“What does it want to say?” This is a literal translation of the Spanish phrase ¿que quiere decir? It carries a different intonation and intent than our English “What does it mean?” It implies relationship between the reader and the text. (See Mark Nepo, Finding Inner Courage.) It suggests that meaning derives from lived experience, and that language is not fixed in time. Language and meaning are rediscovered with each generation.
I had the good fortune to be introduced to the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by a Sanskrit teacher—Vyaas Houston. I had been doing āsana and prāṇāyāma practice for about eight years but knew no yoga philosophy or any Sanskrit. Vyaas’s method of study was itself yogic; we would chant throughout—the alphabet, noun endings, mantras, and the sūtras themselves. It was a practice of sound and vibration and attention—and it set the frame for an experience of the text that was profound.
I believe that modern practitioners of yoga do what they do, return to their practice, seek more learning, because they have experienced something that is—in the end—beyond words. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras are a guide to that numinous realm. They are written in condensed form, almost elliptical, and seem to call out for us to bring our own lived reality to their apprehension.
In my experience, this is done most effectively when I go to the original Sanskrit. Any translation carries with it its own filter and creates a kind of remove from the network of meanings the original carries.
The study guide that I am presenting here grew out of a study group that I formed with Carrie Owerko at the Iyengar Institute of New York and led from 2007-2015. In that time, we read through the four chapters of the text twice; in any given session, we chanted, studied the etymology of the Sanskrit words and deciphered the grammar of the sūtras of the day. We structured our discussion around questions meant to inspire personal reflection, about life and practice. We sought to listen to each other with respect, and to speak from the first person, not presuming to provide meaning to others. This is surprisingly challenging, infinitely rewarding.
Many thanks to all who participated in that group. The discussion goes on. The questions continue. May we all continue to open up possibility—for ourselves and others.
Who is Patañjali and what are the Yoga Sūtras?
Historians do not know if there was an individual named Patañjali, but the text credited to him was probably first written down around 400 CE. It is divided into four chapters (pāda in Sanskrit) and is composed in the form of 196 concise statements known as sūtras. Sūtra means “thread” (the word is cognate with our English “suture”), and each of these short statements threads back and forth, weaving import and connection from the first pāda to the last.
Sūtras are a useful device for an oral-learning tradition. They are easily memorized and transmitted, and it is possible that this text was transmitted orally for centuries before it was written or read.
Though the sūtras are not considered verse, chanting them is a mellifluous and rhythmic experience; it is itself a yogic practice of concentration, focus, and absorption.
The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali contain little specific teaching on techniques of yoga, and yet they are a guide to what practice is—they contain the big ideas—who are we and what are our challenges. They are a guide to freedom.
In the Study Guide, the sūtras are arranged in order, from the start of the first chapter (I.1) on. I will be adding to the guide on a weekly basis. To see the most recent additions, go to the Blog. There the most recent sūtras studied are listed first.