.

Topics covered in this course include:

  • The yogic antecedents of the Yogasūtra
  • Who was Patañjali? Historical figure? Semi-divine serpent?
  • The historical context. Who was the Yogasūtra written for?
  • Recent debates over the authorship of the Yogasūtra
  • The importance of the Bhāṣya (commentary)
  • The relationship between Yoga and Sāṅkhya philosophy
  • The YS’s relation to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism
  • The nature and role of God (Īśvara) in Classical Yoga
  • The importance and function of the mantra OṂ
  • Philosophical dualism vs non-dualism
  • The nature and psychology of the human mind
  • Yoga’s theory of Karma and Saṃskāra
  • The three Guṇa theory
  • The nature and cause of human suffering
  • How the mental and physical practices of yoga relate to its philosophy
  • Kriyāyoga, the “Yoga of Action”
  • Aṣṭāṅgayoga, the “The Eight Auxiliaries of Yoga”
  • The traditional function and context of Yoga ethics: the Yamas and Niyamas
  • The role of Āsana or Posture within Classical Yoga
  • The function of Prāṇāyāma
  • The centrality of meditation and concentration practice
  • The various levels of Samādhi
  • What is Kaivalya? Exploring the final goal of Yoga
  • How does the YS relate to modern yoga practice?

Enrolled enrolled students
will receive:

  • 22 Hours of CE
  • 7 Video Lectures
  • 7 Audio Recordings
  • 7 Live Zoom Q&A Sessions
  • 1 Conclusion Video/Audio
  • Seth’s Original Sanskrit-English Translation of the Yogasūtra (PDF)
  • Course Syllabus with Recommended Readings (PDF)
  • 3 Additional Handouts (PDF)
  • Bibliography and Recommendations for Further Study (PDF)

Students who complete the course will be eligible for 22 hours of Yoga Alliance Continued Education (CE) credits!


Course Structure

Each Sunday evening @ 5pm (PST) a new module will be released including the 2-hour video lecture, occasional handouts, and a fun quiz to test your knowledge as you go. The syllabus includes optional suggested readings to dive even further into these materials.

In addition, each Friday @ 10am (PST) there will also be a one-hour Live Zoom Q&A session. Students will receive a private link to join the chatroom ahead of time. This will allow us to build community, facilitate discussion, and to create an even more active and dynamic classroom. If you cannot make the live sessions, no problem. They will be recorded and available shortly after for later viewing.

For those who like to think in terms of hours, the course videos add up to 22 hours of materials. Depending on how much time you choose to put into the quizzes and readings, it could extend beyond that.

Follow along anywhere, online, with any computer or device. You can even take the course using the Teachable iOS app on your phone or iPad!

This course is not open for enrollment.

Your Instructor

Seth Powell
Seth Powell

Seth Powell is a longtime practitioner of yoga and a scholar of Indian religions, Sanskrit, and yoga traditions, and is the founder of Yogic Studies. He is currently a PhD Candidate in South Asian Religions at Harvard University, where he is writing his dissertation on the history, theory, and practice of medieval and early modern yoga traditions. Seth also holds degrees in the study of religion from the University of Washington (MA) and Humboldt State University (BA). He has taught and lectured for numerous university courses on the religions and literature of India, Hinduism, Buddhism, and yoga traditions, and presents his research regularly at international conferences.

As a scholar-practitioner, Seth is gifted in his ability to present the ancient teachings of yoga clearly in an accessible, light-hearted, and inspiring manner—while maintaining a rigor and sensitivity to traditional Indian knowledge systems. Seth conducts workshops and lectures regularly on the history and philosophy of yoga at studios, teacher trainings, and universities around the country. You can find him online at



“Seth Powell is at the forefront of a new generation of yoga scholars, and rare among them in that he combines textual studies, fieldwork in India, and a practical understanding of yoga in his scholarship. It’s great that he’s reaching out beyond the academy to share his hard-earned knowledge.”

Dr. James Mallinson, Senior Lecturer in Sanskrit and Classical and Indian Studies, SOAS, University of London

Yogic Studies provides a great opportunity to work with Seth Powell, the rare person who combines long years in a personal practice of yoga, deep learning in the ancient and modern texts of yoga, and all the gifts you could hope to find in a teacher who understands the needs and hopes of today’s yoga practitioners. Definitely a unique and valuable opportunity, not to be missed.”

Dr. Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Parkman Professor of Divinity, Harvard University

“Seth Powell has created courses for Yogic Studies that engage the yoga practitioner in an honest, insightful and inspiring dialogue, bringing ancient practices into modern conversations. By illuminating the historical, cultural and social context of yoga, we come to see and understand the emergence and popularity of modern postural yoga as an ever evolving expression of the seeker’s journey toward self-development and ultimately self realization.”

Nikki Costello, Founder of The Practice, CIYT, C-IAYT

"Understanding that many modern yoga schools are based on the Yogasutras, this course should be mandatory to all yoga teachers. Seth Powell explains in a generous way and putting into context when the Yogasutras were written, in order to understand them deeply. Seth's YS translations and Bhasya explanations, are a wonderful material to study and consult any time."

