Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: Distorted Echoes from a Distant Past. ~ Christian Möllenhoff

Via on Mar 4, 2013


Any yoga teacher today with a little self-respect has at least some knowledge of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali.

In the West it is one of the most read treaties on yoga and by some even seen as its source. The Yoga Sutra expounds Raja yoga, also called Ashtanga yoga or the yoga of eight limbs (not to be confused with the modern body practice of Patthabi Jois), a comprehensive system that is supposed to lead the adept to ultimate liberation.

The Yoga Sutra definitely doesn’t make for leisurely reading. Actually, the teachings expounded are so sophisticated that numerous subsequent masters have written commentaries on the text to make it more accessible. In some cases, further commentaries have even been written to explain the first ones.

Not only is the Yoga Sutra sophisticated in its content, it is also sophisticated in the very way it is composed. The sutra style is a form of condensed code language where the multi-dimensional complexity of Sanskrit, is pushed to its limits. According to tradition, Patanjali was a master grammarian and his sutras are packed with clever constructions and subtle references that as westerners we can only dream of grasping. Only someone proficient in both Sanskrit and mantra can appreciate these subtleties. And of course, it is all lost when translated.

On top of this, the Yoga Sutra was actually not written to be read and studied. It was composed long before the appearance of the printing press and was meant to be chanted out loud and to be heard. The code language helped memorization so that the entire composition could be passed down orally more easily from one person to the next. It was to be understood in its proper context through the direct contact between guru and disciple. The Yoga Sutra as independent textbook is a modern occurrence.

The fact that the Yoga Sutra was composed more than 2,000 years ago in a society fundamentally different to ours has far reaching implications as well. As a work from a past age and foreign culture, more than just clever formulations and wordplays are doomed to be lost. When we as westerners attempt to give meaning to the Yoga Sutra, we do so through a new thought paradigm and through discourse that reflects today’s day and age.

When the modern practitioner of asana yoga seeks support in the sutra, there is one particularly important and often overlooked contextual difference: the Yoga Sutra was not composed in a context where yoga was what it is today. Hatha yoga, the alleged source of contemporary asana practices, emerged more than 1,000 years after Patanjali. And the modern body cult we call yoga today is even a much more recent phenomenon.

At first glance it might be tempting and convenient for a modern yoga teacher or commentator to ignore this essential difference and go ahead anyway and superimpose the Yoga Sutra on to modern practices. But in order to do that, uncomfortable passages that don’t quite work with such intentions will be inevitably neutralized or avoided.

For example, a good portion of the text describes a plethora of supernatural powers supposedly obtained from a correct practice. One sutra suggests mind-expanding plants as a valid means to obtain knowledge and a surprising importance is additionally given to difficult austerities for the sake of fostering the mind.

The concept of Ishvara is also quite problematic as it is mostly (in the absence of better options) translated into English as God. By using this word our understanding of this sutra is immediately conditioned and limited with one of the most opaque notions of our own culture. But whether defined as God or not, Ishvara remains disturbing for the secular mind and resonates poorly with our religious admiration for science.

In spite of all this, we continue to not have any problems picking and choosing the sutras we feel comfortable with in order to find authority when we feel we lack it.

As with generic Bible quotes, the same sutras are now used to back up a whole variety of practices and ideas. The interpretations are so different one from the other that they cannot possibly all reflect the original thoughts of Patanjali himself.

As if all of this is not enough, the celebrity status the Yoga Sutra enjoys is limited to the international yoga scene. There are actually no indications that it was ever assigned the same kind of importance among Indian yogis. In the tradition of Patanjali, which is gone since a long time back, this work might have been central, but for other Indian traditions the Yoga Sutra is just one work among many others.

In the end we are left with a censored text, which has lost much significant substance from translation, and from differences in context, culture and thought. We are left with a work that perhaps never had the defining importance we imagine and that is interpreted according to need and situation and projected onto something Patanjali was never part of.

Having been dead for more than 2,000 years Patanjali is obviously unavailable for comments or clarifications. A real shame, isn’t it? And this is exactly the reason why in the tradition of yoga little significance was ever given to textual material:

Authority lies in the spoken word transmitted by a live guru, the living tangible link to past tradition and articulator of personal understanding and insight.



