The most famous classical yoga text in the world, studied in all teacher training courses, cited by the most famous masters, is a “booklet” which contains the teachings that circulated about yoga at the time of its author. Patanjali, or whoever, has systematized a whole series of practices, philosophies, precepts and beliefs of yoga, creating a system that has laid the foundations for all future forms of yoga that are necessarily inspired by his work, even those that they developed taking distance from it, based on concepts that are also very distant from those of the Yoga Sutras. Many commentaries were born both in the classical and modern spheres inspired by the teachings of Patanjali and still today many are those who write about it. This article of mine is a study of another that talks about the origins and development of traditional yoga.
You cannot be interested in yoga without knowing Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras. It is like wanting to be a Christian without having read the gospel. Although it is certainly not the only traditional writing on yoga, it is by far the most famous and the first that dared to dedicate a systematic work to the discipline of yoga. It is an organic summary of what was already known at the time of the author, whose dating we remember being quite uncertain. This is to say that the content deals with teachings, practices, beliefs and concepts that had already been circulating orally for some time (or through other writings not yet found) that can go back a long way. Before this text, there were forms of yoga not very well defined, at least from a textual point of view, of which I spoke in my article on the origins and development of yoga. With the Yoga Sutras begins the era called classical yoga by scholars and that will last until the fifth century CE.
“Yoga (union) is the restraint of mental modifications”Patanjali
Yoga Sutras: aphorisms about yoga
Written between the second century BCE and the fifth century CE, it is a complete and detailed redaction of yoga techniques with a philosophical (and soteriological) approach that moves away from the previous decidedly more mystical one. This is a fairly short book, which summarizes the widespread knowledge of the yoga of the time, mainly transmitted orally. Nowadays modern yoga is based on this text, interpreting it in its own way. It is divided into 4 sections, called pada: Samadhi Pada (conjunction), Sadhana Pada (realization), Vibhuti Pada (powers) and Kaivalya Pada (separation). In the first one, it is explained how yoga can lead to samadhi (bliss) thanks to which one experiences a new way of seeing things and which leads to liberation from samsara.
The 8 angas
In the second pada Ashtanga yoga is defined, also called Raja yoga (the royal way): Patanjali, or whoever, contains all the yoga in 8 steps (or anga, literally “limbs”) that have order of practice and importance (to reach the next step one must be master of the previous one), although these angas partially interpenetrate one another (one or more can occur simultaneously). These eight limbs of yoga are:
- Yama – the 5 abstinences
- Niyama – the 5 observances
- Asana – posture
- Pranayama – breath stretching
- Pratyahara – withdrawal of senses
- Dharana – concentration on one point
- Dhyana – meditation
- Samadhi – bliss or trance
Let’s look at the individual points in detail. Since Patanjali doesn’t spend too many words to describe them, I follow the Mircea Eliade‘s interpretation in his Yoga: Immortality and Freedom.
The abstinences, or restrictions, are 5. They are simple actions and attitudes not to perpetrate for a healthy coexistence with others, but also for the attainment of a personal state of higher consciousness defined by a non-attachment to material things.
- Ahimsa: non-violence.
Both physically and verbally. Cultivating a non-violent attitude will lead those around us to be less violent in turn. Non-violence against men, women, children but also animals. From here the vegetarianism of many yogis and Hindus in general.
- Satya: truthfulness.
Don’t be false, don’t tell lies, don’t cheat others and so on. Living in the truth will lead the yogi to make the things he/she says concrete and real.
- Asteya: non-stealing.
Do not take the things of others, do not desire them or envy others for their possessions. The non-desire for material things will lead to attracting precious goods and wealth.
- Brahmacharya: conduct consistent with Brahma.
The young students of religion or spiritual life went to a teacher to learn the rites and to study the scriptures. From that moment, they become bramachari and as such were called to live in total chastity. Chastity gives strength and physical and mental vigour. Some masters interpret it in a less restrictive way as “not to abuse sexual energies“, or not to waste the seed unnecessarily with the sole purpose of satisfying the desire to have sex, without it being enriched by a feeling or a sacred intention.