Macarena González, Iyengar Yoga Teacher, Chile

"I cannot recommend Seth's courses highly enough. His presentation of the material is deep and nuanced while remaining clear and accessible. I eagerly awaited the release of each week's material and plan to return to them periodically for years to come."

Zander Winther, MA Philosophy, Yoga Teacher, Vancouver, BC

"Seth presented the YS material in a calm clear manner of voice which was very pleasant to listen to. His experiences in life and his academic studies of Sanskrit display his ongoing journey and wisdom he has gathered, and therefore his ability to teach so mindfully. The online course was professionally presented and even though I am sitting in my study in South Africa feel that I could of been present in the lecture room. Seth is both engaging and compassionate in his projection and teaching. I look forward to engaging in further studies with him. Thank you Seth for your hours hard work and strong concentration abilities enabling the student to stay interested and look forward to the weekly sessions."

Nanette Krige, South Africa

"Seth is a knowledgeable lecturer who is not only passionate about his area of study but also posses a rare ability to discuss complex matters in a succinct and clear manner. His course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a must for every yoga teacher and serious yoga students."

Marek Łaskawiec, Yoga Teacher, Yoga Republic, Poland, editor of Magazyn Joga

"When I first encountered the Yogasūtra of Patanjali, it felt as if I knew the text already. It felt familiar and a good ideological and philosophical fit. After seven lectures, the Q&A sessions, the detailed supporting materials and the quizzes to consolidate the learning, my head/brain/mind is buzzing with the quantity and quality of the information I have received. This course has fed my hunger for knowledge, deepened my understanding, opened up new possibilities and potential pathways, and has enriched my teaching exponentially. That I can lay claim now to more passion for the Yogasūtra than when I started is a testament to my teacher, Seth Powell, who has veritably shone a light and clarified this marvelous, deep and sometimes obscure text. Grateful beyond measure for the experience I am looking forward now to taking another Yogic Studies course."

Sasha Aleston, Yoga Teacher, RYT500 @8foldyoga (UK based school of Hatha Yoga)

“I've read, studied and been captivated by yoga texts and particularly the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for close to 15 years. I would recommend Seth's course wholeheartedly for those reading the text for the first time and for those who have read it many times. He has an engaging style, wrestles easily with complicated material and explains what can be abstract terminology with real understanding and enthusiasm.”

Recent YS 201 Student

Class Curriculum

  Module 1: An Introduction to the Yogasūtra: History, Context, and Approach
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  Module 2: Stilling the Turnings of the Mind (YS 1.1-1.22)
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  Module 3: Techniques for Calming the Mind (YS 1.23-1.51)
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  Module 4: The Yoga of Action and the Cause of Suffering (YS 2.1-27)
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  Module 5: Aṣṭāṅgayoga Part 1: Yamas and Niyamas (YS 2.28-45)
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  Module 6: Aṣṭāṅgayoga Part 2: Āsana, Prāṇāyāma, Pratyāhāra, Dhāraṇā, Dhyāna, Samādhi (YS 2.46-3.8)
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  Module 7: Yogic Powers and the Isolation of Pure Consciousness (YS 3.9-4.34)
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Frequently Asked Questions

How long do I have access to the course?
How does lifetime access sound? After enrolling, you have unlimited access to this course and its online content for as long as you like—across any and all devices you own.
What do the course modules consist of?
The seven modules include the (pre-recorded) video lecture, Zoom Live Session, quiz, and any PDF materials for that week. Each video lecture is comprised of Seth teaching directly to the camera, alongside keynote slides and other short web clips. They are visually rich, clearly organized, and engaging.
What are the Zoom Live Q&A sessions?
The Zoom Live sessions are weekly question and answer sessions held online on a private Zoom web server. Students will receive a private link to the platform, and will have the option to join a live video/audio feed. They are fun, casual, and allow us to go deeper into the materials for that week. They also help to create a deeper sense of community, facilitate discussion, and to create a more active and dynamic classroom. If you cannot make the live sessions, no problem. They will be recorded and available shortly after for later viewing.
What if I am unhappy with the course?
If for some strange reason you are unsatisfied with the course, contact us in the first 30 days (from the start of the course) and we will issue you a full refund! See, you have nothing to lose. So what are you waiting for? : )
Have further questions?
Feel free to email your inquiries to Seth directly at
Which version of the Yogasūtra will we be using for the course?
All students will receive a digital copy (PDF) of Seth's original Sanskrit-English translation of the Yogasūtras upon enrollment, and can begin studying immediately. Recommendations will be made, however, regarding other versions of the YS to consult for comparison. Stacking different versions side-by-side is an incredibly useful endeavor.
What are the course readings? Are they required?
In addition to the YS translation, there are supplemental texts, commentaries, and articles recommended on the syllables for further study. These readings are entirely optional, and will enable students to go deeper into materials covered in the course lectures and discussion sections. Each module will provide recommended chapters and articles from the list to guide your study for the upcoming week.
When does the course start and finish?
The 7-week course runs from Oct 21-Dec 7, 2018. While students are encouraged to follow along each week, you are more than welcome to slow down, and take the course entirely at your own pace. The group environment and live class feel is nice, and helps to keep us accountable for the material, but does not work for everyone's schedules. And that's okay!

This course is not open for enrollment.