Beyond the Mat: Patanjali, the Sutras, and the “R” word.

A long, long time ago (maybe around the third century BC), a learned guy (unless he was a girl, or more than one guy) named Patanjali (unless that’s not really the name of the dude/s who wrote it) gathered some of his culture’s wisdom into a little set of writings that we call “The Yoga Sutras.”

I feel it’s important to be a bit vague about this, as with many ancient texts: we don’t know too much about how it actually came to be, and sometimes, we even interpret things wrongly. This doesn’t mean that the Sutras aren’t really wise teachings. In fact, it’s a pretty amazing read. I just want to be clear here that there may not necessarily be anything sacred about the book itself.

If you like, you can think of the Yoga Sutras as an early self-help book. It outlines a path through which humans can achieve wholeness, enlightenment, and freedom from suffering. The path is called Yoga- which means “unity.”*

Patanjali’s Proven Path To Unified Yoga Bliss (as he might have called it, if he had a better publicist) encompasses a lot more than the physical practice. It includes the “Eight Limbs” of Yoga:

  • The Yamas- Moral Restraints (Nonviolence, truthfulness, nonstealing, moderation, nonhoarding)
  • The Niyamas- Observances (Purity, contentment, zeal, self-study, devotion to higher power)
  • Asana- Physical Postures
  • Pranayama- Mindful Breathing
  • Pratyahara- Turning Inward 
  • Dharana- Concentration
  • Dhyana- Meditation
  • Samadhi- Union of the Self with Object of Meditation 

You can see why some of this might make folks nervous. Sounds a lot like a religion, right? Ancient texts, an ethical code, devotion to a higher power, and what the heck is this union with an object of meditation?!

Look more closely. Yoga is nondiscriminatory. Your “higher power” can be your God, Allah, Nature, Humankind. Your Object of meditation can be your deity.

Yoga is a system for purifying the body and mind to become a more whole person.  It can (and often is!) practiced concurrent with a great variety of religions. I can’t say it better than  Alistair Shearer in his introduction to The Sutras: 

“Whether we choose to practice yoga, and interpret its benefits, within the framework of a conventional set of religious beliefs is up to us… Yoga itself is neutral. It is a catalyst that allows us to grow in whichever direction is natural and life-supporting. Its methods work on the physical seat of consciousness, the nervous system, and as far as yoga is concerned, a Hindu nervous system is no different from an Islamic or agnostic one.”

Yet for many, it’s not so clear-cut, and their religion may even specifically prohibit the practice of yoga. I suggest you Google “Yoga and Christians” and settle in with a cup of tea, there’s quite a lot to read.

Many teachers- myself included- muddy the waters by incorporating bits and pieces of religion in our classes. It’s not uncommon to hear Hindu mantras in your studio (hey, 2000 years of being bedmates in India, it was bound to happen). I love kirtan music and I do incorporate aspects of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian thought regularly. While I never want to exclude anyone, or make them feel uncomfortable, my teaching stems from the filter of my own experience and beliefs. Although it would be nice if everyone loved me and my classes, I know I cannot be right teacher for everyone. That’s why there is an enormous variety of classes and teachers. Classes exist that are specifically designed to complement religions such as Christianity or Judaism. There’s even “The No Om Zone” DVD available from a teacher named Kimberly Fowler, who boasts “No chanting, no granola, and no Sanskrit.”**

I find it helpful to consider yoga as a (potentially) spiritual practice, rather than a religious one. Spirituality, to me, speaks more to the interior state of your soul and its place in the universe. One can be spiritual with, within, or without any religion.

So what if you’re not interested in spirituality with your yoga class? I’ve got no problem with you if you want to use your 6 PM Vinyasa class as a stretching practice or a place to get a good sweat on. I’m not sure you’re actually practicing Patanjali’s yoga in this case, but still, okay with me. If you come regularly, you may find that the practice begins to seep into other areas of your life. You may become curious about the morality of yoga, or want to begin a meditation practice. Before you know it, you’ve moved beyond asana into the other’s limbs.

And if you never do? There are many paths up the mountain (as they say), and Patanjali’s Eight Great Ways to Achieve Enlightenment doesn’t have to be the book that guides you there.

Thanks for reading- please feel free to share your thoughts below. I love to hear other points of view!

* (Isn’t it comforting to know that, even 2000 years ago, people felt the same uneasy aches and pains in their soul- that they didn’t feel quite whole?)

**I like all of these things. Granola is awesome and yes, I do make it myself. Sometimes I wear patchouli oil and listen to Sanskrit chants while I do it. Generally speaking though, my armpits are shaved, so I guess I‘m not really living that stereotype to its fullest. 

10 thoughts on “Beyond the Mat: Patanjali, the Sutras, and the “R” word.

  1. Great post! I had a related discussion with a religious family member of mine that doesn’t believe one should practice yoga.. Imagine the horror when she found out I was serious about teaching.. I used the same metaphor with the mountain– in the context that, no one is able to go up that mountain without truly understanding and accepting themselves– not matter what religion or non-religion they follow, and yoga is a great tool that assists your with the, in my opinion, most important act, of accepting oneself– exactly as you are in whichever moment you are in. It physically force you to contemplate that acceptance, and has changed my life because of it.

    1. Thanks Ryan! While not everyone is going to be open to your/our viewpoint, I love the mountain metaphor because it essentially says, “I respect your point of view, although it is different from mine.” These are tough conversations to have- many times it’s easier not to have them at all (haven’t we all chickened out on this kind of thing at some point?), so I very much applaud you 🙂

      One thing that I did not include in this post (that I always find helpful, when having this conversation with others who don’t feel as I do) is to remember a Buddhist teaching I read once: “Treat everyone as though they are already enlightened.” 1) It might be true and 2) It certainly helps me to deal with them more openly and respectfully.

      Thank you so much for reading and responding!

      1. I have to remember that teaching all the time, it is so hard to stay humble when your core beliefs are being challenged, but, the feeling goes both ways. Controversary is something I have a hard time shying from, but I have found that treating all opinions that are coming from a loving place– ie those pertaining to spiritual matters, family issues, relationships, etc– as if they are the most enlightened thought often prevents walls from forming between yourself and people who may not agree with you. I love this practice because it really allows you to dive in deep on controversial issues with people who, are actually slightly ignorant about their own beliefs. Of course you can never say that, but you know it based on the inconsistencies– my goal when I meet people is to help them find that constant light.. Even if their source comes from the bible. I struggle however with hatred/intolerance I tend to react to it negatively, when I know in my heart the person expressing the negativity/hatred is just as deserving of my love and compassion as someone expressing love. In the recent months I have resectfully &sternly said my peace and left before I couldn’t keep it classy–But I can so much better.

        We could probably talk about this stuff for hours, glad I met you!

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