I first discovered the Yoga Sutras the way many yogis do; through a lecture on the 8-Limbs of Yoga as a part of my 200-hour yoga teacher training. It was one of our two workshops on the Yoga Sutras; the other was a more general look at the first ten or so sutras. That, a short lecture on the story of Shiva and Shakti, and a Chakra meditation made up the entire philosophical portion of my training. I was then given a certificate and a Yoga Alliance ID number and set off into the world to teach.
Two years later, I sat in the front row (I’m kind of a nerd) of my History of Yoga and Tantra class at New York University. Today’s lecture topic? The Yoga Sutras. My professor began, and, at first, I was infuriated. In teacher training, I had been told that the Yoga Sutras were an ancient text that contained some of the most important and life-changing wisdom known to humans. I had learned that yoga today was founded on the brilliance of the Yoga Sutras and was more or less led to believe I should worship the ground Patanjali had once walked on.
Now, my professor was telling me the Yoga Sutras were a relatively new text written less than 2,000 years ago for a select group of male hermits. Apparently, the Yoga Sutras were a dead text for a long time and that most yogis over the past millennium had opted for the more practical and relevant Hatha Yoga practices. In fact, very few yogis gave two shits about the Yoga Sutras until some British guy found the old manuscript, translated it to English, and sent it West as one of the “authoritative texts on yoga.”
My professor mocked the obsession modern yogis have with the book and, as an obsessed modern yogi myself; I was offended. But, as I mentioned earlier, I am also a nerd. So I heard him out. I re-read the Yoga Sutras, particularly the chapters we did not discuss in my teacher training, and I looked into the history and context a bit more. As I did so, I started to think maybe, just maybe, my professor was right. Maybe the Yoga Sutras really didn’t have anything to do with the yoga I was currently practicing and teaching.
But what are the Yoga Sutras? And why are modern yogis so obsessed with them, anyway?
The Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 sutras (aka aphorisms) written by the ancient sage Patanjali around 400 CE. While no one knows exactly who Patanjali was or if he was even a singular person or a group of people, the Yoga Sutras have come to be accepted as one of the most important yoga philosophy texts in the world.
Often treated as ancient philosophical wisdom, the Yoga Sutras were actually written more as a manual than a philosophy. The 196 sutras explain what yoga is, why we should do it, how we will benefit from it, and how to practice it. But again, this was written circa 400 CE according to The Science of Yoga, by William Broad, so the yoga Patanjali is talking about is very different than the yoga we practice today. But more on that later.
The Yoga Sutras were translated to English during British colonial rule around the 19th century as an effort to better understand Hindu philosophy and religion. This, alongside the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, were some of the only texts the British found that explained yoga in a way they could understand. Since these were the only major texts we had, they became the authority. At the time, we had little to no understanding of the history or context of the Yoga Sutras, but since it had “yoga” in the title and was one of our only literary options, the book-obsessed Western world ate it up. We consumed the Yoga Sutras hungrily, defined yoga by the words of Patanjali, and spread it to all our other Western friends as THE conclusive text on yoga.
How are the Yoga Sutras taught today? What’s the problem with the way we consume and teach them?
As yoga’s popularity grew across the United States, the Yoga Sutras grew with it. As of today, Yoga Alliance requires all 200-hour trainings to include a minimum of 30 hours dedicated to yoga philosophy, lifestyle, and ethics for teachers. Their first suggestion for topics? The Yoga Sutras. This collection of aphorisms has grown to be the most commonly taught yoga text around the world. And yet, most teacher trainings (like my own) dedicate a total of about 5 hours to the Yoga Sutras and focus almost exclusively on the 8-limbs of yoga while ignoring any of the context or controversy of the text.
