Can the Yoga Sutras be Applied Today?
Why Unravel the Thread? In Sanskrit sutra means thread and Yoga Sutra is the thread of yoga. Most interpretations of the Yoga Sutra are complex and hard to understand and many of us end up more confused when trying to make sense of the Yoga Sutra.
The purpose of this podcast is to answer the simple question: Can the Yoga Sutras be applied today?
For over a decade I have been reading, studying, and trying to apply the Yoga Sutra in my daily yoga practice, in teaching yoga and in living my life. Unravel the Thread is a journey of untying the knots in the Yoga Sutra so that its meaning is clear. Then, when the thread of yoga is disentangled, it is easier to put it into practice.
Yoga is part of a tradition extending, according to some sources, as far back as 3500 years (Feuerstein; White). The Yoga Sutra, Patañjali’s 196 verse compilation from at least the fourth century CE is considered by some the first complete treatise on yoga philosophy. Although currently the most popular aspect of yoga is the practice of physical postures, today the Yoga Sutra of Patañjali is the most popular yoga text of all time (White xvi). In fact, any interested student can easily access complete translations of this ancient text on the Internet. In addition, there are valuable scholarly interpretations of the Yoga Sutra produced over the last 100 years that supplement the rich tradition of Yoga Sutra commentaries that started around the fifth century CE.
In our time yoga has become mainstream, evolving from a fringe esoteric practice to a commercially successful global trend widely publicized in glossy magazines. This transformation has brought with it yoga classes in gyms, yoga studios, public spaces, schools and online; all kinds of accessories endorsed by acclaimed yoga celebrities; social media promotion, controversy and scandals; as well as attempts at medicalization, regulation and standards for teachers, teacher training schools and therapeutic applications of yoga. Over thirty-five million people practice yoga in the US and, according to the United Nations, two billion people practice yoga around the world. It is not uncommon to hear people in the yoga world talk about yoga as a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Many bookstores have bookshelves filled with a growing range of books about yoga. Many of these books contain images of yoga postures, detailed anatomical information for practicing each one and a list of the benefits of each posture. Those same books may include a smaller section on the benefits of yogic breathing exercises and meditation. Usually a different section in the bookstore carries a handful of books on yoga philosophy. In general, yoga philosophy books focus on abstract ideas and intellectual models with little to no mention of the physical practices most commonly seen in the other type of yoga books. This separation between physical practices and their philosophy is hardly surprising as the separation between body and mind has been a constant in Western thought since the 17th century. Nevertheless, given the growth in popularity of the physical aspects of yoga, yoga philosophy has started to pique the curiosity of a growing number of physical yoga enthusiasts.
Today, yoga and philosophy seem to be two very different disciplines. In recent years, as yoga has become mainstream, images of impossibly flexible and strong people in pretzel-like contortions appear on the cover of magazines and billboards. Not surprisingly, many people think that yoga consists mostly of stretching exercises to increase flexibility. In contrast, one of the most common ways of thinking of philosophy is as the study of ideas from an academic perspective. In fact, most of us consider philosophy to be about thinking systematically and in abstract terms. Indeed, when we think about a philosopher, we envision an intelligent and logical person immersed in deep thought. As a result, talking about yoga philosophy may seem like a contradiction because the general ideas associated with each word seem to be opposite, with yoga being physical exercise and philosophy a purely mental activity.
However, there are other ways of understanding philosophy. 20th century French philosopher Pierre Hadot proposed that Ancient Greek philosophy was not just a theoretical project. Instead Hadot affirmed that ancient philosophy was actually a practical set of spiritual exercises directed to inner transformation. In fact, Hadot defined philosophy as a way of life resulting from the love of wisdom. This way of life demanded a radical transformation of the person, resulting in peace of mind, inner freedom and cosmic consciousness (Hadot). Interestingly, on the Indian subcontinent, philosophy has also been understood as a practical endeavor to realize truth in one’s life (Sharma). Interpreting philosophy from Hadot’s perspective resonates with the yoga philosophical tradition. Then, it makes sense to view Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra as a complete system for living in wisdom. This comprehensive framework is not an abstract set of ideas to be entertained only intellectually. Rather, the Yoga Sutra is a practical guide for liberating ourselves from our limitations and restrictions so that we can experience inner freedom, peace of mind and awareness of the deep interconnectedness between everything that exists.
Unravel the Thread is an invitation to embark on the journey of self-discovery that leads to living in wisdom and freedom from suffering. This journey requires reflection and application. Unravel the Thread presents simple and practical yet powerful ways of integrating the various aspects of yoga into contemporary life at a gradual and sustainable pace. This approach takes the Yoga Sutra as a set of guidelines to be reflected upon and then put into practice consciously and intelligently in order to better understand ourselves and the interpenetrating systems that we are made of. Yoga offers helpful ways for removing the physical, mental and emotional limitations and inefficiencies keeping as from participating in life with an open mind and an open heart. In sum, the Yoga Sutra is a practical handbook for achieving inner harmony and inner wisdom.