Before Wayne Dyer wrote Change Your Thoughts-Change Your Life…
Before Eckhart Tolle wrote The Power of Now…
Heck, even before Louise Hay wrote You Can Heal Your Life there was (were?) …
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Believe it or not, our modern yoga practice is actually based on a text that was written between 200 and 400 CE. Prior to the compilation of the Yoga Sutras, early yoga practices included things like meditation and fire ceremonies. These practices were mainly performed by the Vedic priests. The Yoga Sutras are different because they were not written for sages and seers, but for the common everyday people living in the Indus Valley at the time.
In addition to the Yoga Sutras, several ancient texts inform the practice we now recognize to be yoga. The Vedas, a collection of four supposedly authorless texts, were the oldest. The Vedas addressed many topics. The Upanishads were a part of the Vedas that specifically focused on that region’s spiritual philosophy. The Ramayana and Mahabharata (of which the Bhagavad Gita was part) were also written at this time.
Interestingly enough, after these writings were compiled, yoga as a practice went underground for a while. Its practitioners were mostly obscure mystics and extreme aesthetics who existed on the fringes of proper Hindu Indian society. In fact, this lasted all the way up to the 19th century when Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga to the West at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.
What are the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali?
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of 196 short statements called sutras. The word sutra means “stitch” or “thread” in Sanskrit. Long ago, teachings such as those found in the Yoga Sutras were not written down. They were orally passed on from teacher to student. It was very important that the teachings be concise so the student could more easily remember them.
Like many sacred texts, the Yoga Sutras are one document divided into shorter books, or pada in Sanskrit. There are only four books that make up the Yoga Sutras. In order they are Samadhi Pada (Book of Contemplation), Sadhana Pada (Book of Practice), Vibhuti Pada (Book of Accomplishments), and Kaivalya Pada (Book of Absoluteness). Patanjali begins the Yoga Sutras by defining the goal of Yoga. Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind. According to Sri Swami Satchidananda, it is possible for one to achieve Yoga simply by reading this statement. The remainder of the text illuminates this one sutra.
Where does our modern yoga practice come from?
In the Yoga Sutras Patanjali outlines Ashtanga Yoga, also known as “the eight-limbed path of Yoga”. This is not the same Ashtanga yoga as taught by K. Pattabhi Jois, although it is where the practice derived its name. In order, the practices are:
- Yamas (restraints)
- Niyamas (observances)
- Asana (posture practice)
- Pranayama (breathing techniques)
- Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses)
- Dharana (focus)
- Dhyana (meditation)
- Samadhi (absorption or bliss)
According to Patanjali, when we do these eight practices, we develop viveka, or wise discernment. Viveka allows us to cultivate a calm, steady mind. In other words, the ultimate goal of Yoga is not Samadhi, which in Sanskrit means “bliss”. Samadhi is a practice that helps us achieve viveka, the goal of Yoga.
But who was Patanjali???
We don’t know a lot about Patanjali. It is possible that he was a sage who wrote or channeled the Yoga Sutras. It is also possible that Patanjali’s teachings were actually compiled by his students who attributed the Yoga Sutras to him. It also could be that Patanjali himself was a mythological figure. The people living in the Indus Valley at the time were not as concerned with historically accurate data as we are. Through their writings they were concerned with communicating a deeper universal truth. Simply because something was not factually accurate did not mean it was not true.
Of course, it could also be that the following legend is true….
Once upon a time there was a lovely woman named Anjali who wished for a child. She prayed and prayed to the god Vishnu, the Sustainer, that he would bless her with a child.
Well, on this particular day it had come to Vishnu’s attention that the world was in distress. Things were not so bad that Vishnu felt the need to go to earth himself as an avatar, but they were bad enough that the other deities were pressuring him to do something. In his frustration, he pushed Ananda, his serpent-couch, over the edge of heaven.
Ananda was so surprised; he did not have time to fully change into human form as he descended to earth. He fell farther and farther…. Right into Anjali’s praying hands!
He had the body of a baby boy, but a snake’s tale. Clearly, this was not the child Anjali had expected, but she didn’t care! The word pat means “hand” in Sanskrit. Grateful, Anjali named the child Patanjali because he fell into her open hands.
Kaivalya, Alanna, and Arjuna van der Kooij. Myths of the Asanas: The Stories at the Heart of Yoga. San Rafael, Palace Press International, 2010.
Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali/translation and commentary by Swami Satchidananda. Yogaville, Inc., Integral Yoga Publications, 2011.
Singleton, Mark. Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc., 2010.
Image by Ben White on Unsplash.com