Monday, February 18, 2008

Introduction to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. By practicing yoga, one develops a strong mind, able to focus steadily without being distracted by the play of consciousness. The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga. The three preceding translations of the second sutra of Patanjali’s famous work may employ a range of semantic tools, but they all say the same thing: Yoga makes us centered, balanced, not so crazy in our heads, so that we may more easily navigate this unchangeably crazy world. Yoga brings us peace.
The Yoga Sutras, from which the translations are taken, is a collection of ancient writings consisting of 200 sutras (literally “threads”) which constitute a “how-to” manual for living a yogic lifestyle. While Patanjali did not by any means invent yoga (it had been practiced for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before his work), the Sutras represent the first known effort to define and to catalogue how exactly to go about practicing the art. Some experts believe that Patanjali was actually more than one person, and the exact date of his writings has never been pinpointed. Estimates for the creation of the Sutras range from 5000 B.C. (the earliest estimate I’ve encountered) to 300 A.D. Most estimates seem to linger in the 400 – 200 B.C. range. In any case, they are ancient.
The branch of yoga with which the Sutras is concerned is called Raja Yoga, or the Royal Path. This is the eight-limbed path of yoga – asana, or the practice of postures typically defined as “yoga” in the west, is but one of these limbs. Other forms of yoga, which are not addressed by The Yoga Sutras, place no emphasis on physical postures at all. Karma yoga, for instance, is usually referred to as the yoga of action, and its devotees typically plunge headlong into efforts designed only to serve others. Through this devotion to selfless service, or seva, karma yogis aim to achieve the same peace of mind and equanimity of spirit offered by every style of yoga, including Raja Yoga.
But what about the other seven limbs on the eight-limbed path? They, according to Patanjali, are just as important as the postures practiced in class. The eight limbs are: yama, or moral restraints (things we shouldn’t do); niyama, or moral observances (things we should do); asana (check); pranayama, or control of the breath; dharana, which is concentration; dhyana, the meditative state which flows from a deepening of the practice of dharana; pratyahara, or withdrawal of the self from the senses; and samadhi, the final step, wherein a yogi merges with his or her highest self, becoming free and enlightened. Opinions differ on whether samadhi is accessible to the average joe yogi, or if only highly evolved spiritual masters can hope to achieve this enviable state. I pick the former.
In case you’re thinking that this eight-limbed business is a little too stringent and, well, impossible for typical workaday folks to incorporate into their lives, know that a pretty convincing argument can be made that a properly constructed Ashtanga practice satisfies quite a few of the eight requirements (asana, pranayama, dharana, dhyana, and pratyahara – with many of the yama and niyama fitting nicely into the practice as well). We’ll cover all eight limbs more thoroughly in a different week, but in the meantime bring your attention back to Patanjali’s definition of yoga in the second of his 200 sutras, and keep it with you during your practice. Yoga is peace of mind, happiness, and freedom. It’s well worth the effort. We should all smile that we make it part of our lives.

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