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The Wisdom of Patanjali

19 September 2013

Most students of yoga have heard of Patanjali, but if they haven’t, then it’s only a matter of time before they do. Patanjali was an Indian sage who distilled the essence of India’s spiritual/philosophical traditions, which included centuries of philosophies and practices, and condensed this knowledge into 196 “Yoga Sutras”. With these concise sutras (aka aphorisms), Patanjali codified India’s sixth philosophical system called Yoga (the other 5 being Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Purva Mimamsa and Vedanta) and subsequently became known as the father of Classical Yoga or as it’s commonly referred to today, Ashtanga yoga. In addition to Ashtanga Yoga, the Yoga Sutras are also sometimes referred to as Raja Yoga, or the Royal Yoga.

While Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are thought to be as old as 400 BCE, archaeological evidence and other ancient texts suggest that the methods described in the Yoga Sutras may have been practiced as early as 3000 BCE. Oral tradition asserts that the period may be even earlier.

The word ‘sutras’ is derived from the word ‘suture’, which conveys that the sentences are short, compact and stitched together. Every sutra contains a deep meaning and can stand on its own as well as be taken in context with the rest. A good analogy often used to describe the yoga sutras is a pearl necklace, where each pearl (each sutra) is complete in itself but takes its full expression when strung together with the others, like a necklace.

The condensed form of the Yoga Sutras has yet another purpose: they can be easily memorized, and that’s exactly what has happened: they’ve been memorized and chanted in Indian ashrams for well over 2000 years and that continues today.

When studied from the most basic level, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras will give us insights into the human mind, how it works and how it affects the way we perceive our circumstances, our experiences and how we feel about them. Patanjali felt our problem was our perception of the world and how it is limited to our senses and our thoughts about them. So, he suggests that in order for us to experience the enlightenment we seek and establish the freedom and liberation we desire, we need to dedicate some of our time to taking our attention away from the outside world we live in, and turn within. Most of us already know this to a certain degree; we realize that when our lives get too hectic we can get overwhelmed and our spiritual maturity is sacrificed as a result.

On a much deeper level, what Patanjali is suggesting is that when we turn our focus from the external world back to our inner selves, the path itself will slowly draw us toward the goal, increasingly unveiling the “Light of the Soul.”

Even though yoga students come from an assortment of backgrounds it is still important for each of them to know that yoga is universal and regardless of your religious orientation or whether you are a ‘believer’ or not, your practice will reflect precisely what you need at any given time. If you are inclined toward the Divine (God, the Absolute or whatever name you choose), practicing yoga will make you feel more in tune with the sanctity of life. On the other hand, if you don’t relate to such concepts, your yoga practice is likely to give you more strength and stamina to achieve what you want in life, and in all probability, you’ll slowly develop a sense of awe and an “attitude of gratitude” toward all of life.

Returning  to the concept of yoga being a path toward discovering the Light of the Soul, Patanjali says that the path of yoga can help us to realize that the creative force that keeps the universe humming behind the scenes is identical to the force that keeps us going. Consciousness is what makes us aware of, and able to, express this. It can be a difficult concept to grasp but its essence is captured beautifully by Yann Martel in his novel, “Life of Pi:” “That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing.The finite within the infinite, the infinite within the finite.”

Yoga even goes a step further, for as we all have heard the word Yoga means literally to yoke or unite, and means that we have the inherent potential to actually unite our soul or Individual Consciousness (life force/creative power) with Universal Consciousness (universe’s life force/creative power).

Now this is a lofty goal indeed, and patience dictates we take first things first and learn how we “turn our attention inward?” The answer to this question is Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras’ main contribution towards the goal. His sutras give us a scientific method, a set of practices and techniques to experiment with and that will slowly sharpen our awareness of our body, mind and breath. Gradually, the subtler aspects of our being start to reveal themselves.

An Overview of the Yoga Sutras and their application for students/practitioners of Yoga

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras consist of four chapters (or books) and the most relevant to a beginning yoga practitioner today is the second chapter called Sadhana pada meaning spiritual path or spiritual practice. Central to this chapter is the description of the well known “Eightfold Path,” sometimes called “Eight Limbs of Yoga” (see link below). There are no English words that can translate perfectly these concepts which were originally written in the Sanskrit language and each word of each sutra leaves place for interpretation. The sutras need to be “decoded” so to speak, and then reviewed until they begin to make sense. Different commentaries written on the sutras must be analyzed and compared. And this can be a laborious task since in the 1980’s and 90’s, a period when yoga was rapidly gaining in popularity, many individual commentaries started to emerge and now we can find hundreds of them written by Yogis, Swamis, scholars, pandits and philosophers, all from varying perspectives and some of them more relevant than others to our contemporary life. The internet is loaded with examples of these commentaries; just do a “Google search” for Patanjali or the Yoga Sutras and explore them for yourself and see how they apply to you, your practice and your life.

If we consider Eightfold Path the core of Yoga practice, then these eight steps will indicate a logical (and scientific) pathway that leads to the attainment of physical, ethical, emotional, mental and psycho-spiritual health. Remember, Yoga does not seek to change the student or practitioner; rather, it allows the natural state of total health and integration in each of us to evolve and become a reality.

Of related interest, click on: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and Advaita Vedanta

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Patanjali’s Eightfold Path (the 8 Limbs of Yoga)

*Rae Indigo is ERYT500 

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