Patanjali's terse Yoga Sutras (sutra: thread (of thought), i.e., aphorism) is an influential work on yoga philosophy and practice.
The text is attributed by some to the sage Patanjali (held to have lived in the first century BCE). One indologist, Axel Michaels, thinks the text is a collection of fragments and traditions of texts stemming from the 100s and 200s CE. Gavin Flood suggests the text was composed between 100 BCE and 500 CE. The first three parts of the text may be from the 200s BCE.
The Sutras are built on a foundation of Samkhya philosophy and also show an influence of Upanishadic and Buddhist thought. Karel Werner writes, "Patanjali's system is unthinkable without Buddhism. As far as its terminology goes there is much in the Yoga Sutras that reminds us of Buddhist formulations." And Robert Thurman writes that Patanjali was influenced by the success of the Buddhist monastic system.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali talks for eight "limbs" (Sanskrit: ashtanga) that together makes for "Ashtanga Yoga". The systematic approach that speaks of Eight Limbs is aligned with the approach of Yajnavalkya Yoga. Further, it reminds of Buddha's Noble Eightfold Path. A verse, Yoga Sutra 1:33, may remind of Buddhist ways for cultivating qualites like compassion, metta, and so on.
Patanjali's work does not cover the many types of Yogic practices that have become prevalent. Yet it is pressed into service by a variety of schools of Yogic thought.
Commentaries have been published by many yoga teachers, as well as by academics seeking to clarify issues. What some Sanskrit words and phrases may mean, remains a matter of some dispute.
Patanjali divided his Yoga Sutras into 4 chapters or books (Sanskrit pada):
The eight "limbs" or steps prescribed in the second pada of the Yoga Sutras are: Yama, Niyama, Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi.
Yajnavalkya yoga - a sidelight
Yajnavalkya Yoga, named after the ancient sage Yajnavalkya, is similar to Patanjali's Yoga, but there is more to it.
There are eight limbs of yoga in Yajnavalkya Yoga too. His yoga system is good for living along too. The overall view is that proper actions help one towards greater attunements or final freedom. Yajnavalkya speaks for ten distinct yamas and alse ten niyamas where Patanjali list just five of each. Thus, you get a broader range.
It is good to know that ancient terms related to do's and don'ts (yamas and niyamas) can have several, clustered, related meanings, and not just one. Also consider that circumspect and sensible use of outlooks in the Yajnavalkya Yoga should not negate Patanjali views.
Yajnavalkya Yoga uses terms with wider meanings than those in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. There are also alternatives to Patanjali outlooks too, because the limbs of Yajnavalkya tend to be more encompassing than those of Patanjali.
In short, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras are not the only old teachings about yoga that have survived. Good to know! [Yajnavalkya Yoga: A broader frame of practice, and different keys.]
THE following goes into Vivekananda's commentary on the Yoga Sutras [in Nikhilananda 1953]. The sutras are extremely terse.
THE TITLE of the work is Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, at times translated as The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. (The stress is on the second syllable, thus: 'pa-TAN-jali', with 'a' as in 'father'.)
THERE are many yoga-forms, and raja-yoga is one of the demanding ones. [See Nikhilananda 1953:578] If demanding, it may exhaust and may do havoc. If exhausting, personal interests may suffer as a result - Kingly yoga thus implies depletion of some kinds, and regular training in
athletics do the same. It may not be so bad - if there is a balance between "in and out" in a "sustainable growth," broadly understood.
version is a quite free translation of the aphorisms (sutras) of Patanjali. He also
supplies a running commentary, strives to avoid technicalities and tries to keep to a free
and easy style of conversation.
THE SYSTEM of Patanjali is based on the traditional (trivial?), very old philosophical system of Samkhya. The points of difference are very few. The most important difference is that Patanjali admits the Personal God in the form of Ishvara, while old Samkhya is without a God-concept. [Cf Chatterjee and Datta 1968; Nikhilananda 1953:578] ◊
GURUS may warn against practising many of the things Patanjali goes into: "With few exceptions, Raja-yoga can be safely learnt only by direct contact with a teacher." [Nikhilananda 1953:578] It means for most people that one should let it be if unaided.
ANOTHER problem is the hoary ritualism surrounding or reaching into the practice. It may be overly dogmatic in some places.
