Patanjali, Man or Myth?
Yoga’s roots, some say, stretch back thousands of years to
river valleys of Northern India. Yoga as we practice it today bears little
resemblance to that ancient knowledge. There is, however, a thread connecting
the old and new, traced by a scholar named Patanjali roughly 2,000 years ago.
Ashtanga yogis invoke Sage
Patanjali in their opening mantra, but no matter which yoga family we
belong to, we are all heirs of Patanjali.
Often referred to as the father of
Classical Yoga, Patanjali distilled centuries of philosophies and practices
into the Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 brief aphorisms. The sutras (root of
the English “suture”) offer a step-by-step guide for personal transformation
that has inspired dozens of translations and commentaries, including versions
by influential modern yogis, B.K.S.
Satchitananda, and T.K.V.
Desikachar, and others.
While based on an understanding of the universe that came
Samkhya philosophy, the Yoga Sutras also contain elements of Vedanta
(self-inquiry), the school of yoga introduced to the U.S. in the late 1800s by Swami Vivekananda.
The eight-limbed path of transformation that Patanjali outlined in the sutras
is usually referred to as Raja
Yoga, the royal path, though the sutras are also considered a foundation
for the Hatha
and Kriya yoga traditions. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras share concepts with Buddhism as well.
A rich source of inspiration for two millennia, the sutras
have influenced many philosophies and cultures, including our own. Some
historians say that Sage
Patanjali, who lived and taught sometime between 400 B.C. and A.D. 200,
also wrote treatises on grammar and medicine and that he became the patron
saint of classical dance. Others point out that Patanjali is a fairly common
name, and that various individuals named Patanjali may have made these diverse
contributions to Indian culture. That’s the factual version, or to paraphrase
Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi, the dry
and yeastless story.
But the image of Patanjali familiar to contemporary
practitioners is the one that graces many yoga studios: a
half-human, half-serpent figure, his lower body coiled three and a half times
(symbolic of Kundalini), his head protected by multi-hooded cobras. Some say
Patanjali was an avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu’s serpent, who so longed
to teach yoga on earth that he fell (pat)
onto the palm of a woman whose hands were lifted in prayer or offering (anjali).
So, as Pi asked, which makes the better story? How do
Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras inspire your yoga practice?