July 11, 2022
Don’t Fear the Sutras
If you met a Christian who didn’t know much about the Bible, or a Jew who didn’t know much about the Torah, or a Muslim who didn’t know much about the Koran… you’d probably think to yourself something along the lines of, “That’s weird. This person doesn’t know much about the foundational text of their own faith.” And yet, very rarely does it raise an eyebrow when we meet someone who considers themselves a yogi who knows very little, if anything about the Yoga Sutras.
What is this about?
Well, for one, the Yoga Sutras are considered to be fairly difficult to comprehend, and maybe for this reason a lot of people may have simply assumed they won’t understand them even if they try. Another reason could have to do with fact that the Sutras are very much not about the posture practice, which tends to be the emphasis of the mainstream modern yoga culture. Why bother trying to read and understand something so difficult, after all, if it’s not going to help you open your hips or hold your handstand, right? (Wrong!) It’s also possible that the Sutras, which emphasize non-attachment and humility, could be seen as irrelevant in the culture of the west, which tends to value material success, perfect health and celebrity.
Whatever people’s reasons may be for avoiding the Sutras, I’m here to tell you that even though they can be difficult to understand, they are also extremely fascinating, and studying them can be surprisingly fun. On top of that, learning about the Sutras is virtually guaranteed to bring a deeper dimension to your practice, as they will equip you with a variety of tools and understandings that are likely to be just as useful as the asana practice, if not more so.
The trick, as with anything, is simply to want to learn.
This means getting curious as to what the Sutras are actually all about. From there, I’d recommend seeking out a few different sources and taking your time to digest it all in bite size pieces. As you may know, the Sutras were written in Sanskrit, which can be interpreted in many ways, so it can be helpful to cross-reference different translations to get a better idea of what each sutra is saying.
For example, Sutra 1.2, one of the most well-known sutras, says: “Yoga citta vritti nirodaha.”
T.K.V. Desikachar translates this as: “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distraction.”
Similarly, but slightly differently, B.K.S. Iyengar translates it as: “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.”
Then there’s Michael Roche, who translates it as: “Yoga is the ability to overcome the mind’s tendency to bend reality.”
Maybe you can see how these translations all point to a similar concept. Or maybe the connection isn’t immediately clear. Maybe they all seem like Greek to you. Either way, I encourage you to stay curious and to stick with it. Certain sutras make a lot more sense in the context of the sutras that come before or after, and the more you read, the more the essence—as well as the magic—of the text starts to come through.
Take your time, and if possible, try to find a study buddy. It will make the learning process more fun, and probably more fruitful, as well. And, please feel free to send any questions or revelations my way. I can’t claim to be an expert on the Sutras, but I love learning and talking about them, so feel free to hit me up!
- “The Heart of Yoga,” by T.K.V. Desikachar
- “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali,” by B.K.S. Iyengar
- “The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali,” by Edwin Bryant
- The “Yoga Sutras” app, by Aum Sudarshan Das
- “The Essential Yoga Sutra,” by Christine McNally & Michael Roach
Good luck, and as always, below are some recommended practices: