Yoga Sutras: If Patanjali Had Been a Woman…

Via on Nov 23, 2010

…He would have sounded a lot like Nischala Joy Devi. An internationally renowned yoga teacher, she is also the author of The Secret Power of Yoga, a book in which she uncovers the “heart and spirit” of the Yoga Sutras.

Devi’s translation of Patanjali’s most famous sutra—Yogah Citta Vritti Nirodahah— is so sweet, Tantric and heart-centered that it makes all previous translations of these Sanskrit words look as if written by male, academic experts hell-bent on mind-control.

Why? Because, it looks to me that Patanjali himself was hell-bent on mind control.

Let me explain. Devi’s warm, simple, and deeply personal translations are different from any I have read before. Ironically, they remind me of the liberal way Robert Bly—a very sweet but also a very manly man—translates Rumi, Kabir and Mirabai. There’s a personal directness, liberty, and freshness of spirit in each line which other translations lack.

She writes that the above sutra, in which Patanjali explains the meaning of yoga, should be interpreted as follows:

Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.

Compare this to her male counterpart, prolific yoga expert Georg Feuerstein’s translation:

Yoga is the restrictions of the fluctuation of consciousness.

Devi’s translation gives us a feeling of warmth, unity, and hope; that yoga is about opening ourselves into a state of being that is already known to our hearts. Feuerstein’s translation gives us a sense that yoga is a discipline to chastise the mind into submission. And that’s not Feuerstein’s fault. It’s Patanjali’s.

Feuerstein’s translation is indeed a lot closer to the literal meaning of Patanjali’s words than Devi’s.

Citta means mind, or consciousness. Vritti means tendency or fluctuation. Nirodha means restriction or suspension.

There is really nothing about the heart or about unity in Patanjali’s original sutra. In the words of my guru, Anandamurti, who interprets this sutra much like Feuerstein, Patanjali meant that a yogi must suspend his or her “mental tendencies” (vrittis) in order to find peace, and thus to experience the goal of yoga.

In fact, Anandamurti reminds us that the idea that yoga means unity, that yoga is a devotional concept, that yoga is the path of the heart–that this profound idea comes from Tantra, not from Patanjali.

In Tantra it is said that yoga means the unity between the individual soul and the cosmic soul, the unity between your heart and the cosmic heart, the unity between you and the Beloved. The Sanskrit transliteration for that is: Samyoga yoga ityukto jivatma paramatmanah.

In other words, Nischala Joy Devi’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 reads a lot like the way yoga is explained in Tantra; that yoga is the path of the heart; that our consciousness abides in the heart; that yoga means union.

But for Patanjali yoga meant something else, something manly, something dreary, something uninspired. For him yoga meant the “suspension of our mental tendencies” or “the restrictions of the fluctuations of consciousness.”

Here’s another angle. The word Citta, which is integral to understanding this sutra, is often translated as “consciousness,” but it also means “mind.” Our vrittis, our desires, our wants, our endless mental tendencies, they reside in our mind, in our citta. And Patanjali wants us to control those vrittis in the citta, in the mind, in order to experience yoga.

But in Tantra the way toward yoga is not through control but through the way of union. In Tantra the path of yoga is the path of alchemical transmutation rather than through control.  And the way of transmutation goes through the heart, not the mind, through consciousness, not the intellect.

Resembling this heartfelt spirit of Tantra, Nischala Joy Devi writes: “When this sutra is referencing only the mind, the emphasis is on control, restraint, or some form of restriction. It encourages students to be harsh with consciousness.”

Because of this harshness of language, of interpretation, of philosophy—for Patanjali was first and foremost a philosopher—the Yoga Sutras never became popular in India, writes Feuerstein. Why? Because the Indian people, as Gregory David Robert writes in his bestselling book Shantaram, they are all about the heart. They live first and foremost in the heart.

And so do women. And so do the Tantrics. And that is why I prefer the Tantric interpretation of yoga: that yoga is about uniting consciousness through the way of the heart, through the way of love for the Divine.

About Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes was born in Norway and lived for nearly three years in India and Nepal learning directly from the masters of tantric yoga. He has written extensively on tantra, yoga, culture and sustainability, and his articles have appeared in books and numerous magazines and newspapers in Europe and the US. His forthcoming book on Tantra will be published by Hay House India soon. He is currently contributing editor of New Renaissance and a columnist for Fredrikstad Blad, a Norwegian newspaper. He lives in an eco-village in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Visit his blog here: Eight Fold Path. His book Sacred Body, Sacred Spirit: A Personal Guide to the Wisdom of Yoga and Tantra can be purchased here.

