Michael teaches yoga and meditation, practises bodywork, and does philosophy relating to the mind, body, and yoga.

it's time to stop fetishising the yoga-sūtras

Imagine you know a guy named Jeff. You can even imagine that this guy Jeff appears, for the most part, quite friendly and likeable. Jeff feels very strongly that he has some important wisdom to share. He has been speaking eagerly about spiritual subjects for quite a few years, so you decide to give him an ear and a moment of your time in order to see if you can learn anything from him.

When this guy Jeff starts talking to you, he tells you that he has a depth of understanding of the true meaning of yoga: it is all about the process of stilling your mind through concentration. You’ve heard this kind of thing before, so it resonates with you. Perhaps it makes you curious, so you decide to probe further.

“What,” you ask this guy Jeff, “is the ultimate aim of yoga practice?” 

“In the end,” Jeff replies, “the point of practising yoga is to isolate your consciousness from its body. This is the only way to achieve spiritual freedom.” Ok, sure. There are plenty of spiritual dudes who say these kinds of things. But you want to understand more fully what he means, so you ask for a bit more clarity. 

“You mean, like, temporarily, right? Like, you separate your consciousness in order to get a bit of perspective, but then you can come back into your body and experience it more fully. Right?”

“Nope,” Jeff replies succinctly. “Your body is disgusting. And so is everybody else’s. The more you practise purity, the more you’ll achieve an abhorrence for the body.”

“Wow Jeff,” I imagine you might respond. “‘Abhorrence’ is a pretty strong word. Do I really want to hate my own body?” 

“Absolutely!” Jeff says. “This will help motivate you to isolate your consciousness permanently, and leave the natural world behind entirely.”

Right. Well, it sure sounds like Jeff is saying that you can’t achieve true spiritual freedom while you’re still alive. “That’s some Hale-Bopp shit right there, Jeff. I really hope you get your pessimistic attitude sorted before you start infecting vulnerable minds with your death-cult superstitions.” Or perhaps, if you’re feeling more kind in that moment, you might decide to wish him well on his own journey, and quietly walk away.

“Wait!” he says. “Before you go, I have a few other secrets for you.” This guy Jeff then starts telling you that by practising meditation on various things, you can learn to fly, or become as small as an atom, or become weightless, or become invisible. “I swear to god, it’s true!”

“Alright Jeff,” you might feel compelled to say at this point. “It seems like you did way too much acid during that marathon viewing of all the Harry Potter movies last night. I think maybe we need to take you to the doctor.” He probably won’t take you up on your offer to give him a lift to the hospital, so you decide to go your own little merry way.

Now just imagine that it’s the following week. Your lower back has started acting up again, so you decide to go to a yoga class at a studio you’ve been to a few times. The teacher comes to the front of the room and begins by saying: “While it’s easy to feel like we’re supposed to ‘get’ somewhere with our yoga practice—to ‘achieve’ certain poses, to look a certain way—I invite you instead to use this practice to really just be in your body. To feel connected to it. To feel at home in it.” 

Wow, you think. Yes. What a weight off my shoulders. I can actually feel my back starting to loosen up just from letting go of the idea that I need to ‘get somewhere.’

“As we begin our practice,” the teacher continues, “just remember what the real purpose of yoga is. According to this guy Jeff, who knows all about these things, yoga is about clearing the mind.”

What. Did she just quote that guy Jeff?

“So use your practice this evening to inhabit your body, instead of being stuck in your head.”

Hang on a second. She’s quoting that guy Jeff as a way of saying to be in my body? This same guy Jeff who says that my body is abhorrent, and that I should be aiming to escape it?

“So come into downward-facing dog, and just remember that according to this guy Jeff, yoga is really about meditation. Use this class as a meditation on your body, instead of just a form of exercise that’s supposed to ‘get’ you somewhere.”

First of all…it doesn’t even seem like she’s fully aware that this guy Jeff probably wouldn’t approve of her using his teaching as a way of connecting more fully with the body. Plus, didn’t this guy Jeff also say that if I meditate on the concept of “weightlessness,” I would eventually be able to levitate? What is this, the Jedi Academy? How can I even take any of this seriously if she’s basing her idea of yoga on what this guy Jeff says?

As you may have guessed, my intention with this article is to compare the yoga community’s relationship with Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra to our relationship with that guy Jeff. All of Jeff’s claims are ones that Patañjali makes in his text as well (see esp. sūtras 3.21-56 if you think I'm way off base). My own experience has been that the Yoga-Sūtra has somehow become such an object of worship that most yogis have tended either to (a) simply ignore the things that do not comport with their own point of view, or (b) to pretzel the meaning of the textual elements that create cognitive dissonance into something that can end up resembling what they want it to mean.