- Aparigraha: non-possessiveness.
Attaching to material objects, to people, to situations does not allow us to grow and above all makes us believe that we have the power to possess things, people, situations. What is not needed is only a weight that does not allow us to rise to higher states of consciousness.
The precepts or observances are also 5. They represent ethical disciplines to follow in order to live a fuller and more fulfilling life with oneself and consequently with others.
- Shauca: purity.
First of the body, both outwardly and inwardly. Wash daily, keep the body healthy and clean even inside, washing the nasal ducts and the intestine with specific yoga techniques. But not only physical cleansing, even of thoughts, images, emotions that we give to our being every day.
- Santosha: contentment, acceptance.
Knowing how to be satisfied with what you have, cultivating contentment, tranquillity, serenity, helping yourself avoiding all kinds of exciting things: caffeine, alcohol, certain types of drugs, music, movies, emotions, places and so on.
- Tapas: austerity, perseverance.
The etymological meaning of tapas is “heat” and indicates religious austerity. Within the human being it is possible to create a sacred fire that corresponds to the real fire of the Vedic sacrifice: thus a new and completely intimate sacrifice is performed, in which the personal things of the yogi are offered, first of all, the physiological functions, above all breathing (concept deepened in the fourth anga).
- Svadhyaya: the study of Vedas and self-study.
Referring above all to the sacred scriptures, or the Vedas. But in a broader sense, it is studying and taking an interest in everything that enriches our spiritual knowledge, both through spiritual texts of all kinds and knowing the lives of the masters who preceded us.
- Ishvara Pranidhana: contemplation of the Ishvara.
Patanjali does not explain who this Lord is, except by calling him a generic deity, nor does he say what his role and position are with respect to man and the universe. He only claims to trust this supreme being with confidence, knowing that he will take care of us.
As can be easily seen, these first 2 angas are common and widespread trans-religious ethical and moral precepts. They are the basis for purification and access to the subsequent phases that lead to liberation. Despite their basic importance, I do not see that they are taught in yoga classes and are often not even personally followed by those who teach it…
Asana means position. When Patanjali treats this subject, he does not talk about the classic yoga positions we know today, but refers to a single position: the one to keep in meditation. It must be stable and comfortable so that the practitioner can keep it for a long time without being distracted. Eliade deepens it by saying that the purpose of this anga is to develop bodily immobility that can be interpreted as a concentration of the body in a single posture: by doing so, one enters the ultimate dimension of life that is death. Yoga, according to Eliade, is a way to death, physical, psychic and emotional, in order to reach the experience of dying in life and in a conscious state. This is the initiation of yoga: once you die in life, you overcome the death and terror that it generates.
Prana is the vital energy, also called breath. Ayama stands for stretching, expansion. It is a series of respiratory techniques in which one comes to master the vital breath, the respiration, in its three dimensions: inhalation, suspension, expiration, which can be prolonged and delicate. As for the asana, the aim is to focus on the breath so as to make it controlled, rhythmic to dilating it to the point of arresting it: the yogi learns to voluntarily reach a state of pre-death by coming to breathe so dilated that it seems don’t breathe at all. Through these techniques, states of altered consciousness are experienced in full lucidity.
Retraction of the senses from objects, sensory isolation, abstraction from the world. This is the meaning of the fifth anga. It must be understood in the sense of an approach to reality, that is interior, and not in the external one of living in hermitage. We train ourselves to bring attention to ourselves, to get to know our conscience. We no longer allow external objects to influence our senses and thus to distract us from our inner search. Taken to extreme levels, this technique also allows you to isolate yourself from the perception of physical pain, this is how many Indian gurus face extreme physical tests.
The samyama: the domain of the spirit
Concentration on one point. The conscience is fixed on something. What this something is, Patanjali does not explain, it simply speaks of a generic point. With this anga we enter the so-called samyama, or the domain of the spirit, formed by the last three angas. Once we have built a solid foundation through an impeccable moral life, the practise of asanas, of breath control, of the retraction of the senses, we can finally dedicate ourselves successfully to the first of the 3 phases of the domain of the spirit, concentration on one point.