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23 Responses to “Yoga Sutras: If Patanjali Had Been a Woman…”

  1. Carol Horton CarolHorton says:

    What an interesting and thought-provoking post, Ramesh! Given that the Yoga-Sutra has been cannonized as THE text of modern yoga, I hope that your thoughts are shared and debated widely.

    Is there a Tantric philosophical tradition with regard to matters of heart that concern family and relationships? I have always felt that teachings of non-attachment interpreted to mean freeing yourself from the entanglements of human relationship represented a very masculine ideal.

  2. Lindsay says:

    A fellow yogini gave me this book to read about 3 years ago. She looked at me sweetly and said that I would like this translation. And, indeed, it sank in sweet and easy… I was not performing mental gymnastics like I was with other Yoga Sutra translations…everything in its own time…sometimes mental gymnastics are necessary ;-) Thank you for writing about this, Ramesh. I let my main yoga teacher take my copy that had been chewed up by my sister's dog. I might stumble upon another copy and sip in the sweetness of her insight once again.

    • Ramesh says:

      Yes, Lindsay, I think it is important to take in both the stern meaning of Patanjali's original sutra and also the more free-form and poetic translations–both have value–one for the left brain, one for the right, one for the mind, one for the heart.

  3. Carin says:

    I believe that is her. Watch, "Wisdom Flowers Of The Heart"- It's very tender. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j4x-6RGZNmQ
    Thank you for this beautiful entry!

  4. Ramesh says:

    From Facebook:

    *
    Didi Anandarama
    To understand yoga in the true spirit … please read this

    *
    Massimo Barberi
    Interesting, unconventional and provocative (great 3 qualities BTW…) interpretation of the Yoga Sutras ;-)

  5. Ramesh says:

    Bob, a wonderful insight–complementing the Yoga Sutras with the Bhagavad Gita! Yes, Krishna, in his Vraja personality was truly emphasizing the path of Bhakti and of course the whole Radha/Krishna cult of devotion comes from that.
    So, yes, Bob, heart and mind goes together. Yoga is yes/and, not either/or.
    Great point!

    • I agree, Ramesh.

      Just another note of information for our readers. Yes, the Gita certainly covers "Bhakti", the Yoga of love and devotion. But it is equally strong in
      –the Yoga of Knowledge (Jnana),
      –the Yoga of Selfless Action (Karma), and
      –the Yoga of Meditative Discipline (Dhyana/Raja).

      In fact, in the Gita, it's Different Yoga Strokes for Different Yoga Folks, which is one of the many things that make the Gita such an amazing text. It anticipates modern personality style theory, embracing our individual personality types.

      Bob W.

  6. Ramesh says:

    Great points, Bob.
    I tried in my article to point out that Feuerstein was A) more faithful to the original; that B) Nischala Joy Devi took liberties that I nevertheless liked; that my C) own guru and Feuerstein translated the sutra in the same way as they did so faithfully as per the original, and that D) because of this one could conclude that Patanjali's original lacked heart. That was the point I tried to make. Hence the title: If Patanjali had been a woman!

  7. Bhaeravii says:

    I have heard it said that the 7th chakra is not the main chakra, but the anahata, the heart chakra, is. For without the full development of the anahata, the rest is just elementary internal science.

    It is exhillerating to read a woman's version of the understanding of the essence of yoga philosophy. For it is not just for men.

    Patanjali may not have been overall popular, but he is still a viable resource standing up to the generational test of time and most all yogis/yoginis know of the sutras. I keep a copy on my table at all times. Anandamurtii was way into Patanjali. Any serious student of yoga who wants to understand the core intelligence of such, he will have no alternative than to take recourse but to study one of the translations of Patanjali.

    This is really well written article Ramesh.

    • Ramesh says:

      Thank you, Bhaeravii. Yes, the mamata vriiti, the vritti of love, in the anahata chakra, overpowers all other human emotions does it not–from little love to Big Love.

  8. Ramesh says:

    Matt, great points….. yes a lot depends on how we define mind…. an aboriginal will often say that the heart is the seat of the mind, not the head…. and that expanded definition is, I think, Devi's point….