I shared this very approach for a long time. Yet the more I have learned and thought about these things, the more I’ve realised that it might be time for a change of tack. Perhaps we have reached a point where it has become not only possible, but necessary, to stop relying on old scriptures like the Yoga-Sūtra as sources of authority. 

I know many people will have objections to my conclusion.

Ok but that guy Jeff is just some guy. Patañjali is Patañjali! Show some respect, man!

I understand that you might see what I am saying as disrespectful. However, I really don’t see how Patañjali isn’t just “some guy” too. As a matter of fact, this guy Jeff has the advantage of being someone you might actually have a chance of knowing, and he seems to be relatively friendly. We know absolutely nothing at all about Patañjali, other than the fact that he wrote this discourse. He may have been a massive asshole. If current events have taught us anything recently, it’s that there’s a fair chance that any given man might have been behaving in despicable ways all along. At least we can hold that guy Jeff accountable.

Yes but doesn't it mean something that loads of people give have taken the Yoga-Sūtra seriously? Plus, unlike that guy Jeff, the Yoga-Sūtras are ancient. The fact that they’ve stood the test of time must mean that there is a massive amount of truth about them. 

Does it "mean something" that "loads of people" (63 million Americans) voted for Donald Trump in 2016? 

Plenty of texts that are still in circulation (and are far older than Patañjali’s) have “stood the test of time.” Yet I’m sure we can all think of a good few texts that have become almost impossibly well-revered, but which are so full of contradictory and illogical pieces of advice that it has become simply absurd to believe that anyone in their right minds would consider most of the things they say as anything to be taken literally. Right? 

Sure, but who says we have to take the Yoga-Sutras literally? Aren’t there plenty of ways of interpreting Patañjali?

The sad fact is, what is considered “philosophy” within many yoga schools is simply a means of reifying a pre-existing dogma. In other words, many teachers approach these ancient texts with the following mental framework: “I already have an idea of how the world works and I’m pretty happy with it as it is. But because I don’t feel like my own way of seeing the world has enough authority to convince other people, I’m going to buttress it by quoting (or misquoting) a few lines (almost invariably out of context) from an ancient text. I think this will give my own point of view a sense of gravitas that it wouldn’t have if I were to simply argue for it in a rational manner.” I know this mindset well, because it used to be my own. Many of the sūtras themselves do, in fact, seem to be so ambiguous that they are “open to interpretation.”

Here’s an example. Patañjali’s nīyamas—one of the two auxiliaries that make up the ethical code in his eight-part system—include the practice of śauca, meaning “purity” or “cleanliness.” Many yoga studio owners cite the inclusion of śauca in the Yoga methodology as a means to get their students to help keep the studio tidy by arranging the props nicely after class is finished. While I whole-heartedly support a neat space in which to practise, using Patañjali’s text as a pretext for doing so is, at best, quite a stretch. (Pun very much intended.) 

Sūtra 2.40 asserts that practising purity will result in “disgust for one’s own body, and non-contact with others.” There has been a fair amount of controversy over this particular sūtra, which many commentators insist boils down to the translation of the Sanskrit word jugupsa as “disgusting.” Yet, other than perhaps “abominable” or “detestable,” it is a serious strain to translate the word into anything else. Nevertheless, this has certainly not stopped a good number of commentators throughout the ages from trying to do just that. American yogi and author Nischala Joy Devi makes one such attempt, when she glosses the sūtra thus: “Through simplicity and continual refinement, the body, thoughts, and emotions become clear reflections of the self within.” There is nothing in the original Sanskrit to support anything like this “translation.”

However, most people are not aware that Patañjali wrote a whole commentary to be considered along with the sūtras themselves. While the terse, rhythmic sūtras were intended to be memorised, the accompanying commentary (bhashya) serves as an aid to understanding these aphorisms in a more explicit way. Most Western scholars in the past assumed that this commentary was written by somebody else entirely, and at a much later date. More recent scholarship—with far superior access to primary texts, as well as more precise philological tools—has determined that they were both written not only contemporaneously, but indeed by the same person. The earliest manuscripts of Patañjali’s text has always been in the form of a document known as the Pātañjalayogaśāstra: Patañjali’s Discourse on Yoga, which included both sūtras and commentary. 