Christian_portrait_08_06_10Christian Möllenhoff is a Swedish yoga and meditation teacher living in Paris, France. He is the senior teacher at Yoga & Méditation Paris. He has many years of experience in advanced hatha yoga and meditations from the yoga tradition. He lived an ashram life for several years and is a devoted karma yoga practitioner.



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Ed: Brianna Bemel

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19 Responses to “Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: Distorted Echoes from a Distant Past. ~ Christian Möllenhoff”

  1. J.R. says:

    Like! (How does that translate into Sanskrit? ! ! !)

  2. Scott Miller says:

    For an updated perspective on the history of the Yoga Sutra, check out "A Woman Authored the Yoga Sutra." It's on this blog. Link.. .

    • The mentioned article is an excellent example of how we can squeeze anything we like our of this good old text.

      • Scott Miller says:

        The main squeeze already happened. A patriarchal society re-conceived the Yoga Sutra according to what it wanted to see as yogic and people are reluctant to make a reasonable change that will help us recognize what happened. There would be all kinds of benefits to making the change. We could develop clearer ideas about lots of useful concepts. For example, you mention that Ishvara is usually translated as God. That's not really true. Ishvara is most commonly translated as the First Teacher, or First Guru. We can understand that concept in a useful way. It relates to Plato's understanding of Knowledge being pre-existent. It relates to the Tibetan Buddhist understanding of "Chenrezig" in the sense that a primordial field of Compassion is accessible to our perception even though it is, "a special Purusha," which means it has agency. Regular Purushas have no agency, but obviously, a Purusha that teaches–is the FIrst Teacher itself–must connect with us in order to teach. So I like to look at Ishvara as Yoga itself–an evolutionary non-existent para-energetic structure capable of transmitting Knowledge and Compassion. And that's not just squeezing what I like out of it because the idea has substance and is historically substantiated in a new way.

        • paul says:

          Your take on Isvara is as Patanjali describes it, but while I haven't read every translation, interpreting Isvara using the word "God" is pretty pervasive, if for no other reason than to make a non-technical sounding translations as "God" is the closest word/concept English has to Isvara. Both Edwin Bryant and PN Mukerji (who did the Hariharananda Aranya translation) use God, I'm sure there are a number of other popular translations that use God. It is a very different concept though, and a problematic word even with explanation as to how it is being used.

  3. paul says:

    Patanjali is often expressed to support the outlook of the (mis)interpreter, but the yoga sutras themselves are very influential and the article seems generally confused about what it is and what it says. It is a text among many texts, but it's historical importance in is shown by the numerous, voluminous commentaries by luminaries (Sankara for one) and outsiders (like al-Biruni), showing that while it may not have importance in the present-day practice of India's yogis (it would be great to have a source/study/survey to back this up), as an historical influence its importance is pervasive. Also, as an oral text it is part of oral tradition, not apart from it.

    There is a lot to pick at in this article, but I found these few sentences the most troublesome: "supernatural powers supposedly obtained from a correct practice." It is not from a 'correct practice' but from a certain practice (samyama) on a particular object that the powers are said to come.
    "..One sutra suggests mind-expanding plants as a valid means to obtain knowledge" I don't know where the author got this from; 'oshadhi' (herb) is mentioned as something from which the powers can arise, but isn't specific about which powers or let alone what plants. The knowledge (jnana) 'born of discrimination' (viveka-ja) (a jnana said to be the supreme jnana and a result of samyama on moment and it's succession), is mentioned a few sutras before the plant one, but this is a separate section; sutras are written in an unmarked 'outline' style, where a heading and what falls under it are not marked.
    "..and a surprising importance is additionally given to difficult austerities for the sake of fostering the mind." I have no clue as to why it would be surprising; 'the mind' is in general is a huge tangled mess of a concept and the way Patanjali's defines it (as chitta, which is effected by the fluctuations of sleep, correct and incorrect perception, imagination, and memory) expresses this mess. Austerity (tapas) is to "burn' karma, and so aid in correct perception and so too decoupling the Self from the non-self, an objective in Patanjali's system.

    • Hi Paul,

      Concerning the historical importance of the Yoga Sutra in Inda check out this interview with David Gordon White. He studied manuscript catalogues of Indian collections and libraries.

      Shankara was responsible for many great achievements and he wrote commentaries on many texts. Though he also commented on the Yoga Sutra I think it is fair to say that he does not give it the same attention it gets from the transnational modern yoga movement. There are yoga teacher training programs today where the Yoga Sutra is the only text studied. I do not claim in the article that the Sutras has had no historical importance at all.

