Making Yoga Philosophy Accessible – Part 1: The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali
by Jivana Heyman
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali is an ancient text which presents the philosophy of yoga in a succinct and organized manner. This study is referred to as Raja Yoga, the royal path. There is some disagreement about the age of the Yoga Sutra, with current estimates ranging anywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 years old. The author, Sri Patanjali is referred to as the father of yoga because he organized the teachings into this format. However, it is believed that the teachings of yoga existed as part of an ancient oral tradition long before this written format appeared. The history of these texts are often debated by historians, but as yoga practitioners, it’s important to try to understand the teachings that they offer and decide if they can be applied in our contemporary lives.
Sutra, meaning “thread,” relates to the distilled quality of the text, which is made up of 196 aphorisms, or sayings. These sutras were memorized and chanted by yoga students, and the teacher would add their pearls of wisdom to these basic threads. As students of yoga today, we have an opportunity to connect with an ancient lineage that has been kept alive through the dedication and service of generations of yoga practitioners who have come before us.
What’s remarkable about the Yoga Sutra is that it simultaneously offers subtle philosophy and specific guidance on how to practice yoga. The point being, that these teachings are not just for philosophical contemplation, but are tools for transformation. Swami Satchidananda, my teacher, encourages us not to simply read about the teachings but to implement them in our lives through our practice. He says, “It’s a recipe book, and to get the benefit, you have to follow the directions, cook well, and eat. Only then will your hunger be satisfied.”
He goes on to describe the role that Raja Yoga plays in experiencing happiness and wellbeing: “The teachings of Raja Yoga are a golden key to unlock all health, happiness, peace, and joy. Everyone, everything, in the creation wants to be happy. If you put a plant in the shade, its leaves will turn toward the sun, because the plant wants to be happy. Place a worm in the sun, it will crawl into the shade for the same reason. Ask a thief, “Why are you robbing the bank?” and he will no doubt reply, “Because if I have more money, I’ll be happy.” And if you ask the policeman why he is pursuing the thief, he will tell you, “My duty is to catch the thief, and when I do my duty, I’m happy.” So, everyone is seeking happiness. The problem is that not everyone knows where or how to find it. Some people want to be happy quickly, so they take short cuts and get temporary happiness. But borrowed joy comes and goes. The happiness that we seem to be getting by our daily efforts is fleeting and mixed with a lot of troubles, worries, and unhappiness. Happiness cannot come without unhappiness before and after. We keep trying to find that happiness and missing it. When we finally tire of searching for happiness outside, we sit quietly and wonder, “What is this? Why am I unhappy? Why do I lose the happiness that I have?” If we’re sincere and analyze well, we find, ultimately, that happiness never comes from outside.”