Now that we have become more certain about the unity of the text, we have a far deeper wealth of information about what Patañjali’s intentions were. With this more explicit exegesis, it is becoming increasingly clear that we cannot simply interpret Patañjali’s words in any old way we want. Going back to our śauca/“cleanliness” discussion, Patañjali’s own bhashya commentary makes the meaning of the sūtra even more clear:⁠

When there is disgust for one’s own body, one practises cleanliness; seeing the shamefulness of the body, one becomes unattached to it, an ascetic. Moreover, there is no contact with others. Seeing the body’s true nature, he desires to give up his own body. Failing to see purity in [one’s] own body even when washing [it] with earth, water and so on, how could one come into contact with the extremely impure bodies of others?⁠

This is but one example among dozens of how Patañjali’s own commentary makes it clear that he intends the words of his sūtras to be taken literally. From my point of view, this makes many aspects of his philosophy less relevant to the aims of today’s practitioners. So why do so many yogis seek to drag this and other unreasonable parts of ancient texts into modern yoga philosophy? 

Devi’s interpretation of śauca serves as a paradigmatic example of something many yogis do habitually when it comes to ancient scriptures like the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. When the original text creates a sense of cognitive dissonance with the way they want to think about things, people make up their own, more palatable, meaning. This habit certainly does not confine itself to the yoga world—it is an incredibly common human trait that governs how most people engage with everything from the Bible and the Koran to the United States Constitution. But it is certainly worth examining the implications of this type of interaction with any kind of text. There will always be those who attempt to interpret the Yoga-Sūtra—and the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gītā—in alternative ways. There are those who try to read the words of Patañjali through a Tantric or a Vedantic lens (which are both non-dualist schools, and so are incompatible with Patañjali's strongly dualistic, Sāmkhya-based worldview), or even through a Christian lens. Yet when such “interpretations” change the text to such an unrecognisable degree, wouldn’t we be better off admitting to ourselves that we are propagating our own ideas rather than trying to shoehorn words into the mouth of somebody who is long dead, simply because we think it will give our own ideas more legitimacy? Can we not just politely acknowledge somebody’s influence and simply move on? Or even say “Patañjali was dead wrong, and this is why I think so”? At some point, we need to ask ourselves why we are even bothering to climb upon the shoulders of a specific thinker if we are not even at a point of basic agreement with the philosophy that he championed.⁠

I feel like the fact that Patañjali includes the practice of āsana (yoga posture) as a part of his eight limbs refutes your conjecture that his attitude toward the body is negative.

Because of the relative ambiguity of the sūtras, many yogis have felt tempted to assume in some way that when Patañjali talks about posture, he might mean the same kinds of active postural practice that we associate with mainstream yoga today—downward-facing dog, headstand, etc. Yet Patañjali’s bhashya commentary again makes it clear that āsana is something specifically intended for sitting still in meditation. He even enumerates a list of postures the practitioner might find appropriate—many of which, such as the lotus pose (padmāsana) and the hero pose (vīrāsana), are still popular meditation options to this day.⁠ 

Many yogis regard the “Eight Limbs of Yoga” as the quintessence of their philosophy and practice. As such, they interpret the inclusion of āsana as one of these limbs as evidence that Patañjali in some way espoused the kind of body-inclusive approach to yoga that modern yogis tend to embrace. Internationally, the vast majority of yoga lessons concern themselves exclusively with a physical practice—and the schools of yoga that have more esoteric aims tend at least to regard the body as a vehicle for consciousness, or as a tool by which to attain a “higher goal.” However, one thing we can be sure of is the fact that just about all of the author’s mentions of the body appear in a decidedly pejorative light. 

In fact, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra makes it clear that the ultimate goal of the yogin is kaivalya: literally, the "isolation" of the spirit from the body and the natural world. That is to say, according to Patañjali, Yoga’s aim is not simply to achieve a nicer, less stressful life in a human body on planet Earth; on the contrary, it is to achieve a state in which the impure elements of nature can no longer contaminate the pristine essence of pure consciousness. In other words, as the kaivalya principle “entails a radical effacement of individual existence," true liberation in Patañjali’s Yoga effectively appears to either require or precipitate the death of the physical body.⁠

My reason for giving so much credence to the Yoga-Sūtra is that my guru has told me that the sūtras are the foundation of yoga. I trust my guru.

