Aṣṭāṅga by the book : Patañjali Yoga Sūtra
Yoga is not just something we can do with the body. It is also a progression of what we can do with (and beyond) the mind.
While the physical, postural, practice may be the most popular aspect of aṣṭāṅga (“ashtanga”) yoga in the world today, it is not the only way to practice Aṣṭāṅga Yoga! Indeed, we can even become so fixated with our practice of āsana that we begin to forget the other limbs, or stages, in the overall progression of an aṣṭāṅga yoga practice.
Aṣṭa (8) + aṅga (limb) = Aṣṭāṅga (8 limbs).
The ancient practice of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga is defined as 8 limbs (or stages) that are outlined and elaborated in the yoga sūtras of Patañjali.
The Patañjali Yoga Sūtra is a very significant text in this regard because it reminds us of the increasingly subtle nature of our overall advancement in yoga practice, and it re-contextualizes the meaning of āsana into a vision of yoga that sees beyond temporary physical contortions.
The word “sūtra” in Sanskrit is often translated as “aphorism” but it also refers to a “thread”. The Patañjali Yoga Sūtra can be considered a metaphysical tapestry woven together with many threads of yogic knowledge. Its pithy collection of 195 or 196 sūtras is one of (if not the) most popular, widely translated, and reinterpreted ancient yogic texts in the world today.
As a historical text, the Patañjali Yoga Sūtra is said to have been composed in India sometime within the broad 1,000 year window of 500 BCE to 500 CE.
There is no proof of a precise historic date of its publication, but it seems safe to say that this collection of sūtras emerged in proximity to the teachings of the Buddha and to the teachings of Tantra. Its metaphysical intersection of yoga theory and practice certainly resonates with both Buddhism and Tantra.
As a textual compilation, the yoga sūtras may have gone “underground” for a couple of centuries in India, re-emerging into yogic popularity in the 19th century thanks to Swami Vivekananda as well as the Theosophical Society. All in all, the yoga sūtras have permeated yogic thought for thousands of years and continue to do so.
While the yoga sūtras are attributed to Patañjali, it is widely accepted that Patañjali composed the yoga sūtras with knowledge that was already in circulation. The text was not an original copyright. Maybe it was a creative commons. Before Patañjali’s composition, the content of the yoga sūtras was probably being practiced, studied, and transmitted orally from teacher to student (the guru shishya parampara) through repetition and memorization for who-knows-how-long. Oral transmission was (and in some cases, still is) an important methodology in the yogic tradition, especially before the written word came to dominate human thinking.
Patañjali was perhaps the first to compile the yoga sūtras into a written collection and to systematize them into the form that we are familiar with today.
The text as we know it includes 4 books/chapters, or padas, that are 1) Samadhi Pada – the book of meditation 2) Sadhana Pada – the book of practice 3) Vibhuti Pada – the book of powers 4) Kaivalya Pada – the book of liberation.
The sūtras that specifically describe the practice of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga are primarily outlined in the second chapter/book, the book of practice, the Sadhana Pada. In general, the Patañjali Yoga Sūtra as a whole reads like a very thorough responses to the questions of an earnest and ambitious yoga practitioner, i.e. :
“What are the benefits of practicing yoga?
How do I meditate?
Not all meditation is the same?
What if I can’t focus?
What is the greatest realization that yoga practice can lead to?
How can I attain it?
Am I there yet? “
In this light, the 8 limbs/stages of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga are revealed like instructions and guidance for progressing in yoga practice.
They are less like commandments of a religious doctrine and more like observations and clarifications for spiritual alignment and technical reference, a metaphysical manual.
यम नियमाअसन प्राणायाम प्रत्याहार धारणा ध्यान समाधयोऽष्टावङ्गानि
yama niyama-āsana prāṇāyāma pratyāhāra dhāraṇā dhyāna samādhayo-‘ṣṭāvaṅgāni
– pys II.29
restraints (yama), observances (niyama), postures (āsana), expansion of life energy (prāṇāyāma), sense withdrawal (pratyāhāra), concentration (dhāraṇā), contemplation (dhyāna), and meditation (samādha) are the eight limbs [of yoga] (aṣtav aṅgāni)
Restraints, observances, postures, expansion of life energy, sense withdrawal, concentration, contemplation, and meditation are the eight limbs of yoga.
The 8 limbs of Aṣṭāṅga Yoga as outlined in the yoga sūtras are:
Accordingly, each of these 8 limbs (or stages) are said to bear their own fruits and flowers.
The practice of yama brings the practitioner an atmosphere of peace and freedom from hostility, fruition in endeavors, true wealth, vigor and vitality, as well as clarity into the meaning and purpose of one’s life.
The practice of niyama brings non-attachment towards the body, a cheerful mind oriented towards spiritual realization, purification of the senses of perception, communion with one’s beloved idea of the divine, and the perfection of meditation.
The practice of āsana brings steadiness and happiness in one’s posture, meditative absorption into the contemplation of infinity, and the end of dissatisfaction with the experiences of duality.
The practice of prāṇāyāma brings the effulgence of the mind and its readiness for concentration. It can also bring the expansion of life energy, sustained intimacy with one’s breath, even transcendence of the experience of inhaling and exhaling.
