Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
No single text from the Hindu spiritual tradition has had a greater impact on the West than “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.” The main reason for this is that it is widely considered the foundation text for the practice of “yoga” as it currently exists in the West. Some introduction or even explanation of this text is present in most teacher training programs currently. So, as a result, many people who have taken up “yoga” as a regular part of their life are at least aware of the existence of these sutras.
Recently, however, I wondered why these “Yoga Sutras” are not even more influential than they are. If they are truly the core of the “yoga” that we have become enamored of in the West, why aren’t more “yogis” carrying around their own dog-eared copies? To answer that question I started to re-read a version of these sutras taken from an ashram library where I am living. I had read the sutras before in my past (once during a yoga teacher training course I took myself) but my memories were vague, at best.
It didn’t take long for me to realize why “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras” aren’t more widely shared and announced from the tops of yoga studios around the western world. The reason is that these sutras are not easy to understand. In fact, after I encountered a stanza of Patanjali’s that I didn’t quite understand I then turned to other existing versions of the same text (different translator) but in doing so, I realized that many of the so-called authorities, themselves, on these Yoga Sutras don’t agree about the meaning of many of the individual verses.
Sure, the core of western “yoga” practice is centered on a single section of “Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras” where he enumerates the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” or “Ashtanga.” Almost all translations seem to agree on the basic structure of this teaching but when I looked closely even there, I saw some debate. For example, two parts of “Ashtanga” are called “ahimsa” and the other, “brahmacarya.” Roughly translated they are, “non-violence” and “sexual responsibility,” respectively. But what exactly does either really mean on a practical level? Does “non-violence” mean vegetarianism, as some translations claim, or does it mean “pacifism,” which is stated by others? Does “sexual responsibility” mean “sexual loyalty and commitment to one partner” or “celibacy?”
So, even within the parts of “Patanjali’s Sutras” that are most referenced by the practice of yoga as it currently exists in the West there are lots of uncertainties. And then, the further I strayed into the other sections of the Sutras the more I encountered stanzas that were far from clear in terms of meaning and were given in often widely varying formats through the various translations that I found. It is then no wonder that very few people are championing, proclaiming or even teaching this text anywhere near most yoga studios in the west.
Maybe then, you would think it a worthy project to go over this text, line by line, through this blog and see what we find. Maybe we, too, will hit impassable road blocks where either the limitation in translation from ancient Sanskrt to English is just too big of a hurdle or else there will be stanzas that we can’t make sense of because our minds are too small for the vast and profound topics Patanjali covers. Or else, maybe it will all come together, miraculously, just as the image slowly resolves in a jig-saw puzzle as the pieces are fit into each other one by one.
So, STAY TUNED, in the following blog entries we will launch into PATANJALI’S YOGA SUTRAS, and let’s see how far we get. . . .