FOR ORDINARY PURPOSES there is inward nature and outward nature. In higher awareness than normal you have to be keen to note a difference. Quote: "Sangsara is Nirvana, and Nirvana is Sangsara". [A key dictum of Mantrayana Buddhism]. Some aphoristic expressions or teachings in the Tibetan Mahamudra School of Buddhism and Zen, can be traced back to the doctrine of the identity of the Sangsara [phenomenal world and Nirvana [realm beyond]. [Cf Evans-Wentz 1967:xxxviii]
The study of Raja-yoga may take much
time and practice. "A part of this practice is physical, but in the main it is
mental. As we proceed we shall find how intimately the mind is connected with the body."
[Nikhilananda 1953:583] ◊
A YOGI must avoid [extreme] austerity. [Nikhilananda 1953:585]
The power of attention, when properly guided and directed toward the internal world, will analyse the mind . . . As for the powers of the mind, concentrated they illumine. [Nikhilananda 1953:581]
The goal of all of [Raja-yoga's] teaching is to show how to focus the mind and make it unionised through that. Thus the inward rises into attention. The later rising into broad, significant conclusions - some don't do it. [Nikhilananda 1953:582]
Raja-yoga proposes to put before humanity a practical and
scientifically worked out method of reaching . . . its own method of investigation . . . A certain method must be followed . . . prescribed. [Nikhilananda 1953:580-81]
In the study of Raja-yoga no faith or belief is necessary. Believe nothing until
you find it out for yourself; that is what it teaches us. [Nikhilananda 1953:582]
RAJA-YOGA . . . decrees what to do and not to do. Vivekananda: "We have therefore to take care what sort of food we eat at the beginning; . . . when our practice is well advanced, we need not be so careful in this respect." [Nikhilananda 1953:585]
"While the plant is growing it must be hedged round, lest it should be injured;
but when it becomes a tree the hedges are taken away; it is then strong enough to
withstand". [Nikhilananda 1953:585] The religion that works like some trellis, may be assisting good things. ◊
RAJA-YOGA is divided into eight main steps and stages (above). To recap, the first three are:
4. PranayamaPranayama, or control of the prana (vital energy): We get that sort of "sap" from the oxygen we breathe, from healthy food, from sun-rays and healthy life-styles. It is fine to conserve one's assets too, if that can be done, going for a much care-free life of less tear and suffering.
Vivekananda and other yogis talk of a set of three vessels tied in with the spine. They are called Ida; Pingala and Sushumna. They are not physically visible. But in several forms of yoga there is a body of theory concerning them and other vessels called nadis. [Nikhilananda 1953:600-03; Claire Myers in Tart 1977; Woodroffe 1972]
A current that is said to lie dormant, or coiled at the rear of you (near the scrotum or perineum), may be activated by intense focusing of a sort, and then the serpent power, the "Mother of eternal happiness" stings, so to speak, and in some cases rises through the middling vessel, the Sushumna - partly or completely. In the rare latter case, supersensuous illumination is had, and wisdom, self-realisation, love of God, or awakening. That is roughly how it is explained. [Nikhilananda 1953:602-03]
With pranayama training, one's face gets calmer. "I never saw a yogi with a croaking voice, " says Vivekananda. He did not meet all of them. [Nikhilananda 1953:604]
"The door of knowledge will open. No more will you need to go to books for knowledge; your own mind will have become your book, containing infinite knowledge." [Nikhilananda 1953:605]. He is too pompous and grandiloquous, to be sure, granted that Vivekananda uses much book knowledge - he was studied and well versed - and not all of his key concepts are in vogue in science. "Ether" (akasha) is one of them.
Historical surveys reveal that many gurus have used different concepts, even contradictive ones. [Britannica Online, s.v. "Vedanta"]
Modern gurus contradict ancient gurus, and may also contradict other modern gurus, even themselves. Self-contradictions are not uncommon. Many such blunders and blunderbuss teachings make rational handling of the essence rather difficult to some.
However, intense focusing in an appropriate yoga way may activate "snake power" in the scrotum area or wherever it is felt at any time, and make for the relief or favourable conditions that may arise. Then "He reveals himself" and "His presence" is due to technicalities, just as Vivekananda is into in the chapter we discuss here. And by the way, for the general public I make do with advocating just technical excellence in meditation and deep study along with proper carefulness in these matters. And do not be goaded by guru authority figures; that could be best for you, as goaded often shows up as misled.
Let us revert to the Sushumna theory once again. In theory, Ida, Pingala and Sushumna "are present in every animal - whatever creature has a spinal column. But the yogis claim that in ordinary beings the Sushumna is closed, its action is not evident", and "for the yogi alone, the Sushumna opens". [Nikhilananda 1953:605]. Not for the yogi alone - that is dogmatic and misleading, methinks.
You might not expect that Hindu monks teach other than celibacy as regulated in some Hindu way. But being a monk is not needed for yogic attainment, and that is the teaching of Buddha too. Awakening may be had by lay followers too.
