How to study the YogaSutras

Scriptures or religious texts may be used for many reasons; mostly to provide meaning and purpose, and to evoke a deeper connection with the Divine. Many look to these texts to the convey sacred truths and use them to promote ritualistic practices and moralistic experiences that foster communal identity.

But the YogaSutra is not a religious text; notice the lack of dogma within its pages as the author implores each student to take on the challenge of experimenting with the techniques to arrive at absolute freedom.

Feuerstein declares that the reader should appreciate the fact that Patañjali’s work is a technical treatise and not just a popular summary. Therefore, it would be entirely unsatisfactory to attempt to understand complex concepts in the sutras using everyday vocabulary when the author himself had to find specific Sanskrit terms.

Who 

Traditionally, a Guru is responsible to elaborate each sutra after the student has mastered preliminary practices. Please refer to this blog to learn about the nature of a student-seeker.

The Yoga Sutra is for serious student-seekers of yoga who want to embark on a personal journey of transformation. This ancient text was presented orally as a guide for refining the mind to achieve the highest state of concentration. Nowadays, with surplus of printed books, you can read the Yoga Sutra cover to cover, sutra by sutra or browse online summaries to make some meaning of it. Because the sutras are not linear, it is easy to become disappointed if you did not get what you anticipated.

An Acharya, or “one who walks the path”, an experienced teacher of yoga philosophy can help you appreciate the layers of complexity in this text. This exquisite work has transformational concepts embedded in every word. Each aphorism has a clear message and implications. To apply the meaning of the sutras to our life we most definitely need a teacher.

Language of the text

While utilizing the available translations, bhashya, note that in each commentary some Sutras may be rendered differently, but sincere effort is made by authors to avoid moving away from its essential message.

Swami Venkateshananda of Divine Life Society declares that anyone who translates a text which is in the Samskritham language is confronted by two difficulties:
(a) not all languages have concise words or phrases which accurately convey the exact sense in which the Sanskrit word is used in the text; and
(b) the each Sanskrit word has a number of meanings, and it is easier to choose the correct meaning when the word is used in a structurally complete prose or verse, than when it occurs in the Sutras.

The Yoga Sutra cannot be read as fiction. It is imperative to remember that ideas and concepts are scattered over several sutras in more than one chapter. These concepts are also repeated in different ways and multiple words are used to describe one idea or same words are used in different sutras to convey different meanings. For example – Samapatti and Samadhi, Purusha and Ishvara are used interchangeably; chitta and manas as mind or thoughts, is a comprehensive term for the thinking principle (Paramahamsa Yogananda). This makes it open to multiple interpretations which can be disorienting to a casual reader.

Traditional language of the YogaSutra focused on discovering the one’s true Self in Samadhi and finding freedom from bondage, Kaivalya. This is suited for a yogi living in the mountains leading a monastic life. However, the idea of self analysis, experimentation and self realization is sought by all kinds of people from a hermit to a householder and all classes of beings.

For example, in his translation  Marshall Govindan includes a section titled “practice” after each sutra. Here, he asks us to pick an activity and apply a sutra. Like sutra 2:33 – वितर्कबाधने प्रतिपक्षभावनम्॥२.३३॥ //Vitaraka Badanay Pratipaksha Bhavanam// – which means that when you have afflicted thinking, then contemplate and take another view—look at the situation from another perspective.

This type of practice allows a householder-student struggling to bring the sutras to life, an opening to verify its essence in her own practice. Patañjali surely knew what he was talking about when he complied the Yoga Sutra. But each of us reading the sutras and its various commentaries will only glean different meanings based on our childhood and life experiences.

Commentaries 

Many different translations of this ancient text exist. Every translation is an approximation which can improved upon (Feuerstein). Some may be confusing and sometimes difficult due to the variety of interpretations. Others may seem long and complicated or short and inadequate – each trying their best to make it accessible to the ‘current’ generation.

