The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one of the go-to texts for modern Hatha yogis.
It’s the source of the eight limbs. It’s where the saying that poses should be steady and comfortable (sthira sukham asanam) comes from. In other words, it’s really important.
When I first started to study the Sutras, there were elements that would cause an off-tune reverb in my head. It felt like what I was reading didn’t match what I was being told about what I was reading.
Here are some of the reasons why:
1. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are not about Hatha Yoga.
The Sutras are from around the second century CE. Hatha Yoga began in the Middle Ages. So, why the close connection between the Sutras and modern Hatha Yoga? Because some revolutionaries needed historical cred.
Imagine that it’s late nineteenth century India. England has been around for a long time and in power for nearly 50 years. The British influence was thick throughout the subcontinent. And what was big with the Brits at the time was the Physical Culture movement. Keeping fit for God and Country, that sort of thing.
Now, the revolutionaries were not immune to this at all. A few of them went looking for an indigenous way to strengthen the populace. They adopted the postures of Hatha Yoga, but they couldn’t very well adopt the texts. The texts, like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita, talk about some extreme stuff, like gaining psychic power over people and sucking semen back up through the urethra.
In Victorian India, they couldn’t very well walk around naked and covered in ashes (as Hatha yogis did/do) and expect people to join them in overthrowing the imperialist oppressors. They could, however, harken back to the Classical Yoga of Patanjali and gain a bit of historical credence. This was completely normal in Indian tradition. In order to be taken seriously, every Upanishad claims to be inspired by the Vedas, no matter how far removed the subject matter.
That’s the first reason we study the Sutras. The second is that it’s amazing. Its depth and insight as a guide to Self-realization are extraordinary.
2. Patanjali was a dualist.
Throughout the text, Patanjali refers to prakriti (the material world, including mindstuff) and Purusha (the Absolute, Eternal, Sacred) as two separate things. The goal is to realize the false nature of prakriti. There’s no All is One, That art Thou, Atman equals Brahman here. The material world of change and suffering is not real, and it fades away when we make that realization.
Most of us learned that Yoga is nondual. That’s because Hatha Yoga comes from Tantra. The big idea behind Tantra, which started around the fifth century CE, is if there is only one substance, the Sacred, then this world and everything in it must be Sacred, too. That just isn’t where Patanjali was coming from. But there’s still great stuff here, so let’s not throw out the insight with the worldview.
3. The part about the eight limbs was cut and pasted.
It is accepted that Patanjali compiled the Sutras, meaning he didn’t come up with everything in them on his own. According to Georg Feuerstein, there are two distinct Yoga lineages represented: Kriya Yoga, the Yoga of Action, and Ashtanga Yoga, the Yoga of the Eight Limbs. It turns out, if we take out the part about the eight limbs, the text doesn’t lose any consistency.
This doesn’t mean the eight limbs don’t belong there. Patanjali spends a lot of time telling the reader to practice, practice, practice. But it isn’t until the eight limbs that he tells us how to begin that practice.
4. Asana doesn’t mean posture.
At least, not the way we think of it. At the time Patanjali was writing, asana meant seat or how one sits in meditation. Asana came to mean Hatha Yoga postures seven or eight hundred years later.
It’s not that sthira sukham asanam can’t apply to Down Dog; it’s just that it didn’t when it was written.
5. There’s an entire chapter, one of only four, about how to gain paranormal powers!
I have studied the paranormal my whole life. I did my master’s thesis on the ethical implications of the findings of parapsychology. I love this field. But it appears I am in sparse company. Usually, this chapter is shrugged off. Either it is glossed over with an eye-roll and an implicit “Oh, we know better than that now;” or it’s assumed to be talking symbolically; or it’s assumed to only occur in the energy body.
I call shenanigans. Yogis have always had powers. They have been feared and revered because of them. I’ve written a huge paper and a smaller post about this. So for now, I’ll just say, can we please start taking this seriously? Please?
6. There is no living liberation for Patanjali.
According to Patanjali’s dualism, to reach complete transcendence one must also transcend the physical form. Most yogis believe in some sort of jivan mukti or living liberation. Not so for the Sutras. The goal is liberation from the rounds of birth, death and rebirth (samsara), even this one.
Again, to reiterate, at the risk of repeating myself—this is very different from most other yogic philosophies, which are nondual. Especially in Tantra and Hatha Yoga, even while the surface is always changing, this world and everything in it is a manifestation of the Divine. What we are told we will eventually come to realize (when we overcome our ignorance and burn away our karma) is that the Sacred is in all things, not that we must abandon this world.
In the end, what good can come from pointing out these inconsistencies between what I’ve heard told about the Sutras and what’s really there? Well, I would hope that we could come closer to seeing this fascinating and enlightening text for what it is, rather than trying to force it into being what we expect or want it to be. The message of the Yoga Sutras is simple: practice Yoga and you will become a mirror for the Sacred. Shine on!
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Assistant Editor: Tifany Lee/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Luca_Galuzzi/Creative Commons