The Yoga Sutras 101

For the discerning Yogi, ancient texts are paramount to an authentic practice. The Yoga Sutras, The Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the Upanishads along with hundreds more all fall under this umbrella and each one has their own distinct voice within the vast collection of yogic literature.

That’s not to say by turning the final page of the sutras you will immediately become enlightened. In fact by simply picking up this lengthy text and reading cover to cover you’ll probably find yourself more confused than ever. Maybe you’ve bought a copy of the sutras, read the first page and like me, thought “Oh God, what have I started?”

What is crucial to note is the origins of all these texts. They were produced orally, not intended for paper nor for translations. Patañjali did not consider how comprehensive his guide would be to the 21st century, western world. So if you’re feeling a little intimidated by his words, don’t worry.

Patañ-who?

Image Credit: Hartwig HKD.  on Flickr.
Image Credit: Hartwig HKD. on Flickr.

It is estimated that Patañjali lived some time between 400 BCE and 200 AD, though even this seemingly large span of time is argued amongst scholars. The reasons for this are in part that the Sutra’s were originally delivered orally – so there is no dated first copy. It simply does not exist. Secondly, and more crucially is the very probable notion that Patañjali did not exist as a single man. Sorry to dispel the image of an old, wise looking Hindi man in a loincloth.

I was heartbroken too.

Instead it is likely that the name refers to a lineage – a school of teachers, students, and sages. However, for convenience sake, Patañjali is widely spoken of as a single person, it is after all very likely that this lineage had a founder – therefore the Patañjali we will continue to discuss shall be him.

Fast Facts About The Sutras

Though as a text they were compiled over 2,000 years ago – to put an age on these teachings is near impossible since the knowledge they behold has traditionally been passed down from teacher or ‘guru’ to student. Scholars believe they could date as far back as 3,000 BCE.

Image Credit: Vinoth Chandar.  on Flickr.
Image Credit: Vinoth Chandar. on Flickr.

And er, what exactly ARE The Yoga Sutras?

The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is a collection of 196 aphorisms (or truths) each concerning a distinct stepping-stone on the path to enlightenment through yoga.

Note the term ‘stepping stone’ here: the sutras (like all yogic texts) take time, patience and consideration to digest, understand and put into practice. Together, these truths and this work bring together everything you will have heard about yoga in your classes, in texts, online, all into one concise — albeit lengthy — stream of knowledge.

Choosing A Translation

Originally written in Sanskrit, The Yoga Sutras have been translated more times than you or I can imagine. Unfortunately, much of the rich tapestry of knowledge behind Patañjali’s teachings is lost in translation, so people continue trying to translate it in order to preserve the knowledge and gravitas the text holds in it’s original language.

The sutras themselves are short, almost cryptic sentences; they are not easy to understand without the help of an expert commentator. Therefore further translations decipher and rehash these ‘truths’ and are produced by other renowned and equally respected sage’s such as Swami Jnaneshvara Bharati, Swami Satchidananda and B.K.S Iyengar.

Whilst these can often conflict in their views, it is important to note they do not compete. Each individual attempts only to allude to what they believe Patanjali’s teachings are trying to communicate. Swami Jnaneshvara describes this with the following;

If an art teacher asked a class of ten students to each paint a picture of a vase of flowers, the result would be ten different paintings, which might bear some resemblance to one another, yet would each be unique. The same thing happens when descriptions are written about the practices of the Yoga Sutras, or other such writings. It is important to remember this when reading commentaries, so as to experience them as complementary rather than as contradictory.

Where Do I Start?

Image Credit: Zach Dischner.  on Flickr.
Image Credit: Zach Dischner. on Flickr.

B.K.S Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras is one I would recommend as a hand to hold whilst dipping your toe into the sea of yoga literature. Iyengar breaks down each of the four padas or parts, then translates each individual sutra while providing his own comprehensible commentary alongside. If you feel like starting straight away, SwamiJ.com is a great resource to study the sutras.

However yoga literature is about finding what works for you. Like any sophisticated reading, it requires patience and an open mind. The only thing I will guarantee is that once you’re in, you will reap the benefits in both your physical and mental practice.

What’s The Big Deal About The Sutras?

 A teacher once explained this [The Sutras] to me in relation to Dorothy and her friends in the land of Oz, where everyone was made to wear green glasses. This made them see the whole land of Oz completely differently to its reality. It wasn’t green at all! Back in the real world, we have four branches that work to cloud our perceptions, acting as our own set of green glasses—ego (asmita), attachment (raga), aversion (dvesa), and fear (abhinivesa).
~Tanya McNaughtan

The Yoga Sutra’s form the physiological basis for your physical practice. Whether you know it or not, you are already immersed in the teachings of the ancient sage, Patanjali. For example, in stepping into a yoga class you’ve taken the first step to samādhi (or liberation) without even realising it!

By reading these texts we can begin to understand where yoga really comes from. Personally, I can do without the romanticized history. I find The Yoga Sutras’ grounded, knowledgeable facts about contemporary and ancient yoga culture are what make me a better teacher, and more importantly a better student.

How has the ancient practice touched upon by Patañjali evolved into what we practice today? How does this inform where we must take it next, if anywhere? The sutras may not answer all of your questions, in fact they may only raise more, but that is the beauty of it. We are all students. If you don’t feel like one yet, pick up this text and allow yourself to become one.

How do you feel about Yoga literature? Have a favourite text? Comment and let us know!


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The Yoga Sutras 101

India is a qualified Yoga teacher from sleepy Norfolk, now based in Manchester via London. She is a PR girl by day, charity founder and writer by night and Yogi every minute in between. Loves: Peanut butter and headstands Hates: Seaworld

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