Patanjali's Yoga Sutras - Introduction and Thoughts Sutras 1-3
The Yoga Sutras are over a two-thousand year old text collated and configured by Patanjali. Little is known of the man himself, but this enigmatic figure left behind one of the most complete, written codes around practices of yoga that people still read and reference today. Essentially a form of ancient poetry, these 196 verses are written in Sanskrit, and deliver 'sutras' - concise one-liners - easy to memorise and indicative of the oral traditions they sprung from.
While yoga had been around before Patanjali, the philosophy of practice was still taking shape - what yoga can be defined as, as well as the purposes and the pursuit/in action element. He collated lots of ideas presented in prior texts that would have influenced him, such as The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita, delivering a more precise, systemised model for yoga thought and practice than those presented before.
Over the years, many translations and interpretations have been taken from the Sutras, and while with any written text, there is a directness, language is never fixed, nor the meaning. The Sutras are as much about Patanjali's intention as they are the way they land with their reader; ultimately, they are here to help you make sense of your practice and how it fits into wider lineages and traditions.
Literally translating to 'transcendental threads', The Yoga Sutras are organised into four books, and today we are going to talk about just three from the first chapter of book one.
These are our thoughts, our mind meanderings, which we hope will encourage you to make your own. Enjoy!
Chapter 1 - Samadhi Pada - 'The Contemplation Chapter'
In this chapter there are fifty-one threads of wisdom presented to you, to invoke thought and inquiry, and provide guidance on what yoga means to you singularly and collectively.
“With prayer for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga.” - translation by B.K.S Iyengar.
Much emphasis is put on the use of 'now' in this verse, often thought of as evoking an entrance into 'presence'. It makes sense that a text on the art of yoga would be framed in this way - from what we have experienced of the practice and many of our students comment on, yoga is an invitation into the now, the eternity of the moment and what is going on for us in our bodies and minds, within that. It is a respectful turn of the tongue too - words such as 'divine', 'blessings' and 'sacred' give a nod towards the lineage behind the journey before us. Yes, this is a translation of the original Sanskrit (by Iyengar from 'Light on the Yoga Sutras'), however they feel like an elaboration of sentiments clearly there, the use of 'now' really harnessing insinuations of practices that have long been around but have not yet been collated into a concise methodology. Patanjali is aware, it seems, that he is the first to do this.
“Yoga is the individual discipline that leads to the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.” - the definition of yoga as chitta vritti nirodha - stilling the mind.
This definition would have been one of the earliest attempts at capturing the meaning of yoga - why we do it and how. Difficult to sum up in one line! Have you ever had someone ask you what yoga is and found yourself a little flustered, grasping for words that fall short of encapsulating the vastness of your thoughts and feelings? It's not uncommon for a practice that serves you down to your core. Words literally do feel like they fail in this category, especially when the prevailing state after practice is clarity, calm, stillness… language, in the linguistic sense, tends to pervade us here. Yet, Patanjali feels close, if not on the mark, for most. The emphasis on 'individual discipline' is an important one to make - yoga is a journey inward, to the self, and a practice of getting comfortable with what you find there. The idea of stilling the mind in this process feels paramount too, however we can't help but question whether, in those hard-to-find-stillness moments, your yoga is left feeling less valid. Of course, Patanjali may simply be keeping his lens wide, and the idea is that stillness is cultivated over time. The focus purely on the mind, too, feels a little dualistic, or not - perhaps mind and body are so intertwined, the mind alone is indicative of the body. Chitta is the 'mind' in question, which many have taken to mean consciousness as a whole, rather than just the psyche. Lots to think about here…
“When this happens then the Seer is revealed, resting in its own essential nature, and one realises the True Self.” - translated by Mukunda Stiles.
From as early as this third verse, we start to see Patanjali's 'threads' coming together; singular ideas interweaving with each other, and the whole. After noticing the ripples of the mind/consciousness, and successfully distilling them, you are then in a position where you see yourself as apart from these influences; resting in your 'true self', or swarupa - own form. We prefer the idea of 'truest' here, because it gives more encouragement to the development of clarity, rather than everything resting on reaching that final pinnacle of quiet. Another thing to note in this sutra is the contingency of self-realisation and revelation on things being the stillest of the still. Can we engage with our deeper nature without reaching some serene plain first? Is this what Patanjali is saying, or does the 'rest', the silence, come hand in hand when the veil is lifted - when we see ourselves, truly, as we are?
Lots of ideas and questions arising from us, and hopefully, you here! Do let us know, either in comments, emails or simply dropping by for a chat, what you think about the sutras we have discussed here. We'll be continuing this wee philosophical dive next month with more from Chapter 1. We hope you enjoyed!