Why Does Patanjali Matter?! I Think We Can Do Better.

Via Julian Walker
on Apr 14, 2011
get elephant's newsletter

Hello yoga colleagues! I am interested in starting a dialog here about what I think is a bit of a disconnect between what is really going on in 21st century American Yoga and the way philosophy is being taught in teacher training programs. I am myself not an expert, learned scholar, translator or historian, but have a personal intellectual context that the practice of yoga and meditation fits into for me – and I love to share it. What follows are some ideas and perspectives you may already be familiar with, but I just want to carve out my niche a little – I hope it is at the very least somewhat entertaining!

Let me put my perspective/biases on the table right from the start: I am an immigrant, a sort of refugee from what was both a racist regime under South African Apartheid, but also a kind of theocracy. Biblical chapter and verse were quoted in support of the racial oppression of Apartheid, all businesses were closed on Sunday, no sports played, no movie theaters open etc, and all schools taught Bible study, recited the Lord’s prayer and sang the standard war-faring/religious national anthem in classrooms.

I came to the USA a very idealistic young man: a musician who had played under an assumed name in illegal protest rock circles, a member of a small group of conscientious objectors who were threatened with 6 year jail sentences for refusing to conform with the Apartheid draft to which all white boys were subjected. This protest rock, draft-dodging, and generally counter-culture movement I was part of in South Africa in the 80’s had a lot in common with America in the 60’s. I must have watched the movie made about Woodstock 20 to 30 times, and believed I was coming to the land of freedom, open-mindedness, and liberal intelligence. For me, my overly-idealized notions of the 60’s were America. Of course, arriving in the year of Bush Snr’s first foray into the Gulf – I was to find out otherwise!

Draft card being burned.

Nonetheless, this image of America included the historically rare phenomenon of a generation of young people turning away from their dominant culture, way of life, and religion, to explore and embrace philosophies and practices from other traditions. The counter-culture revolution that really brought yoga and meditation into American life was based in a radical desire to question everything, to seek truth beyond authoritarian dogma and control, to attain to a kind of transcendence and liberated new identity that was pursued at the time  through music, dance, psychoactive drugs, sexual awakening, and a fascination with the East.

It was this specific cocktail of hippie rebellion that took people like Ram Dass (formerly Richard Alpert) to India, and would later pave the way for the many meditation and yoga teachers to journey to the East and bring back the treasures of the inner life they discovered. Of course, with hindsight,  the hippie movement is something that we can critique; for its selfishness, over-indulgence, adolescent attitudes etc, but it really did forever change the world in ways we often take for granted now.

One of the things that drew me personally to yoga and meditation was this explicit association with going beyond the limitations of conventional society and traditional religion, and discovering – via direct experience, dedicated practice, and a rigorous thought – the truth beyond social conditioning, psychological repression, and self-delusion. In my continuing study of spiritual traditions, I found that there was a group in each of the major traditions that was always pushing the envelope, always seeking to stay in an alive relationship to their inquiry and a celebration of personal awakening. These brave spiritual adventurers were often oppressed for going against the calcified structures of the hybrid of political and religious authoritarian power.

These mystics were Sufis in Islam, Tantrics and Non-Dualists in Hinduism/Buddhism, various brands of heretic in Christianity, and we could perhaps include Kabbalists in Judaism. For many years these types of thinkers were my heroes, and it is for this reason I have always read Rumi, Kabir, Hafez, Lala, Mirabai, Hildegard, and other fiery, potent and passionate poets of radical self-awakening in my classes.

In the tubs at Esalen

For me there is a kind of lineage that runs from the spiritual rebels of several hundred years ago, people like the currently popular Rumi, whose students had to meet in secret – to people like Britian’s William Blake, who wrote in the 1700’s about a powerful direct experience of spirituality beyond the restrictions of the religion that surrounded him – to  the late 1800’s and the New England group that included Thoreau, Emerson and America’s own great mystic poet Walt Whitman, whose passionate expression of the sacredness of nature, the human body and sexuality were considered scandalous in his time. This lineage continues through the “beat poets” of the 1950’s and 60’s who were heavily influenced by Alan Watt’s and the Zen master D.T. Suzuki he was instrumental in bringing to San Francisco – and my sense is that all of this gives birth to what was at the time called the “human potential movement,” which combined humanistic psychology, encounter groups, Yoga, meditation, and teaching on Zen and world mythology from luminaries like Watts, Ram Dass,  Joseph Campbell, Abraham Maslow, Fritz Perls and others at places like Esalen in Big Sur, California.

Image inspired by the ecstatic poetry of Rumi.