  9. Ramesh says:

    Baba Rampuri commented on your link.

    Baba wrote: "It looks like the Rishi Patanjali is now a post-modern woman replete with end of millenium gender politics. Just shows you what a great siddha can accomplish over just a couple thousand years! (With a little help from his friends)"

  10. Charlotte says:

    I also use Desikachar's translation a lot, but I find Feuerstein's and Hartranft's very helpful as well. I feel that the literal translations like Feuerstein's and Hartranft's provide a scaffolding that some of the more poetic translations help me to fill in. My understanding is that the sutras were deliberately written in a very colorless way, so that whoever reads them can approach them from the starting point of their present understanding. I usually use about 12 translations in my studies.

  11. paul says:

    I stumbled on your post, my 2 cents- I think you’re way off :)

    I do not think Patanjali was being manly or harsh. Terse, yes, but it seems perhaps some baggage needs to be in place before such adjectives can be applied. Additionally, as integralhack mentions, citta is translated more accurately to English less as ‘mind’ and more as ‘heart-mind’, with emotions and all our conscious experience included. Further, ‘nirodha’ can mean ‘confine’ or ‘enclose’ without any semantic twisting whatsoever, and so too ‘bring together’ is not much of a stretch.

    Feuerstein’s approach is the standard sankhya one, appropriate for a scholar, but I don’t think he would claim to have produced the “correct author’s intent”. NJ Devi’s beautiful rendering is supported by 3.38, hrdaye cittasamvit: though by samyama on/at the heart one understands citta. Having seen her video linked above, she does stretch the meanings a bit (‘celebrated’ for labha (‘obtained’, ‘met’)), but then, sutras are designed gaps; her translation seems only slightly derivative from standard translations, and appropriately modern.

    As for ‘hell-bent on mind-control’, 1.21-22 indicates that the imminence of samadhi is relative to the intensity of one’s practice, or as NJ Devi put it: Spiritual Consciousness develops in direct proportion to one’s dedication.

    CarolHorton mentions the interpretation of vairagya as dispassion/non-attachment, but Patanjali doesn’t advise disengagement from the world, instead giving several gems of practical advice for living in it, 1.33′s being friendly with the happy, compassionate with the unhappy, delighted with the virtuous, and indifference to the unvirtuous, to keep citta tranquil, 2.34′s cultivating the opposite, and of course the yamas and niyamas. Uncovering what we’re not, preventing ignorance and future suffering, how can expectations not disappoint?

    Anyways, hope some of that is useful -peace!

  12. Ramesh says:

    Thanks for your comments, Paul. Terse, harsh, manly? Not so much difference in my book.
    It is natural you'll have many interpretations of the same sutra depending on so many factors. So I welcome your 2 cents as part of the stew.

    • James says:

      I think terse has to do with skill. Patanjali's intention was to write something on the essence of the spiritual view and practice. Not an elaborate commentary, but something that communicates everything necessary without frills and that can be used as the basis for more elaborate teaching and commentary. This is one of the (intended) reasons that there is such wide interpretation available, because only the essential point is communicated and the methods used to understand that point, practice it, and integrate it can vary as necessary by individual, time, and circumstance.

      I also think the interpretation that Patanjali thought of yoga as dreary, manly, and uninspired is unfortunate. In my opinion, the creation of such a complete, pithy manual for others to follow the route of transforming their mind could only be produced by an amazingly compassionate being devoted to the liberation of others. I like to think Patanjali thought of the path of yoga as joyful and as a tremendous gift to humanity and was inspired to help aspirants understand the view and practice with integrity, in a complete way.

      All of the lineages of tantra that are communicated through unbroken lines of transmission contain a considerable amount of training that depends upon devotion to discipline in personal practice and effort made at practices that sort out the chaos of the mind. They all recognize that attempting to jump past the early stages of practice that give one clarity and flexibility with the mind just leave one a victim to the ignorance and maelstrom of conflicting emotions that necessarily result from an untrained mind. To regard this notion as manly or dreary or harsh seems again, unfortunate. To dispense with such views and practices as these by dismissing them as unnecessary, primitive, or not as sexy as the more advanced tantric practices which depend upon them may tend to result in spiritual paths that lack integrity and therefore the power to actually make a difference.

  13. sordog1 says:

    Thank you for this discussion. I appreciate the expansion of citta to include heart-mind and/or consciousness all over the body. This is a revelation.
    Shiva

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