March 4, 2013

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

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 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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Christian Möllenhoff Mar 6, 2013 6:11am

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.

Johnny Axelsson Mar 5, 2013 1:08am

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.

Scott Miller Mar 4, 2013 11:21pm

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.

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