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.
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.
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.
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.