Patanjali, Man or Myth?

Published on December 14, 2012

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.

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?


Share with


Our Latest

Yoga Articles
  • Best Time to Meditate

    Finding the Best Time to Meditate: Tips and Advice on When to Sit

  • Purusharthas

    Purusharthas: The Four Goals of Life

  • Trimurti

    Trimurti: The Hindu Trinity of Brahma Vishnu Shiva

  • Brahman

    Brahman: Definition, Meaning, and Philosophy

  • Yoga Nidra

    Yoga Nidra: Meaning, Benefits, Videos and Tips

  • Living Like a Yogi

    17 Rules for Living Like a Yogi

  • heart opening yoga poses

    The Best 16 Heart Opening Yoga Poses

  • Negative Energy in a Person

    18 Clear Signs of Negative Energy in a Person

Remove Ads with a

Premium Membership

Viewing ads supports YogaBasics, which allows us to continue bringing you quality yoga content. Sign up for a premium membership to remove all ads and enjoy uninterrupted access to the best yoga resources on the web.

Explore More

Yoga TipsAdviceArticlesPracticesBasicsTechniques

  • bedtime yoga for kids

    Bedtime Yoga for Kids: Benefits, Tips and Best Poses

  • Warrior Poses

    The 5 Warrior Poses of Yoga

  • Five Vayus

    The Five Vayus

  • Practice yoga fast or slow

    Fast or Slow? How to Find Your Yoga Flow

  • yoga skin care tips

    7 Essential Skin Care Tips Every Yogi Should Know

  • Tips to Sit Cross-Legged

    Tips to Be Comfortable Sitting in a Cross-Legged Position

  • Yoga Styles defined

    Yoga Styles: One Word Definitions

  • CBD for Yoga

    6 Ways CBD Can Improve Your Yoga Practice

  • benefits of using props

    5 Ways Using Props Will Deepen Your Yoga Practice

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Kathleen Bryant Avatar
About the author
A former teacher and forever student, Kathleen Bryant swapped her running shoes for a yoga blanket in 1992, when she joined her first Hatha Yoga class in the back room of a local crystal shop. After earning a 500-hour teaching certificate from the International Yoga College, she taught anatomy, asana, and other subjects at 7 Centers School of Yoga Arts in Sedona, AZ. Kathleen is especially interested in the therapeutic aspects of yoga and continues to learn from Rama Jyoti Vernon, an amazing yogini who inspires her students to integrate yoga philosophy and mythology with contemporary life. An award-winning author, she has also published a children’s story, a cookbook, and books that focus on Southwest culture, travel, and natural history.
Yoga Basics