We know that yoga extends beyond the physical movements. There is a deepness to the practice, enriched by yogic philosophy and texts. To access the Yoga Sutras and these learnings is to elevate our practice. To not only practice yoga on our mats, but to incorporate the principles of yoga in our day-to-day lives.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—written around 400 CE—are required reading in every yoga teacher training. And as a yoga student at some point in our lives we will inevitably find ourselves led in a chant of Sutra 1.2 “Yogas citta-vritti-nirodhah” (Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind)—just as yoga students would have chanted 1,600-odd years ago.
“We forget that people throughout time are the same as us today,” says Edwin Bryant, translator and commentator on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. “Their minds too were subject to fears, anxieties, stresses, and insecurities. Just like we suffer and look for a way out, so did they.”
As with science and religion, yoga seeks to provide a solution to that suffering, says Edwin, which means the Sutras are as relevant today as they have always been. “While religion may go as far to say you are not the body, yoga takes this one step further—that the cause of human suffering is because we believe ourselves to be—not only the body—but also the mind. And so the Sutras begin with this: citta-vritti-nirodhah. It is a teaching of how to move beyond the mind.”
“If you are on any path where you want to be happy, to be free of suffering, and understand the mind and consciousness, the Sutras are a must-read.” – Edwin Bryant
In our Western focus on asana practice, we often forget that this is the core of yoga—moving beyond body and mind. Indeed, of the 1,200 words in the Yoga Sutras, only 12 pertain to asana.
It was while studying to be a yoga teacher several years ago that I came across Edwin’s 600-page tome on the Sutras. There are many different and wonderful versions of the Sutras that adorn my bookshelves, but I knew that this was the edition for me during that period of deep study. Indeed, Edwin’s version is widely regarded as the Western bible for the Sutras as it contains not only an English translation of the Sanskrit verses, but also commentary from the great yogic scholars throughout history.
The Revival of the Sutras
Edwin, a professor of Indian philosophy and religion, says he recognized the importance of the Yoga Sutras and wanted to create a bridge between the modern world of yoga and the traditional one.
If you are unfamiliar with the the Yoga Sutras they are four chapters of a total of 196 one-line verses that discuss: What the goal of yoga is, the difference between the mind and consciousness, enlightenment and its stages, the eight-limbed practices of yoga, and the mystical powers of meditation.
They were written in short verses so they could be remembered easily and passed on orally as many people did not read or write, and—while brief—they were designed to be “unpacked” or elaborated on by a teacher.
This is one reason why Edwin’s work has been so helpful. According to Edwin: “Many Western yogis were not receiving that teaching, while much of the traditional commentary that would help with that ‘unpacking’ was very scholastic and dense, so I wanted to present that in a much more accessible way that also maintained the integrity of the teachings.”
“[These] wisdom teachings remain ever relevant, because even if culture changes, consciousness doesn’t.” – Edwin Bryant
Edwin, and other English translators of the Sutras, have inadvertently caused a revival in the Sutras and their teachings. Contrary to what we would believe, the Sutras were not the mainstream teachings of yoga. “Far more popular were other types of yoga such as Karma yoga, or Bhakti yoga that included worshipping deities—much like in India today—and that lean on different texts,” says Edwin. Instead, the Sutras were a metaphysical text mainly studied by philosophers and scholars, or by those ardent practitioners who were off in forests and caves in search of enlightenment. As such, the Sutras fell into obscurity for much of the second millennia until yoga came to the West in the 1900s.
A Non-Religious Path to Awakening
In large part the embracing of the Sutras by the West is due to their non-religious nature. “The concept of the Divine (Ishvara) is touched upon only briefly in the Sutras which has made it appear less threatening for those in the West who are leery of religion. It also doesn’t contain the Hindu exoticism of many of the other yogic texts like the Bhagavad Gita so is much more palatable to Westerners,” says Edwin.
Because it is more of an instruction manual on how to move beyond the mind, and more of a scholastic text on consciousness and metaphysics, than a religious text, Edwin says the Sutras complement many belief systems or spiritual paths. Edwin himself follows a Bhakti path and says it has informed his own meditation practice. “If you are on any path where you want to be happy, to be free of suffering, and understand the mind and consciousness, the Sutras are a must-read.”
He recommends that yoga practitioners new to the Sutras start with verses one to 15 of chapter one, which explains what yoga is and the nature of the mind, and chapter two, which discusses the eight limbs of yoga. Chapter three discusses the mystical powers of yoga, which are deemed to be distracting to a yogic path, and chapter four, says Edwin, was written to discern the teachings of yoga from the Buddhist teachings that were emerging in India at the time of Patanjali.
Edwin say he hopes that if people have a positive experience in the physical practice of yoga in the West (which is how most Westerners come to yoga), that they may be encouraged to look to the Sutras to discover more about the yoga—whatever version they are drawn to. “The Sutras attempts to answer those big existential questions that people have asked since time immemorial: Who are we? How can we be happy? Those wisdom teachings remain ever relevant, because even if culture changes, consciousness doesn’t.”
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.