"Avoid everyone, however great and good he may be, who asks you to believe blindly. – Beware of everything that takes away your freedom. Know that it is dangerous and avoid it by all the means in your power," says Vivekananda. [Nikhilananda 1953:608]
Do question teachings that are favouring dogmatic ones, including some gurus - because sometimes their upbringing and their past rigours get the best of them - some turn bossy and wilful over serious matters; maybe greedy too.
Pratyahara is "inwardmaking of the mind", making the mind turn inward. It 'shifts' that way when we fall asleep too. Through training of attentiveness one may get 'in' just by doing a few things unknown to many.
"The first lesson, then, is to sit for some time." [Nikhilananda 1953:609] As you become aware (again) that your attention has drifted (again), take it back to the practice, the training. That is an important part of progress in these waters.
I suggest: Put the mind on technical practice for many months, two or three times a day. Doing it regularly will help, because setting up a habit of this sort can help.
So, learning a good method of focusing the mind in a right sort of way for making the mind turn inward, is a key to repeated success, dealing with distractions from outside and within is another, and a third lies in regular drill. It is well to look at all of the material that goes along with a good method before you try it out, provided you are well for it.
Keeping the mind steady in the interiorised position (or mode), perhaps by fixing the mind on some spot or a technical detail.
If you can repeat a well thought mantra about thirty-five times without interruption, your mind could get a bit interiorised. What to do then, is keep the drill going with focus on practice, just that.
7. Deep meditation, that is, dhyana
Attention that is led inward (in the mind), tends to replenish the mind.
Some gurus who claim to help, get notorious in disregarding the dynamics of gliding or inside - they institute rigmarole and even "wail for God Mom" practices and other odd sorts of stuff. It can seriously disturb the fit meditative practice, and may mar the quality time you set off for training. Awareness needs training too. There is no need to undermine it or sidetrack it by shows of devotion and massa figures.
When you remain, dwell, in the pleasant states that elevated attention is wont to bring, who knows, a gate may open next? Fine progress is marked by getting freer and stronger within, happy too - it happens to many who do TM.
Some call it superconscious experience. It is not the end of yoga, though. It is a beginning of dangers and riches too. For example, a central concept of the major part of the ancient primer is samyana, 'together-control' - it means holding one's attention steady on something in the superconscious state. And then various distinguished attainments could be reachable. That is part of the general aim of handy yoga. Patanjali devotes much space to enumerating many of these attainments, and how to rise into them (or try for them) effectively.
SITTING in a good posture could be beneficial. Doing gentle breathing (pranayama) can help too. It is good to let gentle breathing be followed by what normally should take the most time: the meditation training. [Link]
Helping the mind "inward" somehow comes close to falling asleep, but fit training is not for falling asleep, ideally. It may be different if you suffer from insomnia.
A. Let good study bring handling knowhow
Kurt Lewin is well known for his thought, "There is nothing as practical as a good theory." Best yoga theory can save you much pain and trouble, and you may save time to relax and cope in a good neighbourhood.
Here are three basic beginner steps or measures:
B. He found his innermost Self (Chandogya Upanishad)
Success in meditation and yoga rests on skills and regular, cool work, not on stiff demands and cults of belonging and so on. A tale:
A GOD and a demon went to learn about the Self from a sage. They studied with him for a long time. At last the sage told them, "You yourselves are the being you are seeking."
Both of them thought that their bodies were the Self. The demon went back to his people quite satisfied and said, "I have learnt everything that was to be learnt: eat, drink, and be merry; we are the Self; there is nothing beyond us."
The demon never inquired any further, but was perfectly contented with the idea that he was God and that by the Self was meant the body.
The god thought at first, "I, this body, am Brahman; so let me keep it strong and healthy, and well dressed, and give it all sorts of enjoyments."
But soon he found out that that could not be the meaning of the sage; there must be something else to the instruction. So he came back and said: "Did you teach me that this body was the Self? If so, I see that all bodies die; but the Self should not die."
The sage said: "You are that."
Then the god thought that the vital forces which work the body were what he meant by the Self. But after a time he found that if he ate, these vital forces remained strong, but if he starved, they became weak. The god then went back to the sage and said, "Do you mean that the vital forces are the Self?"
The sage said: "You are that."
The god returned home once more, thinking that it was the mind, perhaps, that was the Self. But in a short while he saw that his thoughts were so many and diverse - now good, again bad; the mind was too changeable to be the Self. He went back to the sage and said: "I don't think that the surface mind is the Self. Did you mean that?"
"No," replied the sage; "you are that."