This would be fine if we approached the Yoga Sutras for what it is: a very old manual written for hermits that contains some bits of timeless wisdom and a lot of outdated techniques for a world we no longer live in. But that’s not how we are taught to view the Yoga Sutras. Instead, we are given a snippet of the book to read and are told the Yoga Sutras are the bible of yoga. Then we send all these teachers out into the world believing that every word of the Yoga Sutras is sacred while hardly understanding any of the actual words themselves. And it’s not like you can just read the text and know what it’s saying; every copy of the Yoga Sutras is accompanied by pages and pages of translation and commentary, and most of these commentaries directly contradict one another.
Translating the Yoga Sutras is incredibly complicated. Sanskrit is one of the oldest languages in the world, has many more words than the English language, and was, originally, a purely oral language. Its transformation into a written form occurred simultaneously across many cultures, making it an incredibly flexible language. One word can easily be translated with a dozen different meanings depending on the context in which the word is used. For example, take the second yoga sutra: “Yoga citta vritti nirodhah.” Here are just a few translations of this oft-discussed sutra:
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations, or whirlings, of the mind. (Jivamukti Yoga)
Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness. (Yoga Journal)
Complete mastery over the modifications of the mind is called yoga. (Yoga International)
And that’s one of the less complex sutras. Because of the difficulty of translating the Yoga Sutras, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of unique translations out there. Between that and the inadequate time or context given to teaching the sutras, it is no wonder most teachers have no idea what they are actually about.
What is yoga as described by the Yoga Sutras, and who is it for? How is it different than the yoga we practice?
The yoga practiced today is born out of the Hatha Yoga movement that occurred in India during the Muslim invasion (around the 12th-16th century), combined with the aerobic exercises introduced into the practice during British colonialism (around the 17th-19th century). The Yoga Sutras, however, belong to a different tradition; in particular, Rāja Yoga.
Before Hatha Yoga (the yoga of the household practitioner) was developed, yoga was a practice exclusively for ascetics. Hatha Yoga focuses on the use of prana and a small set of asanas to move energy through the body and raise one’s kundalini energy. In contrast, Rāja Yoga focuses on using concentration and meditative absorption to still the fluctuations of the mind, the ultimate goal. The ascetics who practiced Rāja Yoga renounced the material world, moved to the mountains, and lived off alms. They spent hours upon hours in meditative practice with the goal of stopping all thought, emotion, and mental activity to allow pure awareness to see its true nature.
The practices in the Yoga Sutras are formed around the assumption that the practitioner is living a reclusive lifestyle entirely devoted to the goal of liberation from the patterns of consciousness. Trying to offer the aphorisms of this book to the modern yogi is like trying to say that a 1900’s book on etiquette for women is relevant to the modern feminist. We live in a different world, and our practices are, by necessity, different. Unless one is looking to completely isolate themselves from society, denounce all sensual experience, and spend the rest of their lives in meditation, there is little in the Yoga Sutra that corresponds to the yoga we are practicing today.
Yoga teacher and professor of Kinesiology, Sociology, and Religious Studies, Colin Hall, puts it perfectly:
“There is significant evidence that the yoga tradition associated with the Yoga Sutras has, like the dinosaurs, been extinct for many years. To study the yoga sutras is to examine the bones of yoga as it walked the earth 2000 years ago.”
In email discussions regarding the sutras with Julian Walker, an experienced yoga teacher, and teacher trainer, he pointed out a particularly interesting sutra that highlights this issue. Sutra 2.40, according to Chip Hartranft, reads, “With bodily purification, one’s body ceases to be compelling, likewise contact with others.” Or, as Georg Feuerstein translates, “Through purity, [he gains] distance towards his own limbs [and also] [the desire for] non-contamination by others.”