The human potential movement was the love-child of 60’s rebellion and a kind of intellectual and spiritual curiosity about the possibilities of a disciplined intention to wake up and make a positive contribution to the world once the smoke of of the hippies had cleared. Yet all of this only seems possible in the light of an attitude of inquiry that valued essence over dogma, experience over belief, awakening over piety, nature and humanism over transcendent otherworldliness.

It seems to me quite ironic to find that as yoga becomes more institutionalized as part of American society, this attitude of personal awakening is often left by the wayside in favor of a kind of pious lip-service that amounts to an almost religious instilling of classical Hindu beliefs, based largely in the sutra of Patanjali – as if these are scriptures to be learned by rote and believed-in as gospel. This learning of the aphorisms is taught under the title of “philosophy,” but not a lot of philosophy gets done; ie not much critical thinking, comparing of ideas, encouragement to think through these teachings and see if they hold water is offered.

Let's emphasize the awe-inspiring "Great Sage" label a little less and actually evaluate his ideas.

I wonder what it would take to inspire a more robust discussion of the roots of Yoga, and also a more updated, contemporary inclusion of the thinkers, ideas and perspectives that American Yoga has been shaped by over the last 50 odd years?

It seems to me that what is going on experientially in our yoga world is not that accurately contextualized by Patanjali, who is of course just one thinker amongst many in the rich tradition of India, before we even start to add more contemporary voices from the powerful East/West dialog between Classical Yoga, Western Psychology, Tantra, Buddhism, the mystic poets, Transpersonalists and integral Theorists like Stan Grof, Jack Kornfield, and Ken Wilber etc and even the Somatic Psychology thread that I trace from Reich to Lowen to contemporaries like Peter Levine..

So – this is just an opening introduction to what I hope can become a hearty conversation about the future of Yoga, and especially the cultural and philosophical context we find ourselves in now and how we train teachers to cultivate and teach viveka and cross-cultural inquiry rather than a kind of rote parroting of metaphysical beliefs.

In my next post, I will discuss some of my misgivings re: Patanjali, and some of the perspectives I think that should at the very least be included in a well-rounded consideration of the subject of “Yoga Philosophy.”

Please let me know if this is an interesting project to be involved with in the comments below! Also feel free to forward this to anyone else in our global community who you think would be interested in participating…. I envision us taking turns contributing articles and discussing in the comments section – like a big symposium. Wanna play?!

Here is Part One of my deconstruction of the Great Sage!


About Julian Walker

Julian Walker is the founder of http://www.yogateachergradschool.com/ where he supports new and established yoga teachers in living their dreams through business development. He is a writer who has been teaching yoga since 1994, and co-teaches the Awakened Heart, Embodied Mind Yoga Teacher Training in LA with Hala Khouri.Julian's writing is featured in the book 21st Century Yoga available on Amazon.com. www.julianwalkeryoga.com


53 Responses to “Why Does Patanjali Matter?! I Think We Can Do Better.”

  1. Marlene says:

    Julian, looking forward to playing…..

  2. Colin says:

    I would totally get in on this action. I feel that Patanjali is an inherently revolutionary text that has been intentionally misinterpreted by religious and academic zealots who attempt to draw from the authority of scripture while operating under the blinding influence of ideology. Lets rock.

  3. dan says:

    Another here looking forward to your misgivings and critiques.
    A major theme I’ve seen in the critiques of the ys (and yoga-stuff generally) center around the goals of the reader not agreeing with that of the text. The ys are about and for kaivalya, and perhaps set aside the more intellectual ideas (ignoring some altogether) to make way for the doing aspects. I’ve always taken it as a practical guide and reference, not a complete manual or perfect dissertation. That said, people (myself included of course) usually read what they want to read, regardless of what they are reading. For this reason, the rote and as-gospel are practical, particularly as most people talking about samadhis, kaivalya etc have no experience with them, and the text has been promoted by those who (supposedly) do. It would be great to hear viveka as often as down-dog (outside the muted way all postures do via attentiveness), but that doesn’t seem to be what most show up for. (pardon the ramble!)
    To your list of influencers, I would add Yogananda, whose autobiography (ubiquitous on bookstore shelves) is significantly about the “magic” of yoga/yogins (though his yoga is a bit different from “modern”/american/studio yoga), and in magnifying the magical looks like charlatanism, turning people off to the “higher” pursuit. The myth of the hippie did/does this too, framing meditation as something for the dirty lazy self-centered “whatever dude” hypocrite.

  4. Shyam Dodge says:

    All of this is a long way of saying that the bias you point to comes more from adherents to the sutras than those who study them as academics.

