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

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

Enrollment will open soon.

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:

  • Issues of Sanskrit translation. Which Yogasūtra text?
  • 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 and Hinduism
  • The YS’s relation to 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 “Yoga with Eight Limbs”
  • 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 students will also receive:

  • Seth’s Original Sanskrit-English Translation of the Yogasūtra (PDF)
  • Course Syllabus with Recommended Readings (PDF)
  • Sāṅkhya Tattva Map Handout (PDF)
  • Soteriology of Yoga Handout (PDF)
  • Aṣṭāṅgayoga Handout (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

[Update: All course lectures & materials have been recorded and uploaded, including FB live sessions, and will be made available immediately upon enrollment.]

Every Monday morning a new module will be released including the 2-hour video lecture, a PDF handout with the original Sanskrit and English translations of select sūtras, 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 to all of this, each week there will also be a one-hour Facebook Live Q&A session. These are held in a private FB group, available to enrolled students only. This will allow us to build community, and to create an even more active and dynamic classroom.

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!

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 www.yogicstudies.com.



“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 knows his stuff! Each week his material was clearly and accessibly presented, completely relevant, and helpfully illustrated. Unlike many academics researching yoga today, Seth's talks were uncluttered with academic jargon, yet he never once talked down to his audience. His smile and enthusiasm were infectious, I looked forward with anticipation to each week's release... This is a terrific introduction to the history and philosophy of yoga, highly recommended to any serious student."

Richard Rosen, Yoga Teacher, Author of "Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga"

“Seth is a skilled and creative teacher. His friendly and passionate disposition make the history of yoga approachable for all. It doesn’t matter whether his students have never practiced yoga or always practice yoga; everyone will learn something new about the practice and themselves. Under his guide, the modern student can personally relate to concepts born thousands of years ago. Seth’s students will leave his classes excited, and with a deeper sense of the Self. He truly embodies the light on which he teaches!”

Hannah Lautze, Former Student, Religious Studies Alumna, Humboldt State University

"The course was more than I expected covering the History and Philosophy of Yoga in an intelligent and easy to follow weekly structure. Each topic was relevant to my personal study and yoga practice. The content was very up to date covering the latest scholarly findings and the weekly live Facebook were like having a personal tutor. Seth's approach was relaxed and easy going while maintaining a high standard of academic information."

Recent Student, An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga

"I signed on for this course, having previously undertaken considerable study of yoga philosophy and texts in the Himalayan Tradition and the traditions of Desikachar and, more broadly, Krishnamacharya. I had previously also had direct limited exposure to some of the academic practitioners who are today working in the fields of Hatha Yoga and Tantra. I had come across something from Seth which suggested he had a clarity and dispassion that I felt would enhance my current understanding and practice, and I was not disappointed. Probably my expectations, whatever they were, have been exceeded. I found the lectures compelling listening, even when they covered familiar material, and there were many points of nuance and learning throughout. I would recommend this course to both students new to yoga studies and those with more experience. It is very helpful to revisit familiar ground without the obvious biases of particular traditions.

Recent Student, An Introduction to the History and Philosophy of Yoga

Class Curriculum

  Course Introduction
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  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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  (Bonus) Module 7: Yogic Powers and the Isolation of Pure Consciousness (YS 3.9-4.34)
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  Audio Lectures
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Frequently Asked Questions

When does the course start and finish?
The 6-week live course begins on Monday May 28, 2018 and runs until Thursday July 5, 2018. While you are encouraged to follow along each week, students are more than welcome to slow down, and take the course at whatever pace they choose.
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 six modules include the video lecture, Facebook 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 Facebook Live Q&A sessions?
The Facebook Live sessions are weekly question and answer sessions which will be held in the private Facebook group for enrolled students only. Students are encouraged to send in questions in ahead of time, and for those who can make it, will also be able to type in questions and comments live. They are fun, casual, and allow the space to go into certain areas of the material in more depth.
What if I can't make the Facebook Live sessions?
No problem! They will all be recorded and made available shortly thereafter. Given the broad international cohort of these courses, it is unfortunately not possible to find a timeframe suitable for everyone. But if you send your questions in ahead of time, Seth does his best to address them in class.
What are the course readings? Are they required?
Like any university course, there might be some reading involved, but only if you want to! The course syllabus includes books and Sanskrit texts (in translation) for purchase, as well as a selection of free articles for download. These readings are entirely optional, however, 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.
Which version of the Yogasūtra will we be using for the course?
No book required. All enrolled students will receive a PDF of Seth's new Sanskrit-English translation of the Yogasūtras, which will be our primary text! 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 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 sethpowell@g.harvard.edu

This course is not open for enrollment.