      To those, like yourself, who are familiar with traditional Indian yoga, austerities might not be surprising. But to those who see in yoga an exercises program to acquire a healthy and fit body, it is.

  4. Scott Miller says:

    Hey Paul.
    I'm sure that someone as intelligent as you fully appreciated my "main squeeze" joke, but you forgot to compliment it.

    • paul says:

      Whether the a result of a faulty memory, a misperception, a nonperception, or even aversion, I hope you can overlook my non-virtuous action, based on ignorance, violent, and instigator of sorrow as it is, that your own joy and virtue remain steady; you seem to have enough compliments to go around in the meanwhile ;)

  5. Scott Miller says:

    I can and have overlooked it, yes. But I remain hopeful that things will be different next time. I'm sure they will be, Paul, because outside of this one forgivable oversight, you're the best commenter on the elephant blog.

    • paul says:

      Thanks Scott, that is going on my resume! May we observe intelligence and come to know it as Consciousness assumes of its form(s). :)

  6. Johnny Axelsson says:

    The "problem" with Patanjalis sutra as it is used in todays western yoga seems to be ready to adress. One might like to read Metthew Remski´s "Threads of Yoga" which deals with a lot of the difficulties with the text, like the aversion to the body, just to mention one of many examples that would clash with almost any "school" of today who uses the text.
    Nice article again! Thanks.

  7. Hi Paul and thanks for the discussion.

    Lets make the distinction between the YS, the tradition of Patanjali and the corpus of ideas this tradition was based on. It is often argued that, and to me it seems plausible, the YS is a formulation of the teachings of Patanjalis tradition rather than the beginning of it. If one accepts that the ideas the tradition was based on were widespread at the time of Patanjali that could also account for the same ideas influencing later traditions.

    When you describe the exultation of the YS you mention two of the main personalities of transnational yoga, which represents a paradigm that is quite different from that of the orthodox lineages and sampradayas. Apart from the ones you mention I think that the revival of the YS at this time could also in part be explained by the selective interest of the Theosophical society and western academics.

    I can support you in that there is a certain intrinsic mystique to the YS, but not necessarily only in the ideas promoted. Even though the YS can be translated on one level, the invocative qualities of the syllables (matrikas) have no chance of making it to a foreign language. Mantra is an inaccessible part of yoga and its importance is underestimated in the west. This article by Baba Rampuri and the following conversation between himself and Douglas Brooks is informative on the subject.

    But even with the best of intentions that which can be translated is going to be colored by the translators ideas, world view and culture etc. This is common knowledge among anthropologists. Because of the subtle and also at times rather obscure nature of the text there will inevitably be guesswork, consciously or unconsciously as to what is meant and why it is at all included (and as you pointed out with the herbs I might also have suffered from that). This we can se in the many different interpretations put forth. I have not read Bryant but from what you are saying I do not doubt that he is a highly qualified translator and commentator. But is it the original ideas of Patanjali that he reveals ?

    You are absolutely right in that purusha is difficult to test scientifically! It is also difficult to reach the level of concentration where the qualities of purusha is revealed. I dare to say that the majority of the meditators of today (and probably of yesterday as well) are not even close to what is described in the YS. As mentioned in the text itself, to get to these levels one need a good bit of motivation. Only reading the Sutra certainly will not get you far.

    In the context of an oral yoga tradition “study” would be very different from today. The text would not be “studied” as we know it because the authority does not lie in the text itself, but in the teachers who have assimilated its spirit. In an oral tradition the Sutra would be part of a context that is permeated by the same knowledge that the text is a formulation of. The “studying” would primarily take place in the interaction and dialogue between the student and the teacher based on references that are relevant for them.

    • paul says:

      I think you're right that the YS are a compilation/continuation (and this is the consensus academic and otherwise, it does start atha /anu/shasanam after all). For the most part it is descriptive (vs. prescriptive, which is not to say what it describes is plausible), which also supports that it is "in the stream" (vs. "a spring"). Different lists of yamas and niyamas (the YS 5 of each, most other texts list 10 each (that I've seen, cf. Tirumandiram among others) or more) show the "the stream" of the tradition. However this does not mean it was not influential and studied; the commentaries show it was an important text. Perhaps (hopefully) White's Bibliography will show more of it's actual influence, looking into the works rather than quantifying them. (Flipping about myself, Dyczkowski's Spandakarika with Four Commentaries say the YS "is quoted by all the commentators except Bhaskara. Patanjali's system is clearly distinct from the Yoga of the Sivasutras, and from that of Kashmiri Saivism in general. Nonetheless these authors frequently quote from the Yogasutra to corroborate their own presentation of Yoga praxis")

