In the world of contemporary Western yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is revered as canon, which is to say that the yoga community accepts this collection of philosophical aphorisms as fundamental to yogic practice and as significant in the process of understanding the history of our tradition. This work, the jump-off point for many yoga philosophy conversations, is written in a unique form, characteristic of its time: the sutra.
Sutra is a Sanskrit word, which means “string” or “thread” and refers to an aphoristic style of writing found in Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist texts of the Ancient and Medieval period. Literacy at this time was virtually nonexistent and printing technology barely inchoate. These ancient practitioners thus took great pains to string each Sanskrit character onto proto-paper made from the leaves of the tala tree. These leaves were then strung together with a thread.
The word sutra, therefore, refers to two interrelated phenomena:
The individual aphorism itself found inscribed on the tala leaf, and
The collection of leaves comprising the entirety of the aphorisms in a given work.
Maybe it’s a challenge to the modern imagination to picture wisdom distribution in an age without pervasive written word. For teachings to remain cohesive, for the lineage of spiritual mastery to thrive in the absence of widespread literacy, pith was employed not only as a literary device but also a technological necessity. Each sutra distills a vast set of ideas into its essence, fermented through repetition, dispensed through community. It’s potent stuff, 108 proof, and it’s recommended that you serve it with a mixer—a lot of commentary.
In the case of the Yoga Sutras, our understanding of these sometimes cryptic vessels would be vastly undernourished without the work of one particular commentator, Vyasa, who elaborated the knowledge of Patanjali in so extensive a way that many scholars say what is handed down is better considered as Vyasa's Patanjali. With the sutra form, it is always like this: you can't have a sutra without the commentator to unpack its meaning, to allow it to blossom. It is perhaps so with all aphoristic writing, including aphorisms written in English, that interpretation and contemplation on what is a condensed seed of truth is necessary.
An English aphorism is by its nature short, pithy, and at first glance accessible. It uses straightforward language, and simple sentence structure. It dares you, by its ostensible accessibility to memorize it. You find yourself wanting to say it out loud, repeat it, savor it. It seduces you by its cadence to contemplate it, wherein it reveals itself to be more cryptic than you originally perceived it. Then it challenges you by its ambiguity to figure out what in the world it means.
The literal meaning of “aphorism” from the Greek is “distinction,” and usually this is a distinction of what is true from the possible interpretations available. Consider a few canonical examples of famous authors whose aphorisms ring familiar to the point of being culturally ubiquitous. Oscar Wilde wrote, “Discontent is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation.” Nietzsche kept his writing simpler than the spelling of his name, with gems like, “Whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil.” Lawrence Peter Berra was so prolific in his aphorisms, among them “Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical,” and “I never said most of the things I said,” that you probably only know him by his nickname, “Yogi Berra.” The aphorism is clever, it’s catchy. It offers a glimpse of a universal truth, appearing to us like a preview of some great spiritual realization. Aphorism works well for yoga scripture, because, to plagiarize Yogi Berra, scripture study is 90% the words in the text, the other half is commentary.
Think of the sutras as the spiritual blueprint for the yoga practice, much like the genetic code found in DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA contains all the condensed genetic information for an individual, and its companion RNA (ribonucleic acid) allows it to come to life. Through the process of genetic transcription, RNA delicately untangles the double-helix strand, creating mRNA (messenger RNA). mRNA then facilitates the creation of proteins, by which your body does, well, pretty much everything.
Yes, DNA contains the building blocks for study, and one can recreate--you could say clone, even--the yoga practice from the information coded in the sutra form. But in order for the sutras to truly come to life, the untangling process is essential. The commentary of an effective teacher functions as spiritual RNA, who untangles the dense strands of sutra. Your teacher translates the coded information and creates the form of the messenger dharma which will allow you to synthesize the catalysts for transforming your perception through yoga practice.
Let’s consider one line of code out of the 196 in Patanjali’s Sutras.
Ishvara-pranidhanad va (1.23)
Edwin Bryant’s translation in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (North Press Point, 2009) offers this translation:
Or, [this previously mentioned state is attainable] from devotion to the Lord.
In his The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Integral Yoga Publications, 1978) Sri Swami Satchidananda instead translates:
Or [samadhi is attained] by devotion with total dedication to [the Supreme Soul].
The site swamij.com translates the same code into:
From a special process of devotion and letting go into the creative source from which we emerged, the coming of samadhi is imminent.
Or by surrender to God.
Chip Hartranft at the Arlington Center prefers:
Realization may also come if one is oriented toward the ideal of pure awareness, Isvara.
Notice how the same three-word code allows such variation in interpretation, in expression. Who expressed it best?
How do you determine the meaning of this sutra? How should you determine its meaning? The demand for exegesis, the art of interpretation, supports the call for ishvarapranidana, the most ostensibly theistic of the niyamas, which are the practices you should undertake as a yogi (sutra 2.7). This word alone ishvarapranidana has multitudes of translations and interpretations. For the moment, try to triangulate its meaning somewhere among “surrendering to God” and “allowing grace” and “trusting in a good source.” Discernment and interpretation of texts is now part of your practice. So until you can trust your independent practice entirely, you need good sources. Especially when it comes to something as important as your potential spiritual progress, don’t be so sophomoric that you reject others’ earned expertise. It’s like the difference between genetic code and genetic expression. It takes a highly sophisticated process for the code to transcribe and translate, through the blessing of commentary, devotion, and contemplation, contributing to your spiritual life.
Language itself is meant to be reproduced and to be experienced in community, and our understanding of the sutras is meant to be developed by sustained study with a trusted expert. Some call this expert “guru.” Buddhists use the word “lama.” Children sometimes call her “mom.” Constitutional scholars have a similar word, “Your Honor.” Specifically, the sutras, not only in content but also in form, demand you find a relationship with a sutra teacher. They demand you cultivate their meaning through deep practice, trial, error, surrender, action.
Through devoted study, meaning is magnified, increasing as we consider and apply the ideas in more dimensions. Words and their networks are nothing but containers, and as yogis, we can expand the topological boundaries of each and every one of them. Each sutra has the capacity to contain manifold meaning, like how a love song can contain a romantic universe, a secret code between you and your lover, irrespective of how it appears on sheet music. A sutra can be the love song between you and your practice.
Like gene expression, sutra expression varies from individual to individual, even when processed from the same sutra code. The debate over sutra and its interpretation parallels the debate over nature versus nurture in biology. The code gives us its framework, but implementation brings it to life. Healthy practice includes providing the subtle body with an increasingly optimal environment in which to thrive. The components are all in there, daring you to unravel them, to activate them, to truly nurture your nature, and make the most of your inheritance.