    The sutras are inherently religious and therefore are inherently tied to troubling metaphysical ideologies that are wedded to social realities that make yoga practitioners uncomfortable. These uncomfortable social realities are then deemed by yoga ideologues as distinct or separate from the "true" spiritual or "revolutionary" teachings of the sutras. But in fact, these social realities are not so easily cut from the sutras. It is true that yoga has been a means for some to escape the social structure of south asia, but so has taking up the catholic priesthood in europe done the same thing for those wanting to escape Western social ills in previous times. But no one would say that catholicism is somehow not a religion…

  5. Wow, a great discussion going already and this great blog hasn't even be publicized much yet! This fits like a glove with our friends from yoga 2.0 and their similar inquiry into the Yoga Sutra (See http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/04/the-eight-… and others.)

    Please welcome new regular contributor Julian to Elephant. Great to have you here.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  6. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  7. Sorry but this shows an almost ignorant mis-understanding of the yoga sutras. The Sutras are a step by step guide to the experience of ones true self, not a Hindu religious text. They are meant as a guide for practice, and if you follow it [meaning actually practice the 8 limbs, not just philosophize about them], then anyone can see and experience the truth of them for themselves. My suggestion is that you practice the path outlined in the yoga sutras for one year, then come back and tell us about all the improvements made by the 21st century western yoga teachers, and why it is an improvement.

  8. This is good stuff. If what passes for philosophical inquiry in yoga circles is a kind of unthinking, rote acquiescence to Patanjali — more accurately, no doubt, one person's interpretation of Patanjali — the tendency should be nipped in the bud before the same calcification that afflicts education and religion sets in. It would be antithetical to the spirit of yoga — and, if the term is permitted — Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma — to discourage doubt, disagreement and challenge. The Gita advises aspirants to approach the wise with homage AND repeated inquiry. Not unquestioning acceptance, but serious — repeated — inquiry. To me, Patanjali is an authoritative source — one of many — but that doesn't mean he should not be subjected to analysis, interpretation and rigorous debate.
    One word of caution, since the relative world is characterized by paradox. Sometimes we can be just as religiously attached to rejecting authority as we can be to accepting authority blindly.

  9. yogijulian says:

    jackson i am confused as to how i can be demonstrating such ignorant misunderstanding before i have even begin my critique! 🙂

    perhaps you are pointing out that it is a misunderstanding of the sutras to teach them in the way i am observing?

    why don't we wait till i get to my reading through and analyzing the text before you jump your guns? i am sure you will have useful comments on the areas i find problematic – most of which have to do with philosophical issues regarding dualism, supernaturalism and appeal to divine authority….

    my request – hang in and let's see where we can go!

  10. yogijulian says:

    phil i would find the knee jerk rejection of authority as problematic s the blind acceptance of same! glad you find the project a useful one..

  11. Carol Horton says:

    Great post, Julian. Personally, I think that this sort of in-depth, philosophically rich, psychologically informed, historically contextualized exploration of what yoga as we actually experience it today is about has been notably lacking and has much to offer. Looking forward to reading more!

  12. ok Julian, I am actually sorry and would like to take back the use of a term like ignorant because you really are one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful of the local yoga writers and teachers, and passionate about sharing solid information. It was an emotional response, coming from my passion for the yoga sutras, which I have studied and followed for over 35 years, and which has validated itself in my experience over and over again. I, like I usually do, go halfway with you, because I totally agree that the knowledge and wisdom of the yoga sutras should be [and easily can be] contexted and re-interpreted to the unique time, place, and culture we live in now. In fact, that is what I attempt to do in my teaching of it.

    The yoga sutras are self validating, there is absolutely no need for blind acceptance of it, nor does it ask you to believe in anything. if you follow the path, you will achieve the result, no matter what you believe, which it very specifically defines as the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness. Now if your yoga practice, the way you or anyone else may define it, is not to experience the union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness, then you are reading the wrong book, it is not your brand, orientation, or understanding of yoga. But if you are practicing yoga for the traditional definition of it, as defined in the yoga sutras, then this path will work every time, it is completely fleshed out, and step by step. It is by far the most scientific of all of the spiritual texts.

    Now I know you are going to fight the concept of universal consciousness, but again, the intellectual argument of it is futile, if you want to know universal consciousness, practice the 8 limbs. Otherwise you are doing the equivalent of trying to argue that there is no such thing as love, without ever having experienced love.

