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Free Resources – The Yoga Sutra: Introduction & Context

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Lesson Overview

In this lesson, we introduce the Yoga Sutra.

Objective

Gain a basic understanding of the historical context of the Yoga Sutra and build a foundation for deeper exploration of the teachings.

Description

Learn about the authorship of the Yoga Sutra and the meaning and use of the sutra style. Consider why Sanskrit is well-suited for communicating these teachings and an issue related to translating the text into English. Examine the branch of yoga from which the Yoga Sutra arises and how the teachings compare to Buddhist philosophy

Questions Answered Here

  1. Who was Patanjali?
  2. Translate and describe “sutra.”
  3. Why were these yoga teachings documented in the sutra style?
  4. Why is Sanskrit well-suited for communicating the Yoga Sutra?
  5. What is an issue related to translating the Yoga Sutra into English?
  6. From which branch of yoga do we find the Yoga Sutra?
  7. How does the Yoga Sutra compare to Buddhist philosophy?

Introduction

In this lesson, we learn about the authorship of the Yoga Sutra and the meaning and use of the sutra style. We consider how Sanskrit is well-suited for communicating the Yoga Sutra and an issue related to translating it into English.


About Patanjali

  • Patanjali, who lived “somewhere around 250 BCE” was the author of the Yoga Sutra.
  • Patanjali did not create yoga. Yoga existed long before Patanjali and was referred to in the Vedas.
  • In the article Patanjali Biography, Kofi Busia says, “Almost everything about Patanjali is unknown. Even his most basic biographical details are disputed.” Others claim that Patanjali was a revered yogi and scholar of many subjects.
Patanjali’s Role

Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, lived somewhere between 500 BCE and 200 CE, a time that possibly overlaps the life of Buddha and a period of intense philosophical activity in India. Patanjali was revered as an outstanding scholar and wise man who wrote significant commentaries on Sanskrit grammar and Ayurveda… The Patanjali yoga tradition is a later expression of older teachings based on the source texts of India known as the Vedas. – Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras 2011 p 1


Patanjali, the Man

Master Patanjali was a great yogi; he knew the physical poses of yoga and the art of breathing: yoga of the body. He was also a great thinker and meditator—a master of the yoga of the mind. He wrote as well famous books on medicine and on Sanskrit, the ancient tongue from which almost all our languages come. He is recognized, too, as the father of the classical dance of India. – Roach, Geshe Michael & Christie McNally, The Essential Yoga Sutra 2005 p 1


Patanjali’s Approach

Sri Patanjali was the epitome of acceptance of all methods and of broad-mindedness of approach. He did not limit his instructions to one particular technique, to members of any particular religion,  philosophy, or in any other way. He gave general principles and used specifics only as examples. – Sri Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2009 p xiv

 


The Sutra Style

  • Historically, spiritual teachings were delivered verbally. Students memorized the teachings.
  • When the teachings were eventually written down, there were no printing presses. Thus, they were condensed into the brief sutra form for the purposes of memorization and recall.
  • The word “sutra” means thread, as in a thread that strings beads together.
  • Sutras are summaries (of the “utmost condensation”) of teachings.
  • The sutras serve as reminders for a teacher to expand upon.
Lots of Sutras

For millennia the teachings on transformation and awakening were taught face-to-face… Here are some of the famous sutras: The Yoga Sutras, The Kama Sutras, The Shiva Sutras . . . There are lots and lots of sutras. But, what is a sutra? Click here to enjoy a short video. – Eric Klein, Wisdom Heart, What is a Sutra?


Inspiration for the Teacher

Sutras are not intended to be instruction for the student, but inspiration for the teacher. – Leslie Kaminoff


Discovering the Hidden “Thread”

The most important characteristics of this method are utmost condensation consistent with clear exposition of all essential aspects and continuity of the underlying theme in spite of the apparent discontinuity of the ideas presented. The latter characteristic is worth noting because the effort to discover the hidden “thread”of reasoning beneath the apparently unconnected ideas very often provides the clue to the meaning of many Sutras. It should be remembered that this method of exposition was prevalent at a time when printing was unknown and most of the important treatises had to be memorized by the student. Hence the necessity of condensation to the utmost limit. Nothing essential was, of course, left out but everything with which the student was expected to be familiar or which he could easily infer from the context was ruthlessly cut out. – I. K. Taimni, The Science of Yoga 2007 pgs 3-4


