The Library




As is often the case in yoga, the claims and stories about Patanjali may only be a vague reflection of the truth.  There have been several important figures in early Indian philosophy and teaching called by the name.  The character of particular interest to yogis/inis is the Patanjali who produced the written basis of yoga as we know it in the west today, in the form of the Yoga Sutras or Aphorisms.


Patanjali is thought to have lived about 200CE.  At the same time other writers in the south of India were also recording the basis of yoga.  One suggestion for the importance attached to Patanjali is his early recognition by the British in the 18th C who established their centre of rule in India in the north.  It was they who came across the traditions of yoga (and the writings of Patanjali) as it was practised in the north, and carried them to the west.


Aphorisms, or sutras, are short sometimes often obscure statements designed to act as a short of shorthand of yoga.  They were meant to be memorised.  Individual sutras may appear quite meaningless and require detailed study and meditation.  In the first sutra of Patanjali he simply states `We now begin the exposition of yoga`. 


The second sutra however sows the seed of what is to come.  `Yoga is controlling the activities of mind (chitta).`  Note there is no mention of exercises, rituals or other techniques.  All the emphasis is on `mind `, here meant to be more than just the conscious thinking.  Mind includes all levels from the conscious to the subconscious and beyond.  At the start of the second chapter Patanjali suggests the route we must take.  `Austerity, study, devotion to God constitute practical yoga.`  By austerity we must not think simple of suffering and pain, but of the pairing away from our lives of what hinders us seeing forward.  Study does not mean just the study of books or writing, or even oral learning from a teacher.  The study must extend to our self, again on all levels.  Devotion to God reminds us that yoga is ultimately about going beyond our self, towards Realisation of the Ultimate Reality, who we call God.


The outstanding help Patanjali (again to be found in other writings) gives us is the systematisation of yoga into the eight steps, limbs or spokes of the wheel: 

          Yama   - the moral disciplines

          Niyama – the personal disciplines

          Asanas – physical exercises

          Pranayama – prana extension often through breath control

          Pratyahara – sensory withdrawal

          Dharana – concentration

          Dhyana – meditation techniques

and    Samadhi – achieving supreme bliss.


`Steps` wrongly implies that these must be tackled in order from step 1 – yamas.

`Limbs` risks us ascribing particular values to certain stages as we might compare arms and legs.

`Spokes` reminds us that a wheel to be stable and strong needs all the spokes to be in good condition. 


 In our own yoga all of the eight spokes are important.  In the west there is a tendency to focus on the physical exercises at the expense of the more moral and mental aspects.  We must approach our yoga on all fronts for it to be strong and complete.


Derek Osborn                                                051005

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