Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
Within the space of these two hundred short sutras, the entire science of Yoga is clearly delineated.
- Sri Swami Satchidananda
This month, I begin a daunting, multi-year project outlining key Sutras from the original yogi guidebook, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I don't pretend to be a Yoga Sutras expert, especially after reading commentary from some of the great translators and interpreters who have tackled this approach to yoga philosophy. And this project won't be able to comprehensively explain all 196 Sutras of Patanjali's explanation of yoga, even over the course of four years.
In the past, we’ve hosted Yoga Sutra book clubs, which produce rich discussions arising from our common understanding of the ideas Patanjali expounds. These discussions have inspired me in this effort. It is amazing that although the Sutras were written centuries ago, the ideas are so universal that they always resonate as contemporary.
I also take inspiration from the dharma talks my teacher, Sonia Sumar, has led on these Sutras. Although we often return to a Sutra repeatedly in these talks, each new group of students brings its own perspective and illuminates the often dense and esoteric knowledge contained within the terse threads of wisdom.
Since we have plenty of blog posts for those just getting started practicing yoga (Our Approach to Teaching Yoga to Beginners, The Beginner's Mind, and Meditation for Beginners), I thought it was time to dive into the more philosophical components of our beloved practice of Patanjali’s yoga for those students advancing. Studying these Sutras clearly shows that our role as yogis is much more than attaining mere physical fitness. Our goal as advanced practitioners of yoga is spiritual fitness.
I enter this discussion humbly, as a student myself, and welcome your comments and insights throughout this process. If you enter your thoughts as comments below each post, we are all benefitted by your experience and the project will be enriched.
A LITTLE BIT ABOUT PATANJALI
Patanjali is a bit of a mystery. We know he lived thousands of years ago in India and gave these Sutras to his students orally, who transcribed them into the text we have today. Through the Sutras, we can tell he was an adept student of classical, Raja Yoga and a beloved teacher. The sutras provide a complete philosophy of why to practice Yoga, as well as the scientific method of how to become an accomplished yogi. In that way, it is both philosophical and eminently practical.
Patanjali was a bhakti yogi (Stiles, xi), meaning he devoted himself to God through his practice. We will soon see that in this philosophy, God is not a white-bearded guy, sitting on a cloud smiting or rewarding people. In Patanjali’s philosophy (and indeed, in yoga generally), God is the essence that inhabits all beings, uniting us. God is our own true nature.
There is some debate about whether it was the same Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutras, who also wrote manuals on both Sanskrit grammar and Ayurveda. (Iyengar, 1) For our purposes, let’s suppose that either he did or he was aware of these other works, since an understanding of Sanskrit grammar is immensely helpful in understanding the Yoga Sutras. And Ayurveda, the sister science to Yoga, tells us how to create daily rituals that support the body and mind in our quest for spiritual fitness.
WHAT ARE THE YOGA SUTRAS?
We might translate the word “Sutra” to mean thread of transcendence. By describing these phrases in this way, Patanjali shows us that each Sutra is independently meaningful and capable of leading us to the realization of our true nature. But together, these Sutras create a “rich tapestry” of understanding, as my dear friend, Terri Mandell likes to describe them.
Within these threads, we learn the aim of yoga, what practices we need to attain yoga, what obstacles we might encounter, how to get past these obstacles, and the specific results that one will achieve after applying these practices to overcome the obstacles. (Satchidananda, 23) In this way, we learn that Yoga is actually a precise science - we start in a certain place and if we do a specific sequence of events, we will obtain a reliable result.
The 196 Sutras are divided into four “Padas”, which means feet but can be understood as chapters or pillars of this system of yoga. I’ve read that in the great teacher Krishnamacharya’s school, each Pada was supposed to be given to a specific student of Patanjali’s. (Stiles, xvi) Therefore, an aspirant might understand all of yoga by studying just one Pada that resonates with their own temperament.
Every year for the next four years, I will select Sutras from each successive Pada (with January - February this year - dedicated to an introduction to the Pada of the year). Although every one of the 196 Sutras could lead a person to transcendence, I will be limited to 43. In these 43 Sutras, I will attempt to cover most of the important themes within the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as a whole, by referring to other important Sutras within the discussion.
I invite you on this exploration with me. To discover the heart of yoga: what yoga is and how to master it.
Have you studied the Yoga Sutras before or are they brand new to you? Let me know in the comments below - I'd love to hear from you!
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
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