I admit that this is a difficult position for me to refute. It is not for me to judge the state of your personal relationship with your yoga teacher. What I can say is that, as far as I can tell, the role of a guru is to awaken people to the truth. If your faith in your guru is such that you accept the truth of their word even when this person tells you to believe a text that insists that "from weakening the causes of the mind's connection with the body and from understanding its movements there arises entry into someone else's body," perhaps you have your reasons. The course of my own life has not given me the kinds of experiences that might allow me to be capable of leaps of faith on this order of magnitude; moreover, I wouldn’t be altogether surprised if most reasonable people had a difficult time performing such an act. If a philosophy requires a blind leap of faith, we might as well call it a religion. I am simply attempting to make an alternative argument before giving in to the idea that, if I’m not comfortable teaching a religion, I should stop calling what I am doing “yoga.”

Don’t you think that, in abandoning Patañjali, the yoga community would be giving up an important part of the foundation of our discipline? I mean, doesn’t it seem like he was right about some things?

I am actually not arguing that we need to abandon the Yoga-Sūtra entirely. I do indeed think that it has a lot to offer us in terms of a historical orientation of what yoga has meant over time. What I am proposing, however, may be something closer to the way professors of astronomy approach teaching Ptolemy. He is a difficult figure to ignore in the history of astronomy, because the charts he created in the second century CE could predict the celestial movements of the stars, planets, sun, and moon with such accuracy that they were accepted and used for nearly a millennium and a half. However, his ideas were based on a model of the universe that assumed that the earth was at the centre, and that the rest of the heavenly bodies revolved around it. We now know that this is not true. Therefore, Ptolemy’s historical significance is such that, while most astronomy professors would certainly not leave a lesson about him out of their curriculum entirely, they certainly do not point to his theories as the reason we can expect the moon to be in this specific part of the sky tonight. Scientific theory has, particularly in the last 500 years, progressed through a series of increasingly accurate models of how the universe works. Sourcing our authority in a paradigm that is so fundamentally flawed—even if it was, in a sense “right” about a few things—would simply demonstrate a kind of ignorance that I find difficult not to describe as wilful. 

Even that guy Jeff might have some nice insights to share. But the reason they are so sound is not because Jeff said them. The handful of good things about Jeff’s philosophy are good because they comport with the lessons of experience and reason, and undoubtedly overlap with the minds of many other great thinkers throughout history—many of whom do not bear the burden of a basic disregard for the importance of corporeal existence, or of being deluded about the possibility of the acquisition of incredible superpowers. As such, does it really make sense to go around pretending that quoting Jeff actually lends a greater degree of authority to what we are saying? Doesn’t it seem more likely that people might react weirdly to the idea that you are valuing the opinion of a guy who basically thinks he’s Gandalf?

What difference does it actually make? How am I hurting anyone if I continue to teach the Yoga-Sūtra as a part of my classes? Isn’t that my own business?

In some ways, yes, it is your own prerogative. You are certainly free to teach what you want. They’re your classes. But I would like to leave you with the following three thoughts:

  1. It very much seems to me that there is a sense in which many people have used yoga as a replacement or a substitute for religion. Part of this process has been—after having abandoned the Torah or the Bible or the Koran or what have you—to (consciously or subconsciously) look for something to fill that void. The Yoga-Sūtra has done the trick, and many people have accepted it simply because they were told to accept it. 
  2. In accepting any text as an authority (and remember, this text was simply written by some guy) the accompanying sense of satisfaction comes about due to its having essentially put a plaster over a preexisting sense of doubt. However, the eradication of doubt may not be a good thing. In filling up a space of ignorance with a belief that is simply convenient rather than demonstrably true, we dampen the pragmatic function of why that doubt was there in the first place: to spur us into a process of genuine inquiry about who we are, what life means to us, and what our experience in the world can actually teach us. Your yoga students very well may be on a search for meaning and truth in their own lives. When people are in such a vulnerable space, they are often liable to adopt a belief system that seems convenient simply as a means of quenching their own doubt. By teaching Patañjali as some kind of supreme authority, you may well be indoctrinating somebody. And some people may be put off by that.
  3. At the very least, it seems worth it to me to question our relationships with our assumptions. This is why I love philosophy so much. 

I have come to my conclusions about Patañjali after several years of deep study and reflection. It seems to me that by jettisoning our dependence on his text, the freedom of true exploration we stand to gain far outweighs any potential costs. That being said, I am fully aware that I may be missing something (or lots of things) entirely. I am certainly open to being re-convinced! If you have further and more salient objections to my conclusions, I would love to have a conversation. Please feel free to leave a comment below. 

SEMICOLON | {am I a}

an important message from a depressed man (myself, a handful of months ago)