      The Theosophical Society promoted and translated a lot of works, and I don't think its understanding of 'yoga' was limited to the YS. A brief google search and I see Vivekanada being more against Theosophy than for it (… ), but I'm not too familiar with the story. I know Singleton and others have written on this, and really I would have to have read a lot more about this history, but I see a drive more to show that the YS and "transnational yoga" is not the traditional or even 'real' yoga, than to show or explain a story in these (and your) narratives. (And to bias, the removal of which I think is a major theme of the YS, Joseph Henrich went from being an anthropologist to a psychologist for going too far from the flock academically, and wrote a long piece in 2009 about how psychologically skewed Americans and the psychological experiments done on them are,… which has a link to the paper).

      • paul says:

        The grammarian and yogin are said by academia to not be the same person (adding to the difficulty of discerning the importance of the YS), but I'm not going to argue that :)

        I spoke with a friend today who is in academic buddhsit studies, I (unsuccessfully) tried to argue that the fundamentally different use ment it was two texts being read. She differentiated the use and function of the text from the text itself, saying that the text would be considered the same though it's use might lead to a different understanding. Nonetheless, I will say that the chanted YS is a different text than the studied/read text. Chanting (properly) goes to a whole different understanding and effect of a text, where the interface is to all the bodies, rather than just to the mental/intellectual (ie. a full immersion without expectation vs. any sort of trying to comprehend (something that does not require looking at written words)).

        As to the "pure" YS, even Vyasa seems already to have a take that skews towards his own views. I do think there is a way to pull out the original intent, but this would take a lot of If it is taken as a collection of different writers, the "pure" of it is already spoiled, as for instance the Isvara of the first chapter may be a different conceptualization that the Isvara of the Astanga section (which includes the 'ista-devata' as well as Isvara-pranidhana). And for finding a Teacher, the yogis/mediators of yesterday who were "at the level" of what the YS describe were likely in as short supply (at least to our capacity to find them), and as picky, as they are today, so while a student-teacher relationship can facilitate a rapid understanding/grock, it is limited by the teacher.

        I agree that "just reading" is no where near as efficacious as having a genuine teacher (regardless of their "attainment"), but because the YS is so extensive, "just reading" is just the reason the YS is such a great vehicle for an introduction to yoga, and as a "primary text" to the "transnational yoga" world. Though its strengths can be its weaknesses, being succinct and covering a lot of material as it does (leaving much for discussion an interpretation), the YS *as a written text* provides reference and a map and guide, showing the obstacles and describing the environment of various meditative states, the morals and discipline required, and o so so much more. [insert ad for my (nonexistent) book/product here :)] I see 'removing bias' as an essential undercurrent in the YS, and so I must admit too that my bias towards seeing bias eliminated may bias me to the end. :)

        I think a restructuring (rather than revisioning as for instance Remski does) would really help in comprehending it, and though this would ruin the "intrinsic mystic" value (which as you say is effectively lost in any translation (and I did mean "mystic" rather than "mystique", though there may be some humor I'm missing)), as an introduction this would be useful.

        • paul says:

          I left out that many people are not prepared emotionally or mentally (karmicly as it were) for the rigors of a "real" ascetic-style practice, and so while the YS go beyond what most of us will experience in our meditative practice, it remains a source for standards that typically go beyond the ones we might otherwise expect of ourselves.

        • paul says:

          oops, my cutting and pasting is bad: the cut off sentence should read "I do think there is a way to pull out the original intent, but this would take a lot of historical, philological and contextual skill perhaps only a team of willing scholars could muster." :(

          • I have enjoyed your informed and also amusing comments and critique. I believe that it is important to get ones views challenged. While we do not agree on everything it seems that we agree more than it first appeared. I do not have anything more to add except that “mystique” was not an attempt at humor, but rather an expression of the difficulties in communication across languages and cultures, I am a Swede living in France after all.

          • paul says:

            Language and culture are difficult if not impossible hurdles to cross, I'm glad you wrote on Patanjali regardless of our differences towards it; I enjoy being challenged as well, and the exchange.. :)

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