P is for Patanjali

Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras in approximately 100-300 C.E.  He did not invent multi-limbed yoga nor was he the first to write about it, but his Yoga Sutras are the most complete and well-known exposition of yoga.  Patanjali’s yoga actually can be termed raja yoga, which leads us to some necessary background. 

Yoga means Unity – of oneself with God/the Universe/the Force/the Tao/the Great Not There/whatever you call it.  The term can be expanded to include unity of mind, body, and spirit – and of oneself with other beings on this plane or different planes.

People in yoga positions are depicted in drawings of the Indus Valley civilization, 3,000-2,000 B.C.E. in ancient India.  The Vedas and Upanishads, from 2,000 to 200 B.C.E., mention yoga hundreds of times.  Yoga has been around in the West since Alexander the Great became interested in it (325 B.C.E.)  There are countless schools of yoga, theories and “traditions” of yoga, and ways to practice yoga.

Yoga is one of six schools of ancient Indian philosophy.  It is fundamentally a spiritual tradition leading to oneness with God/the Universe/the Great Unknown.  Forms of yoga, as far back as the Bhagavad Gita (400-300 B.C.E), include Jnana [the path of knowledge] yoga, Bhakti [the path of devotion] yoga, Karma [the path of service] yoga, and Raja [the path of meditation] yoga.  Sivananda and others describe additional forms of yoga.  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are frequently defined as the basic text on yoga, but remember that Patanjali was discussing raja yoga.  Patanjali describes eight steps to spirituality, one of which is asanas -- body positions supporting body health as a foundation for continued progress towards personal spirituality.

Raja yoga (translation: royal yoga) is the form of yoga that encompasses the whole of mind, body, and spirit. It has several steps.  Multi-stepped yoga is seen in the Upanishads (800-200 B.C.E); six-limbed, seven-limbed, and eight-limbed yoga are known.  The Mahabharata, a lengthy epic within which lies the Bhagavad Gita, mentions five-limbed yoga.  The surviving and standard school is the eight-limbed school which Patanjali endorsed.

The steps of eight-limbed Raja yoga are: 

1) yama: moral behavior

2) niyama: self-discipline

3) asana: physical positions

4) pranayama: breath regulation

5) pratyahara: sensory control

6) dharana: mind concentration

7) dhyana: meditation

8) samadhi: enlightenment, union of self with the Infinite

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras addresses all 8 limbs, with a focus on progress towards spiritual perfection. In the 195 verses (or 196, depending on translation), there are only two sentences on performance of asanas:

II.46 Posture should be steady (sthira) and comfortable (sukha).

II.47 Posture should be attained by relaxation of effort and absorption in the infinite.

That’s it -- that’s all Patanjali had to say about asanas.  Nobody knows why -- whether he wasn’t concerned about more than these concepts, or if he felt there was adequate information on asanas available elsewhere.

Subsequent to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, at an unknown date before 1000 C.E., the sage Yajnavalkya composed a book on 8-limbed raja yoga called Yoga Yajnavalkya.  This book covers the same territory as the Yoga Sutras, but it contains significantly more verses providing increased detail on the 8 limbs.  There is a long section on pranayama, and the chapter on asanas describes eight poses that exercise the body in the manner of hatha yoga.  Yoga Yajnavalkya is something of a bridge between Patanjali’s raja yoga and later texts that expand on hatha yoga (see Hatha Yoga Pradipika page).  Yoga Yajnavalkya also has information beyond theYoga Sutras on energy flow in the body and on therapeutic uses of yoga.  It is a comprehensive text using raja yoga as its foundation that fully recognizes the physical aspects of yoga as well as the mental and spiritual aspects.  It illustrates that the eight-limbed yoga eloquently summarized by Patanjali is indeed the foundation for the teachings of all the later masters, from Krishnamacharya, Sivananda, and their students down through the generations to contemporary yogis of today.

Note on dates: dates for the ancient Hindu documents are convenient for establishing a general chronology and sequence, but they are only approximations.  Precise dates, even within the correct century, simply are not known.

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