It is often translated as meditation, although it would be more correct to use contemplation. When, thanks to the exercise of concentration, we reach a state of uninterrupted attention to the contemplated object, we are in contemplation. It is a constant flow of thought towards the object, which is not interrupted by any other thought. It is what today is commonly called meditation (not to be confused with Western-style Christian or philosophical meditation). From this anga, Chan Buddhism was born in China, which later became Zen in Japan.
The last stage, which is translated with ecstasy or supreme bliss. This is the fusion between the subject and the object of meditation, in which the yogi totally loses his/her self-consciousness to merge with the Supreme reality. This fusion gives extreme bliss, liberation from all forms of fear, separation, anxiety, agitation. The yogi is one with the divine, he/she is finally fully aware of his/her being God and sees reality for what it is, beyond time, space and every form of subjectivity. Free from the cycle of rebirth because he/she has finally burned away all forms of desire, he/she will no longer be reincarnated, living in this eternal bliss.
Siddhis or fulfilments
According to Patanjali, spiritual progress through the path of yoga leads to the attainment of special powers. Apart from the siddhis realized by the control of the Niyamas and the Yama, there are others:
- Reducing the body to the size of an atom
- Expanding the body to an infinite size
- Reducing weight to almost zero
- Teleportation with the simple use of the will
- Making any wish come true
- Supremacy over nature
- Control of natural forces
As you can see, they are real superpowers. Patanjali warns that they are not the goal but only the “consequences” of the approaching realization. If one loses him/herself behind these powers, he/she finds him/herself unable to attain liberation; in fact, they are defined obstacles by the author of the Yoga Sutras.
The dualistic approach of the Yoga Sutras
The metaphysical vision behind Patanjali’s work is that of the samkhya philosophy. It is a school systematized around the 4th century, but definitely older. It is said that it was the “mother” of gnosis or that it strongly influenced the latter. In fact, it says that life is suffering from which we can free ourselves with knowledge (gnosis). Atheistic approach, it affirms that the whole Universe is generated by two principles: the purushas, which are nothing more than the spirits of human individualities, monads of an infinite number, and prakriti, or matter. These two realities are ontologically equivalent.
The purusha is a passive spectator and silent witness of the evolution of matter: in fact, in its constant imperfection, it differs in various levels from the gross to the most subtle. The highest part of prakriti is human intellect or consciousness. While the purusha gives consciousness and vitality to the creation, it is he who knows and does not act. On the other hand, prakriti has no conscience and only acts continuously. During our existence it happens that the purusha mistakenly identifies itself with the prakriti and attributes itself to a dynamism that is alien to it; on the other hand the prakriti, in the form of the conscience, deludes itself to be other than the matter, rising up.
The purpose of samkhya is to lead the individual to know the existence of these two absolute realities, to recognize himself in the purusha and isolate himself from the matter. Not thanks to revelation, but only through reasoning and metaphysical knowledge can we free ourselves. Until the last purusha has freed itself from the cycle of rebirths, the Universe will continue to cyclically re-create and destroy itself. Patanjali’s yoga itself has this dualistic view of existence, with purusha on one side and prakriti on the other, but with respect to samkhya he maintains that liberation is possible mainly through the practice of 8 anga. Although interesting, this approach remains dualistic and as such does not correspond with my personal thought about reality, which is rather non-dual. But this is another story.
It does not take much to understand how the classical yoga described by Patanjali is extremely different from the contemporary one. How we arrived at the current form of postural yoga full of positions and contortions starting from a discipline so complete with regard to human nature, in which not only are the positions not described, apart from the only one asana that is seated, it is partly a mystery. And in part a topic addressed in my article on modern yoga. Today there is a strong tendency to apply these precepts to modern postural yoga, for example: ahimsa (non-violence); do not force too much when you are practicing on the mat. Or: santosha (contentment); accept your limits when you practice asanas and don’t pretend to be perfect. Just to give two trivial examples of how today we try to give an age-old dignity using the most representative text of classical yoga to a discipline that has developed only in the last hundred years.