The god went home and at last found the true Self, beyond all thought: It was Deep Mind, one and without birth or death, called endless, omniscient, and omnipotent Being - not body or the mind, but beyond them and yet manifesting through these vehicles. [Nikhilananda 1953:588 - taken from Khandogya Upanishad, 8.7-15]
C. Shield your practice too
Practice in a sensible way, preferably in a clean atmosphere
IT is natural to feel doubtful about things we do not see. [Nikhilananda 1953:587]
You may start with trying out a little thing first, and if successful, increase
and repeat within sane and safe bounds.
It is quite necessary that we should find a posture in which we can remain for a long time. That posture which is the easiest should be the one chosen. [Nikhilananda 1953:586] ◊
Good and skilled practice (training) is considered absolutely necessary. [Nikhilananda 1953:587]
A. Evolve skill from meticulous training
Your zest (or vital energy) accomplishes the activity.
IN THE highest state of samadhi (it is pronounced 'sa-MA-di' with 'a' as the first vowel in 'father' and 'i' as in 'distance') we see the real thing. [Nikhilananda 1953:599]
That which naturally takes a long time to accomplish can be shortened by the intensity of the action. [Nikhilananda 1953:597] And good luck.
ONE TENDS to good techniques through skills. Skill is the keyword. And by the way, prana is a complex concept, and a sampling concept.
B. Much training makes rigid or motionless
Training that reaches one's vitality may result in being motionless
THE VITAL force in every being is prana. Thought is the finest and highest manifestation of this prana. Conscious thought, again, as we see it, is not the whole of thought. There is also what we call instinct, or unconscious thought, the lowest plane of thought. [Nikhilananda 1953:593] . . . [R]eason is limited . . . The circle within which it runs is very, very limited. [Nikhilananda 1953:594]
YOU may remember the celebrated experiment of Sir Humphry Davy, when the laughing-gas overpowered him - how, during the lecture, he remained motionless, stupefied, and how, after that, he said that the whole universe was made up of ideas. For the time being the gross vibrations had ceased and only the subtle vibrations, which he called ideas, were present to him. [Nikhilananda 1953:594] ◊
However, there are other explanations for the gas-drugged Davy's notions to take into account too, such as "mad persistence due to gas effecting the brain and mind".
C. Good theory is never disturbed -
PRANAYAMA has to do with breathing, but more than that too. [Nikhilananda 1953:595].
The whole scope of Raja-yoga is really to teach the control and direction of prana [subtle vital energy] in different ways. [Nikhilananda 1953:597]
Sometimes in your own body the supply of prana gravitates more or less to one part; the balance is disturbed, and when the balance of prana is disturbed, what we call disease is produced. To take away the superfluous prana, or to supply the prana that is wanting, will be to cure the disease. [This is akin to standard acupuncture theory, where what one tries to balance is labelled Ch'i (pronounced 'KI'). - T. K.] [Nikhilananda 1953:597]
The most obvious manifestation of prana in the human body is the motion of the lungs. If that stops, as a rule all other manifestations of force in the body will immediately stop. [Nikhilananda 1953:595]
Prana can be transmitted . . . but for one genuine case there are hundreds of frauds. [Nikhilananda 1953:596]
IN this universe . . . (each) form represents . . . one whirlpool in the . . . ocean of matter. The whirlpools are ever changing . . . Not one body remains the same. [Nikhilananda 1953:594]
The I Ching (Book of Changes) is based on a similar idea, that everything changes - except the structure of the I Ching.
Yogis say that . . . the mind can function on a still higher plane, the superconscious. When the mind has attained that state, which is called samidhi - perfect concentration - it goes beyond the limits of reason and comes face to face with facts. [Nikhilananda 1953:594]
D. Breathing gently can be advocated
BY YOGA we can bring ourselves to the state of vibration of another plane and thus enable ourselves to see what is going on there. [Nikhilananda 1953:598]
KNOWLEDGE and control of prana is really what is meant by pranayama. [Nikhilananda 1953:592]
E. The body remembers as the body does -.
EVERY part of the body can be filled with prana, the vital force; and when you are able to do that, you can control the whole body. [Nikhilananda 1953:596] (5)
That there is organismic recall is often overlooked by some. (9)
One may try to look into the ancient formulas of a quite discreet art of getting a solid and winning hand. It depends on the individual. And what results might depend on, may be open to debate too - later, perhaps.
Initially we note that the text's claims are many, and that there is a chance for getting screwed up by the largely unverified notions of it. But there are many tips for winning one's way by going within and learn to handle subtle fields of energy or mind. I think study of the text requires calmness and control on your part, not being a freak.