Brevity & Clarity

The text is a masterpiece of brevity and clarity. Patanjali has removed all unnecessary words for the following reasons: 1) To allow easy memorization by disciples; remember there were no printing presses at the time. 2) To allow the verses to be the object of inquiry; too may words would confuse. 3) To prevent misquotation and misinterpretation. The verses are sheer poetry combined with sublime scientific precision. – Swami Satyananda Saraswati, Four Chapters on Freedom 2008 p 6


They Can Be Related to Our Situation

The Yoga Sutras as they were written allow us to question and interpret them, and relate them to our particular situation and life.  – Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga 2007 pgs xxi-xxiv


Teaching Brings the Sutras to Life

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is the heart of yoga. The heart, hrdaya, is that which does not change and Patanjali gave a permanent definition and form to yoga in his Sutra. The heart without prana, however, is not alive and is without relevance for us. Desikachar explains that the teaching relationship is the prana or life of the Yoga Sutra; it is the teacher who brings the heart into life. The Yoga Sutra is a potent tool for the teacher who is able to make it relevant to the student and thus transmit the transformative power of the heart. – Mark Whitwell (from TKV Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga 1995, pg 145)

 


Sanskrit

  • The sutras were written in Sanskrit, a “sacred language” designed to convey subtlety.
  • Sanskrit originated from oral traditions and developed to communicate spiritual insights. (Nicolai Bachman)
  • Expert Russill Paul explains that Sanskrit includes words for spiritual concepts that are not found in other languages.
  • With such meanings as “refined,” “perfected,” “polished,” and “sanctified,” Sanskrit is regarded as a vibrational and healing language.
  • “Sanskrit… is particularly well suited to this heart-centered approach because it is a vibrational language, one in which words resonate through countless layers of meaning.” (Nischala Joy Devi)
  • Sanskrit words have many layers of meaning. In translating the sutras into English—a language whose strength is precision—many subtleties can be lost.
  • See also: Sanskrit.
Designed to Express the Subtle Aspects of Yoga

The aphorisms are written in Sanskrit, a language designed to express the subtle aspects of yoga. – Nicolai Bachman, The Path of the Yoga Sutras 2011p 2


Many Subtleties May Be Lost in Translation

Sanskrit, the language of the sutras, is particularly well suited to this heart-centered approach because it is a vibrational language, one in which words resonate through countless layers of meaning. When this powerful vibrational language is translated literally into a very logical and straightforward language like English, many of its subtleties may be lost. The strength of the English language lies in precise, concrete explanations. It is less powerful when describing the subtler realms, the unity of the feminine and the masculine, and especially the intuitive realm.  – Nischala Joy Devi, The Secret Power of Yoga 2007 p xxv

 


Sources & Resources

Books*

  1. Bachman, NicolaiThe Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga  link
  2. Bell, Charlotte — Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice  link
  3. Chopra, Deepak The Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga: A Practical Guide to Healing Body, Mind, and Spirit  link
  4. Desikachar, T.K.V.The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (Part III)  link
  5. Devi, Nischala JoyThe Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras  link
  6. Freeman, Richard — The Mirror of Yoga: Awakening the Intelligence of Body and Mind  link
  7. Gates, Rolf & Katrina KenisonMeditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga  link
  8. Hartranft, Chip — The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali  link
  9. Internet Sacred Text Archive link
  10. Iyengar, B.K.S. — Light on Yoga  link
  11. Iyengar, B.K.S. — The Tree of Yoga  link
  12. Iyengar, B.K.S. — Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  link
  13. Lasater, JudithLiving Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life  link
  14. Payne, Larry & Richard Usatine, MD — Yoga Rx  link
  15. Roach, Geshe Michael & Christie McNallyThe Essential Yoga Sutra: Ancient Wisdom for Your Yoga  link
  16. Saraswati, Swami SatyanandaFour Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  link
  17. Satchidananda, Sri SwamiThe Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  link
  18. Shearer, Alistair — The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali  link
  19. Taimni, I. K. — The Science of Yoga: The Yoga-Sutras of Patanajli in Sanskrit  link
*Most of our book links use Amazon Associates, which pays a tiny commission on purchases made through those links (80 cents on a $20 book, for example).  On average, we receive less than $15 per month from Amazon. Our goal in providing book lists with quick links is to make it easy for you to get a sense for the variety of possible resources and to access them easily.

 


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  • The Yoga Sutra: Book Three
  • The Yoga Sutra: Book Four
  • Eight-Limbed Path: Introduction
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