For anyone serious about exploring yoga as a spiritual process, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is both an indispensable guidebook and an unparalleled repository of knowledge. In just 195 sutras or verses (each verse being usually a single line or couplet), Patanjali has said everything that can be said about yoga as a spiritual possibility. In fact, many commentators state that the Yoga Sutras contain everything worth knowing about human life and beyond.
There are several translations and commentaries on the Yoga Sutras and these days every pop-spirituality website offers interpretations! However in this series of articles I will rely mainly on the original commentary of realised masters like Swami Vivekananda, Sadhguru and Parmahansa Yogananda.
For those hearing of Patanjali for the first time, a brief introduction: Patanjali was a great sage (‘Maharishi’) and philosopher, considered to also have had one of the highest and finest intellects that any human being has ever possessed. His brilliance shone in areas like astronomy, mathematics and music. The Yoga Sutras that he passed down to the ages are undated, as are so many of the great scriptures of India, such as the Vedas and Upanishads. It is believed that the sages who wrote these brilliant works did not consider it important to leave their trademark (often the writings are anonymous) or even to date the writings, because they considered the knowledge imparted to be universal and timeless.(1) However modern scholars have not been deterred in estimating a date and the Yoga Sutras are said to have been written somewhere between 500 and 200 B.C.
The opening words of the Yoga Sutras are:
अथ योगानुशासनम् (atha yoganushasanam)
“And now, yoga”
Some commentators don’t make much of these opening words while some note the word ‘anushasanam’ meaning ‘self-discipline’ which they stress is the foundation of yoga.
I prefer to consider the interpretation of Sadhguru who explains the significance of these words as essentially that yoga can only be approached in earnest when one is ready for it.
This is to say that if you are still hankering after a bigger car, a promotion or some other material thing, then you are not ready to explore yoga in its pure form (which is much beyond asanas). The deeper dimensions of yoga will only become a possibility for one who has had a taste of success, power etc. and realised that they were false desires that didn’t provide the happiness he had imagined they would bring. Or when life has delivered a few of its patented hard knocks and suffering has brought you to the point of “now what”? The answer then is “and now, yoga”.
As a simple example, can you meditate when you’re feeling hungry? Isn’t it hard to sit down for meditation when you’re expectantly waiting for the result of that job interview you just had? As long as we remain attached to material goals and pleasures, we are not inclined to listen to talk of something beyond. It is essential to have either fulfilled ones desires or to have realised their futility.
- As stated by Parmahamsa Yogananda in Autobiography of a Yogi
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