Patanjali saw the body as a barrier to liberation and a challenge to be overcome (for more on this sutra, check out this amazing article). Our modern yoga practice is pretty much the opposite of this. We celebrate the amazing bodies we live in and all they do for us. We promote body positivity and self-love. We move our bodies in a way that honors them; we spend endless energy on healing and connecting with them. The contradiction between the advice of the sutras and the practices of today are an important consideration upon studying the Yoga Sutras and one of the reasons we have to stop treating it like some sacred, untouchable text. Or, as Julian said:
“At the end of the day, for me, Patanjali is a mixed bag of somewhat insightful observations about our minds, outrageous claims of magical powers that are typical of most yoga sales pitches of that time, and a religious puritanism [i.e. sutra 2.40 above] and does not inspire me or relate to my yoga practice or teaching in any way. However, we have enshrined it as a kind of holy book, regardless of what it actually says and whether or not it is really relevant to modern posture practice, and I think that is a mistake.”
So what do the Yoga Sutras have to offer and how can we integrate them with our modern yoga practice?
Believe it or not, I am not anti-Patanjali. In fact, I have now read the sutras cover-to-cover three times and look forward to analyzing it further in the future. I think it is a fascinating piece of history that we can learn a lot from, but we have to keep in mind its context. The Yoga Sutras are not some ancient, holy guide to the practice of yoga, but rather an interesting artifact that can inform our inquiry into the philosophy of yoga. Again, quoting Julian:
“Looking at Patanjali as philosophy, we can then compare and contrast with other contradictory, but still yogic, philosophical positions like Tantra, Adveita Vedanta, Buddhism, etcetera in a more adult, education-style examination of what we think and believe, and why, instead of the bible-study style approach most teacher trainings have taken to the text in the last 50 years.”
So yes, I do think we should study the Yoga Sutras. And I do think it should inform our practice. But we also should study a wide range of texts, both ancient and modern, that give us a more holistic understanding of what yoga is and how it came to be that way. For example, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Bhagavad Gita, and Yoga Sutras are all important texts. But so are the Upanishads (Atharvaveda and others), the Rigveda, Gheranda Samhita, and books that explore the philosophies of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Tantra (e.g. Shiva Sutras and Goraksha Shataka) – all of which greatly influenced the development of yoga.
In addition, we need to combine our study of ancient literature with an exploration into modern texts that offer unique and challenging approaches to traditional philosophies. For example, Yoga Body by Mark Singleton is a fantastic book on how modern yoga emerged. In fact, I would wholeheartedly suggest any book by Mark Singleton for those looking for a more critical and informed approach to yoga philosophy and history. Tantra Illuminated by Christopher D. Wallis is another insightful one that demonstrates what Tantra is and how it shaped the yoga we practice. I’m also a fan of the “Read+Watch” section of Shut Up & Yoga as a source of growing my reading list.
In the long run, I would love to see the requirements of Yoga Alliance change to put a greater emphasis on a balanced and contextualized approach to teaching the history and philosophy of yoga. This, however, takes time. As individual yoga students and teachers, it is our job to seek better education on these topics. Expand your reading list. Follow teachers on social media that challenge the accepted yoga dogma. Attend workshops by teachers you trust to be critical. Open conversations with your fellow yogis about the context and relevance of the yogic philosophies we worship. And, most of all, embrace the power of discernment. Because, at the end of the day, it is your practice, and only you can determine what is or is not relevant.
As individual yoga students and teachers, it is our job to seek better education on these topics.
Untangle the Yoga Sutras with me on The Beginner’s Mind Podcast
This series is co-produced with The Beginner’s Mind Podcast. Every other week, I post an article about a yoga topic that is on my mind (as you just saw with the Yoga Sutras). Then, the week after, I interview an expert in the field on my podcast, The Beginner’s Mind.
For this one, I interviewed Colin Hall, and we’re going even deeper into the sutras themselves. We analyze what they say, what they mean, and how they apply (or more likely, don’t apply) to modern yoga. I have a lot of opinions, and Colin is really smart, so it’s guaranteed to be a fascinating and controversial discussion about how the Yoga Sutras fit into modern yoga practice. You can find and listen to the episode here (or wherever you get your podcasts).