Furthermore, knowledge of both science & philosophy is essential to study yoga. Yoga states that every organ (body) is related to the psyche (consciousness). For example: when one is fearful or anxious, one may experience palpitations, blurry vision, dry mouth, frequent urination or irregular breathing. (Mishra, M.D.)

Yogananda asserts that Patañjali has presented a systematized means of reuniting the soul with Spirit between layers of knowledge embedded in each sutra. The popular saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover’ – can come in handy when you venture into the world of sutras. Instead of wondering what another translation can do for you, put yourself into a beginners mindset with an intention to learn.

How to Study 

Obviously there are many ways to study the sutras. While it is best to learn from an experienced teacher, a study group, Satsang, can be energizing and fun. Here, multiple translations are utilized, ideas elaborated upon; you can participate in animated discussions and derive the best possible meaning to apply in your daily life. Most importantly, it helps to know that there are others like you, struggling to understand the mysteries of yoga.

Still some gurus say, as a practicing yogi, you do not always require an interpreter; you need to come to your own understanding through systematic study and disciplined practice.

Here are a few limited suggestions; see if one works for you. Then again, think outside the box and come up with your own way.

Method  1

  • Read the original quote, its word for word meaning, followed by the literal translation.
  • Try to study a minimum of 3-5 sutras a day. More than that will make them seem complicated than they really are.
  • Sutras are intended for deep study. Sit with one sutra in meditation. You may repeat the literal meaning a few times in your mind.

Method  2

  • Chant or listen to the sutras being chanted. Close your eyes and allow the vibration of sounds to penetrate the mind.
  • Surrender to the rhythm of the chant and enjoy the chant without having to worry about the meaning. Allow your own meaning to unfold.
  • Have faith that the meaning will be revealed to you at the right time.
  • Journal your experiences.

Method 3

  • Choose 2-3 translations or commentaries to compare each sutra.
  • Write down the main descriptions and interpretations.
  • Take it with you into meditation, then bring it to life as an applied lesson.

Method 4

  • Identify the concepts like Sadhana, practice, or Karma, patterned actions.
  • Pick one and study each concept thoroughly.
  • Cross reference these concepts with other related texts and notice its application.

Wisdom

Concepts elucidated in the Yoga Sutras can be understood through an intuitive state which we can enter solely through our practice. The ‘Truths’ are based on experiences of many mystics, yogis, saints and sages, who have realized and borne witness to them throughout ages. The facts of ‘Higher Yoga’ can neither be proved or demonstrated. Their appeal is to the intuition, not to the intellect. (I.K. Taimini)

Working with the Yoga Sutras should not be a chore. It should be a positive experience that will assist your transformation in your yogic journey.

Notice if you become emotional by those sutras that you label ‘difficult’. Or those that you get attached to because you think you have understood them. Reflect to consider why. Is it because these are areas where you already excel or need your greatest work?

Strive to practice at least one concept in the sutras patiently for a period of time. Be forgiving of your practice whenever necessary. Trust that what you need to focus on will jump out at you in some way.

If the doctrines of yoga are studied in the light of both ancient and modern thought, it is much easier for the student to understand and appreciate them. (Taimini)

Personal Study

When I was introduced to the Yoga Sutra in 2002 at YogaLife Institutethe book that was required for the 8 week session seemed so unfriendly. At least that’s how my mind perceived it, implying a lack of readiness.

However, in 2004, I read the sections needed for teacher training from the same book (Swami Satchitananda). After reading the required sections I went back to read this book cover to cover. I enjoyed the way he spiritualized the dry practices through wonderful stories.  I realize that what I learned then is different from what I am comprehending now.

During teacher training class, my teacher would read a sutra’s given commentary first. Then he would read some supporting notes from this beaten-up notebook. At first I did not think much of it. Four months into the training, I happened to observe him placing a few ripped pages carefully back in the book and perceived a sense of reverence with which he held those old pages. I wondered if it contained his notes from the days he spent with his teacher in Mumbai. Maybe it also contained his efforts as a student to gain deeper understanding of this wonderful text. Then it dawned on me that if I were to gain a deeper understanding of what I was being taught I needed to be present with similar reverence. To receive the message he was presenting out of those pages then became a privilege. My sincere gratitude to Acharya, Bob Butera, for imparting this unexpected but indispensable aspect of learning. I try to remember this each time an opportunity to listen to spiritual teachers presents itself.

