Practicing Patañjali’s Philosophy

By Sarah Di Ganci for Yoga Medicine®.

The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali is the codification of the practice of yoga which originates from the early centuries CE. It is a philosophical text delivered to us through the centuries via the ancient written language of Sanskrit, comprising of 196 sutra or threads, divided between four padas or books.

Patañjali was an Indian sage/teacher (or a representation of a collaboration of teachers who contributed to the writings), who formulated and organized the knowledge of traditional yoga practices from word-of-mouth to print. Whomever chooses to practice all-eight-limbs of the sage’s account of yoga philosophy should avoid altering the meaning behind the teachings with personal theory or opinion. The sage made the effort to take the guesswork out of the practice so that we knew exactly what the aim of adherence to the full discipline was, as opposed to picking and choosing only the parts of the limbs we think we should be doing.

Many practitioners of yoga start with the physical movement or asana which certainly is an important part of yoga and can be an entryway to the more subtle aspects, but we could also consider that it could be more beneficial for the normative entry to the discipline to put the emphasis on the philosophy as an ethical grounding and basis for the union of the mind and body towards realization of the higher Self and spiritual liberation or moksha. This is as opposed to the more Western access to yoga, which is through the outermost physical, seeable and therefore marketable fraction of the tradition.

The Sūtra describe five Niyamas, which details how we can care for and prepare ourselves for a life of practice and dedication. They encourage us to take care of our bodies and minds in preparation for self-awareness and right action (and this is even before any 20 th or 21 st century asana or sequences take place). The Niyamas are Saucha (cleanliness), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (self-discipline), Svadhyaya (self-reflection) and Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to a higher power). The Yamas are Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (non-falsehood), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (non-excess) and Aparigraha (non-possessiveness). The Niyamas and Yamas are key component parts of yoga philosophy by which to live yoga, whether with or independent of any other aspect of the tradition.

Yoga is a practice, discipline, and philosophy and so if we are to authentically practice yoga, the study of yoga philosophy should be our practice first and foremost, not any version of the translation of the sutra which speaks to you more than another. On occasion when the translator imposes their psychology, opinions, perceptions and experiences as fact, that is misleading, inaccurate, a disservice and dilution of the ancient teachings. It is the opposite of the intention of the philosophical teachings, to make personal that which is of universal principle. If we are to put ourselves out as practitioners of yoga, we must honor the tradition and ancient teachings for the purpose that was intended. The purpose being to provide an ethical guideline for the intention of living a life towards self-realization or absolute freedom or Kaivalya, as outlined in the fourth and final book of the Sūtra.

This notion of absolute freedom can be translated as an idyllic outcome – real personal freedom while fully participating in society – but it could also be translated with negative connotation as meaning withdrawn or isolated from the real world. However, if we consider the intended meaning, we can appreciate that this personal take on the matter is of no consequence. When we are guided by the intended philosophy, which is to love the wisdom of yoga, the wisdom path provides the clear way forward. Anything else is our psychology, which in effect is the opposite school of thought of philosophy: the former being what we think we are and the latter being what it is possible to be. Therefore, we do not need to concern ourselves with applying the personal situations of our lives to the Sūtra because they are for what we aim – it’s for us to do the inner work to achieve liberation, The writings are not a means by which we can distort the ethics to suit our own personal needs, opinions or make bespoke in a way to fit our lives into the practice instead of making the practice our lives.

We can leave our perception/pratyaksha out of the Yoga Sūtra because our personal projection of life onto a yoga/practice/discipline/philosophy defeats the purpose of the original intention. The intention was to provide a system to strategize our way along the path of self-discovery to find the person who was already there at the beginning, just perhaps clearer in purpose. We are aiming to let go of our attachments, perceptions, falsehoods and our conditioning, not let it dictate our lives’ practice. Psychology is of no consequence to intention in the life of a yogi because we are even becoming less attached to our thoughts – between truths and untruths – to determine our true nature while operating as free people doing right action. Our perspective/darsana is subjective, but it is the practice of yoga that allows us to consider life from an objective place.

The object is something we have in common, even if we disagree on its constituent properties. Understanding our differences based on our perceptions of the object, gives us a point of reference for disagreement or agreement or at least to shift our aspect from our perspective along the path. It is from this new place, with the guidance of yoga philosophy and a regular practice and application of the teachings in our lives, that we can’t help but align our wavering moral principles with the steadfast ethics of the Sūtra.

If you sense that you are wavering as a yoga practitioner or feel like your routine is controlling you rather than the discipline providing a guide for your personal autonomy and ethical responsibility, consider changing your go-to habitual practices and meditate on the Niyamas and Yamas to determine whether you are practicing yoga philosophy, or your psychology is practicing you.

In the meantime, if you are looking for suggested reading, I would recommend these two translations and some additional books from South Asian authors:

  1. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra Translated from the Sanskrit with an introduction and commentary by Dr. Shyam Ranganathan (2008), Penguin Books
  2. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda (2012), Integral Yoga Publications
  3. Meditation With Intention: Quick and Easy Ways to Create Lasting Peace by Anusha Wijeyakumar (2021), Llewellyn Publications
  4. Embrace Yoga’s Roots: Courageous Ways to Deepen Your Yoga Practice by Susanna Barkataki (2020), Ignite and Wellness Institute
  5. Yoga: Ancient Heritage, Tomorrow’s Vision by Indu Arora (2019), Yogsadhna Incorporated

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