Are you a serious yogi? Have you read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali? I do not mean a commentary explaining to you how they relate to your yoga practice, but the actual sutras (the translated verses) themselves.
Do you feel the same way I do when I read someone else’s interpretation in English? I am not sure if I have ever had experiences described like “the seer abiding in itself.” Moreover, words like “mind-stuff” do not find their way into my vocabulary too often.
But when I chant the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit, something else happens. I actually become what the translation is talking about. I know this sounds weird: I get what the “seer-thing” is all about. When I chant the Sanskrit syllables related to being a ‘witness-to-all-things’, the “I” in me dissolves into something I cannot really describe but I know exists. It is something a priori—a sense of being that stands before what I think about it.
It is hard to put into words what a blown-off mind is like—somewhat like describing chocolate to a gold fish. All I know is how the experience of the Yoga Sutras in Sanskrit feels inside: relaxed, empty-yet-full, electric, momentary, and aware. And strangely, this feeling seems to be able to see—yet not judge—like a passive (and content) witness.
The tangible difference between reading the Yoga Sutras in English versus chanting them in Sanskrit is due to the effect each language has on you. Simply, English pulls you out of your whole body-feeling experience and Sanskrit puts you back into it.
In a modern language like English, you have to add feeling or emphasis to the words you speak in order to express the meaning you desire. For example, I can say, “I love you,” with passion, with sarcasm, with tenderness, or with anger. The words themselves do not exhibit feeling. You have to add that yourself to articulate what you wish to communicate emotionally. (You can also conceal what you really feel by manipulating the tone and emotion of your words, which we often do.)
In Sanskrit, however, meaning and feeling are identical. You cannot pronounce a Sanskrit word perfectly without transmitting a specific feeling that arises from voicing its syllables. Its vibrations, like music, present a feeling to your nervous system that cannot be altered or denied. That feeling naturally triggers a meaning.
Chanting and listening to the pure vibrations of Sanskrit awaken a profound inner feeling. Higher states of consciousness increase through continuous and refined sensory contact within the ears and vocal cavity. In Vedic education at the basis of yoga, you do not learn a subject by making reference to sources outside yourself. Instead, knowledge results by awakening your own inherent capacity to know everything within your highly sophisticated nervous system.
Neuroscience claims that we only utilize ten percent of our brain’s capability. The feeling that a certain vibration generates within you could awaken the remaining ninety percent that is lying dormant. For example—if I want to understand algebra, according to the Vedas, I simply need to enliven my capacity to know algebra that already exists within my intelligent nervous system. I just need to awaken it.
For this reason, the sacred teachings of yoga are not “read” like books in English, but are “felt,” arousing your own intrinsic faculty to know through the vibrations of Sanskrit. To culture “feeling intelligence,” all sacred scriptures related to self-realization were always composed in Sanskrit and orally transmitted from teacher to student. Spoken and heard, the Sanskrit syllables open a new pathway of feeling in the nervous system, allowing a student to relate with whole body, mind and breath to the subject. All intelligence, therefore, is emotional intelligence.
Now consider an example.
The first sutra of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is often translated as: “Now begins the discourse on yoga.” As you read this in English, note the feeling that arises in you that determines how you understand what the sutra means. If you are like me, it feels like a “preface,” which is usually something I quickly discard as not being very important.
Consider the same sutra in Sanskrit: atha yoga-anushasanam. Experience how the first word, atha, feels inside. (And know this “secret” about all teachings in Sanskrit: the first word contains the meaning and feeling of the entire teaching. So if you feel the first word properly, you will automatically understand the meaning of the whole.)
The first syllable of atha, a, is pronounced “uh.” Say that sound a few times, contrasting it with “aah.” When you say “uh,” you feel a contraction inside. In contrast, “aah” creates a feeling of release and expansion. You do not say, “Uh, I’m in love.” You say instead, “Aah, I’m in love,” and, “Uh, I stubbed my toe!”
“Uh” is a contraction. Because it is a contracting feeling, it communicates the meaning “no,” “not” or “negation.” It is like in English when we say something is “atypical.” It means it is “not typical.”
“Uh” is the first of 16 vowels in Sanskrit, each one corresponding with the 16 phases of the waxing/waning moon. Each phase of the moon has a particular emotional quality associated with it that’s communicated to your nervous system via a vowel sound in Sanskrit.
The first syllable of atha correlates with a feeling arising on the new moon. During the new moon phase, we experience an absence of light. With that absence, we can see the totality. We see the fullness of the sky and stars in the cosmos.
Likewise, when we contract deep inside ourselves with the sound, “uh,” we are pulled beyond the limitations of this gross physical form. We experience a state of pure being and inner freedom. Even though it connotes something negative, “not, negation or no”, it really has to do with “not this.” You are not your body, your feelings, or your thoughts. Rather you are part of something much deeper and much more expansive on an inner level. That is “uh.”
The next syllable of atha is tha.
It is not like “tha” in “thank you.” In Sanskrit, you pronounce this sound by bringing the tongue in between the teeth. Then you drop the jaw straight down like a ventriloquist doll, “thuh.”
As you repeat this sound, the energy feels like it is being pulled down. When you drop something, the force of gravity causes it to fall. “Thuh” both feels and means “gravity”, which is the cause for your bondage to the earth.
Together, if you say “uh-thuh” it feels and means “no gravity,” “not bound” or “no bondage.” It means and feels like freedom. If you are not subject to the laws of gravity, you are liberated. When are you free? Are you free when your mind is stuck in the past? Or when you are projecting onto the future?
You are free right now in this moment.
That is why the translation of atha is “now.” The goal of yoga is summarized and experienced in that first word: Now. Now is yoga, which is anu-shasanam, a slight command to be aware. If you can feel the pulse of the present moment contained in the Sanskrit word atha, you are established in the state of union that is yoga. You are totally and perfectly free.
The remaining sutras unfold the experience of the present moment so you can train your instinctive and reactionary intelligence to pull back from the urge to spin out. In this way, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras embody a vibrational code that allows you to experience the teachings within your own body and mind when you chant them in Sanskrit.
So do not read the Yoga Sutras. Feel them instead.
Edited by Assistant Yoga Editor, Soumyajeet Chattaraj.
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