Patanjali, Man or Myth?

Yoga’s roots, some say, stretch back thousands of years to the Indus-Sarasvati 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. Iyengar, Swami Satchitananda, and T.K.V. Desikachar, and others.

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While based on an understanding of the universe that came from ancient 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?


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