Eventually, after many restarts it dawned on me that I did not how to study the text. Reading cover to cover was one way. Multiple translations and commentaries helped, but something was missing; a guideline – which I eventually found embedded in the introduction section in the books listed below.

Each introduction I realized brought forth the authors’ perceptive; how they viewed the sutras, how they went about studying it and the differences in their approaches. For example, Barbara Stoler Miller has grouped the aphorisms into logical sections and commented on each group. BKS Iyengar on the other hand, identified ‘concepts’ scattered in multiple places throughout the text and has rearranged the sutras accordingly. In his commentary, Swami Satyananda Saraswati has also presented ways to link some of the concepts to other texts like the Bhagavad Gita, Dhammapada, while Paramahamsa Yogananda uncovered the similarities within Christianity and Sufism.

This has inspired me to patiently find all sutras connected to each concept and follow the links to other texts making it an amazing study. Although it can be a frustrating process to unravel its inner meanings, unexpected insights has brought forth unexplainable joy. It becomes an adventure then to apply these insights everyday to spiritualize a mundane act.

Final Thoughts

The YogaSutras contain a roadmap to reach our highest potential as we travel the yogic path (Govindan). With each attempt made at the YogaSutra study, you are taught to work through your traditional beliefs and habituated behaviors using disciplined practices – in anticipation of the coveted spiritual union.

Remember the wisdom presented in the YogaSutras is relevant to any generation, ancient or modern. You can approach the study with curiosity or with arrogance; what you take away will either expand your personal truth or deter the progress on the path. You must be ready to devote ample time to study and receive its message.

Hearing the Yoga Sutras chanted helps to appreciate the musicality of the recitation. iTunes has a soothing version by Ante, Felicia, Saraswati and Sundar for you to enjoy.  Each sutra is on a different track which makes it painless to learn the Samskritham pronunciation.

The principles taught here can uplift and inspire – turning daily humanness into divine action. If guided by the ‘right’ teachers, the practices outlined in the YogaSutra serves the needs of the householder-yogi more than a hermit-yogi in these modern times.

The first sutra is –

अथ योग-अनुशासनम्” –Atha Yoga-Anushasanaum“.

“Now (begins) the discipline of yoga”.

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Further Reading

Aranya Hariharananda, Swami; Mukerji, P.N. 1963. Yoga Philosophy of Patañjali. (Reprinted in 1981 by State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Mishra, Rammurti. M.D. 1973. Yoga Sutras – A Textbook of Yoga Psychology. Doubleday Anchor Press, Garden City, New York

Prabhavananda, Swami; Isherwood, Christopher. Patañjali Yoga Sutras. Ramakrishna Mission  Press, Mylapore, India.

Feuerstein, Georg. 1979. The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali – A New translation and Commentary. Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont.

Saraswati Satyananda, Swami. 1976. Four Chapters on Freedom – Commentary on Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Yoga Publications Trust, Bihar School of Yoga, Munger, India

Taimni, I.K., 1961. The Science of Yoga. The Ind-Com Press, Chennai, India

Iyengar, B.K.S.2013. Core of Yoga Sutras – The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. Harper-Collins India

Satchitananda, Swami. 1978. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Integral Yoga Publications, Buckingham VA.

Yogananda, Paramahamsa; Kriyananda, Swami. 2013. Demystifying Patañjali – The Yoga Sutras. Crystal Clarity Publishers, Nevada City, CA

Govindan, Marshall. 2000. Kriya Yoga Sutra of Patañjali and the Siddhas – Translation, Commentary and Practice. Kris Yoga Publications, Quebec, Canada