    • yogijulian says:

      jackson – how gracious! thanks man. yea i guess that is part of what i am sort of pointing out…. that we get very emotive about these texts and sometimes cannot tolerate them being critiqued. i understand that your response comes from them being very powerful in your life and practice – yet i think the real process of exploring philosophy is one of questioning and assessing, debating and critiquing and of course in the context of a text that relates to a praxis, actually engaging in the prescribed process – as you point out!

      your commentary above strikes me as an interesting blend though of an "argument from authority" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority) and the classic spiritual stance that the intellect is an obstacle to "true" spiritual knowledge. it also makes my point for me that this is a religious text which requires that a certain belief (or interpretation) be accepted a priori for an experiential process that actually may have alternative interpretations and may lead to other beliefs entirely. this belief is namely that of a "universal consciousness" or "god." for me a philosophy that has this as an unquestioned assumption is not a philosophy at all.

      for me, this is where the difference between approaching it as philosophy vs scripture is key.

      i think it is good with spiritual texts to be careful about thinking one has to buy into the belief system/interpretation in order for the experience it points out to be revealed. my sense is that there are experiences innate to the human neurochemistry that exist independent of the interpretations and beliefs that are ascribed to them by cultural context and metaphysical dogma.

      a good example is this idea that the explicit aim of yoga is the "union of individual consciousness with universal consciousness." as philosophers and interested students i think we do well to look at this statement and it's metaphysical assumptions both with an eye towards it's cultural and temporal context and towards how we interpret/evaluate it in our cultural and temporal context and in light of what is known now about (for example) psychology, neuroscience, the universe etc….

      my sense is that patanjali was working with what he had at hand and doing his best to use a potent set of experiences and his roots in the beliefs/ideas/mode of inquiry of his time to set out a definitive description of what he felt yoga was (which some scholars would suggest probably included very little by way of asana!)

      part of my contention here is that this may have very little to do with what the vast majority of contemporary american yogis are either experiencing, finding relevant or setting out to achieve through their practice – and yet it is taught as the definitive text on what yoga is.

      as i will explore, several of the sutras contain formulations of beliefs about the nature of the mind, reality and transformation that i think (in their oversimplified, rote-learned, and decontextualized form) actually perpetuate a lot of obstacles to what i think of as the goal of a contemporary integrated yoga.

    • Hi Jackson & Julian, hope you brothers are well:)

      Jackson, I get a little concerned when people refer to yoga as a "science." By definition what you described above is not scientific in the least. at first glance I see 3 big problems.

      1. Religious systems love to claim that if you "apply the practice to your life, you will no matter what experience for yourself that it is true" or that the "proof of the pudding is in the eating." Great, if it were true. But all non-affirmative experiences are either disregarded or seen as the product of the practitioners "conditioning" and that through more purification or advancement on the path those non-affirming data results will cease to occur. Even if you only have 1 confirming experience out of 100 attempts, that is considered scientific proof. What's dangerous about this is that it completely ignores psychology, emotional bonding, neurobiology, etc. Furthermore, it is rampant confirmation bias http://bit.ly/D30j and speaks more to how cults work than how science operates. While spiritual experience is a valid neurobiological reality it is also easily explained through science and does not need "transcendental" explanations. This leads to the second point.
      2. Confirmation bias in systems like this are inherently tied to appeals to authority. Within this structure we are told that universal consciousness is supreme and therefore supersedes reason based approaches to ascertaining truth. But access to such universal consciousness is contained within certain revered texts and in the consciousness of certain teachers. Thereby placing ultimate authority outside of the realm of testable parameters, and therefore must be accepted as true until enlightenment hits. This is a classic dupe and appeal to higher authority, laying true wisdom in the realm of privileged insight.

      3. This then makes universal consciousness impossible to disprove since the parameters and criteria that are set preclude any possibility of refutation. It is a circular dance that claims that one has to experience for themselves this "truth" but which relies upon "future" hypothetical revelation for confirmation and disregards all other non-affirming data. This by its very nature is the opposite of science.

      • jackson ebner says:

        all points well made. yoga is definitely not a science in the strict sense, it is more of an inner experiment than an outer experiment, and it does have to be experienced to fully evaluate the wisdom of it. The interpretation of the experience is something else, we can philosophize that til the cows come home. I myself rather defend the sutras as a genius text as a development manual for the human mind than as a scientific treatise on the science of consciousness. I think it was designed more as the former than the latter. However there is much material in these sutras to contribute to a science of consciousness, especially for those scientists who are interested in doing their own exploring, as opposed to just studying other people.

        Also it is important to understand that the Sutras ask for no belief, it is not a belief system, it is an experience system. The experience system comes with many benefits that can be easily objectively assessed.