Dealing with the fantastic to look at
In this matter and other matters, "ancient is no guarantee of correct", as Buddha indicates. Blunt belief in the apparently fantastic and exotic requires some kinds of mental attachments and fixations that may not work well in the long run. Learn to let normal mind-work be. But how, in what perfect ways, and so on?
Skilled practice of higher yoga makes one a meditator - a yogi. There are woman yogis as well. Yet there is more than one yoga, many postures to choose among, many breathing exercises, and many meditation methods to choose among, and many definitions of the concepts dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. Pivoting terms differ from one Indian source of tradition to another, and often there are conflicting meanings, and not only shades and nuances.
What to choose? (1) The ones with the best documented effects; (2) the ones that suit you; (3) and "Nothing too much". If you stand by this general approach in what matters - in what you devote your to, it stands to reason that much should go better than it would otherwise.
Cater to health. Develop the mind
ACCORDING TO the old teaching stories in the ancient philosophy books we call Upanishads - and in part the Bhagavadgita - what we might call the developed soul can wake up to find oneself within a lot.
Yoga, which means "union", is the Sanskrit equivalent of the English word "yoke." Yoga represents yoking, harnessing, at times, but much else too. ◊
It pays to be aware, circumspect, cautious, especially at the start, before the mind is made used to this and that.
The word 'yoga' means many things in the Indian heritage. On the one hand the word stands for certain disciplines - mental and bodily, and on the other hand the goal of such training. In that case 'union' is one meaning, and "joining", "uniting", "conjunction", and "means" are others. 'Yoga' is also the name of a philosophical system that is akin to Samkhya, another ancient system. Outside India, the term yoga is typically associated with Hatha Yoga.
There are many yoga branches or paths (margas). Among the ones often encountered are Raja Yoga, Jnana Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. Patanjali's yoga is raja-yoga, and known just as 'yoga' otherwise in Hindu philosophy.
We do well to choose the ones that suit us while preserving enough freedom, rationality of mind, and having a good time. We probably do ourselves a good turn if we take care and look before we leap. Thus, we could profit from studying the effects of various meditation methods, yoga fellowships and their yokes before committing ourselves seriously.
Chatterjee, Satischandra, and Dhirendramohan Datta. An Introduction to Indian Philosophy. 7th ed. Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1968.
Evans-Wentz, Walter Yeeling, ed. Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
Evans-Wentz, Walter Y., ed. Tibet's Great Yogi Milarepa. 2nd ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Isherwood, Christopher and Swami Pranabhananda. How To Know God: the Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Mentor. New York, 1969. ⍽▢⍽ A rendering written for a Western audience. The translation of the verses is altogether held in higher esteem than the commentary.
Jha, Ganganatha, tr. The Yoga-Darshana: The Sutras of Patanjali with the Bhasya of Vyasa. Bombay: Tattva-Vivecha Press, 1907. ⍽▢⍽ Unadulterated.
Johnston, Charles tr: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Stuart and Watkins. London, 1968. ⍽▢⍽ The book was first published in London in 1982. The translation and commentary are intended for general readers.
Leggett, Trevor. The Complete Commentary by Sankara on the Yoga-Sutras. Kegan Paul. New York, 1990. ⍽▢⍽ Here is a complete English translation of an early Sanskrit sub-commentary purporting to be by Sankara, on the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. It is judged to be a genuine work of Adi Sankara. This is a sub-commentary (vivarana) to the terse exposition of Patanjali by Vyasa. Sankara regarded Vyasa's work as authoritative on meditation practice. In the book, the Patanjali sutras (perhaps AD 300) are accompanied by Vyasa's commentary (about AD 540-650) and by the Sankara sub-commentary (perhaps AD 700) to allow comparison. Trevor Leggett (1914–2000) was a martial arts expert. He lived in India and Japan and the UK.
Nikhilananda, Swami. Vivekananda. The Yogas and Other Works. Rev. ed. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda. New York, 1953. ⍽▢⍽ The famous Vivekananda's translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras is included. [◦Online text]
Prasada, Rama, tr. Patanjali's Yoga Sutras: With the Commentary of Vyasa and the Gloss of Vachaspati Mishra Reprint ed. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1998 (1912). ⍽▢⍽ A good Yoga Sutra translation, with the first two recorded commentaries, by Vyasa and Vacaspati Misra.
Tart, Charles, ed. Transpersonal Psychologies. New York: Harper Colophon, 1977.
Woodroffe, Sir John, tr. Tantra of the Great Liberation (Mahanirvana Tantra). New York: Dover, 1972.
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