The practice of pratyāhāra brings power over one’s senses in order to perceive beyond the phenomenal world into one’s innermost being.
The practices of dhāraṇā, dhyāna, and samādhi (together known as “the inner limbs” or saṁyamaḥ) bring pure wisdom to the practitioner, as if one’s consciousness can be rendered empty and transparent like a jewel that reflects only the substance of meditation.
So who was (and is) Patañjali of the yoga sūtras?
With a little online research, we can discover that in India there was also an ancient Patañjali who wrote an important text on Sanskrit grammar, the Mahābhāṣya, around the 2nd century BCE. There was also an ancient Patañjali wrote an important text on medicine, the Patanjalatantra, but that was probably centuries later. Historically, it is said to be unlikely that either of these authors were the same as the ancient Patañjali who wrote the yoga sūtras. Nevertheless, in the free devotional spirit of the yoga tradition, Patañjali is often invoked as all three writers in one sage.
योगेन चित्तस्य पदेन वाचां ।मलं शरीरस्य च वैद्यकेन ॥योऽपाकरोत्तमं प्रवरं मुनीनां ।पतञ्जलिं प्राञ्जलिरानतोऽस्मि ॥
oṁ yogena cittasya padena vācāṁmalaṁ śarīrasya ca vaidyakenayo’pākarottaṁ pravaraṁ munīnāṁpatañjaliṁ prāñjalirāṇato’smi
To the noblest of sages, Patanjali, who gave us yoga for serenity of mind, grammar for purity of speech, and medicine for the perfection of the body, I salute.
Yoga traditions extending from Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), including Mysore Aṣṭāṅga, Iyengar Yoga, and derivatives thereof, also mythologically refer to Patañjali as an incarnation of Ādi Śeṣa, the great nāga (divine serpent) who supports Lord Vishnu and thereby the whole universe.
For now, all this is to say that there are presently many rich, open-ended questions about this ancient text and its author. Tradition continues to evolve and to involve without all the answers. Perhaps a tradition can adapt and survive precisely because it does not have all the answers.
We don’t have all the facts. We have conventions.
Sometimes in lieu of facts, conventions give us temporary answers. In this way, conventions can serve a helpful purpose. However, like anything, they can also become harmful if unchecked. It’s great that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we want to roll, but we might want to question how the forest is doing that supplied the trees that gave the wood to make the current wheel we’re using, for example. Questioning conventions is not a threat to a tradition, but a strategy for its healthy adaptation. Somethings need to remain. Somethings need to change.
It’s not surprising that yoga traditions caught in patriarchal conventions continue to grasp firmly at the notion of Patañjali, the composer of the Yoga Sūtra, as a definitive ambassador of the male sex, a man. It is unconventional, almost heretical, to ask whether Patañjali of the Yoga Sūtra could have been an ambassador of the female sex, a woman. It is even more unconventional to ask whether Patañjali could have been a genderless or gender-fluid being. Despite the critical backlash that can come from questioning our grasping: it is still worth questioning.
Could Patañjali of the yoga sūtras have been a woman? Not a man? Could Patañjali have been a genderless or gender-fluid being? What pronouns would Patañjali have chosen if at all?
The point of questioning is not to hold-on-for-dear-life when and if we arrive at an answer. The point of questioning is to loosen the grip on our assumptions in order to behold a greater truth that could be awaiting us in a conversation that lies just beyond the boundaries of our current knowledge. Questioning takes us into the stagnant soil of many unturned assumptions. Questioning invites us to breathe fresh air, to grow, to adapt, and to replace unconscious assumptions with conscious choices.
Perhaps the long-held assumption that the yoga sūtras were written by a man is worth more consideration. Perhaps tugging at the knot of patriarchal conventions is not a threat to the unity of tradition nor to the comfort of scholarly security, but an invitation to awaken to a fuller flow of luminous truth-bearing wisdom in our lives.
As such, I try to think of Patañjali with less rigidity. Maybe Patañjali was a “he”. Maybe Patañjali was a “she”. Maybe Patañjali was neither.
Sometimes I find it helpful to think of Patañjali less like one person and more like a whole shala (a community of yogic study); not a singular sage in which knowledge was bound by one human body, but a mandala of multiple manifestations for learning that is at least part-human, part-animal, part-divine.
As a female Aṣṭāṅga practitioner and a student of the yoga sūtras, I guess I think of myself as a patañjalini.
śaṅkha cakrāsi dhāriṇaṁ
sahasra śirsamaṃ śvetamaṃ
Oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ Oṃ
I bow to Patañjali who has thousands of luminous white heads (as the divine serpent, Ananta) and who has assumed the upper body of a human being, holding a conch (divine sound), a discus (wheel of time), and a sword (discerning wisdom)
Om peace, peace, peace, Om
Translations for the yoga sūtras of Patañjali by Sandi Higgins, synthesized with thanks from the following sources:
Books : The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary by Edwin F. Bryant (2009)
Patanjali Yoga Sutras by Swami Prabhavananda (1991)
Light On The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali by B.K.S Iyengar (1993)
The Science of Yoga: The Yoga-sutra-s of Patañjali in Sanskrit with Transliteration in Roman, Translation and Commentary in English by I.K. Taimni (2007)
SHANTI WITH SANDI © 2021