  13. Annie Kim says:

    i don't know very much about yoga, the sutras or about Patanjali…but, i do find this topic interesting… would someone care to give a specific example of a sutra or dogma that is in question? and how it relates to your life? thank you…

  14. TamingAuthor says:

    Patanjali rocks. ** Placing him back on his pedestal. **

    Esalen thought has become moldy. Has not held up. Too much steam from the hot tubs caused wilted thinking. Call the pool man. Bring heavy chemicals.

    Buddhism walks parallel to Patanjali. Two old friends walking along the same path laughing and joking and having a great time. Recalling the Vedic hymns as well.

    Christian mystics were conspicuously left out of the critique. They have been with the Christian tradition from day one and also provide a path. Much of interest to be found. Well hidden by being out in plain sight.

    Will be interesting to see you lean up against the great traditions with "a rebel with a sutra" attitude. I imagine, like Arjuna, you will be out there on the battlefield swinging the sword, mixing it up.

    • yogijulian says:

      haha – yea well said. i and my teaching partner hala khouri are trying to reinvigorate a more robust and grounded tradition at esalen… 🙂

  15. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

  16. Katy Poole says:

    The issue is that most contemporary yogis read Patanjali in translation as objective philosophy, which it is not. The sutras in Sanskrit are a vibratory experience to be entered into to transform the ordinary consciousness of an unenlightened mind. When they are translated into English and commented on (and mostly read out of order, which is vital in all Sanskrit transmissions), the "point" is completely lost. Even more distressing is the reading of the yamas and niyamas as some kind of yogic 10 commandments, which is again totally beyond their original context within the larger experience of the samadhi state of consciousness. It's really too bad that authors like this have so little understanding of Sanskrit as a sonic technology for awakening and expanding higher states of awareness.

  17. […] which gets a little fuzzy for me, as the scriptures date back to thousands of years ago (and then there’s the Patanjali character who I am trying to wrap my head […]

  18. […] is a continuation of the exploration – Part 1: Samadhipadah is here, and the Introduction to this enterprise is here. Please feel free to join in the discussion, but check out the previous entries as well so as to […]

  19. […] Houston quotes author of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali: “We access all information by becoming it through the focus of our […]

  20. KeypeTerRar says:

    True eternal beauty resides within skin. The passage of time, however, brews its corrupting effects on the skin and you’re simply playing a wrinkly appearance. Will you sometimes wish that, with just a wriggle on the nose, you will enjoy back your kids like soft and supple skin? Well, there won’t be anyone approaching to your account by using a elixir of youth but that does not imply that you have to settle for a dull aging skin. All the deep dreadful aging signs are effectively eliminated with all the Revivagenix, the best skin revival cream for you to revitalize and rejuvenate the actual skin.

    Aging for women isn’t necessarily an attractive phenomenon, and this also is reasonably an all natural feeling as each of the wrinkles, fines lines and sagginess begin to choose your epidermis with the progressing age. Consequently, women are usually seeking a secure and efficient cure to smoothen out many of the skin imperfections and flaunt a firm flawless skin. And this hunt for a timeless beauty, an excellent wrinkle lifting option is everything you are able to gift skin for restoring its juvenility.

    It visibly lessens the appearance of fine lines and deep wrinkles which consists of apple stem cell formulation. You’ll be able to celebrate a long time of youth by using a smooth and silky, glowing skin how the sheer touch of your wonderful wrinkle reducer will furnish you. Revivagenix is a great method to let the actual skin breathe a brand new life with the benefits that follow:

    * Revivagenix Apple Stem Cell GelVisibly cuts down on the appearance of proper lines
    * Effectively eliminates deep wrinkles
    * Activates cell proliferation
    * Promotes lifetime of skin cells
    * Restores a company and flawless skin
    * No painful injections or invasive surgeries
    * Totally safe and all sorts of natural

    The top and zip nevertheless the best skin treatment ingredients are contained within each pack of your amazing wrinkle reducing serum. Matrixyl3000 can be a powerful formula that repairs the many damage a result of getting older. It operates by renewing many of the skin cells afresh and even activates the cell proliferation process that becomes weaker and weaker since your age advances.

    Revivagenix Apple Stem Cell Gel

    For ladies who’re classy enough to demand nothing but the top, why be happy with a skin that is definitely something less than just perfect. Purchase this amazing wrinkle cream through the official website of Revivagenix and seal skin with a youthful glow.

    Great Benefits Revivagenix Nano Gel

  21. […] love Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutras; I have almost as many editions as I do fingers and […]

Leave a Reply