“Now begins the study of yoga.” In this simple, yet rich, translation of Patanjali’s Sutra I:1, Atha yoganushasanam, immediately we see how succinct and pointed the sutras are, centuries of knowledge distilled to a single thread. There are dozens of English translations of the Yoga Sutras, some simple and conversational, some scholarly. You’ll even find a few online, including this brilliantly cross-linked version from Swami Jnaneshvara, or this practical contemporary translation from an Ashtanga instructor, each commentator offering a valuable and unique perspective. It’s also valuable to listen to the sutras and repeat them in the manner they were presented originally. Rhythmic chanting not only helps with recall but also works on a subtle level of vibration, going beyond the intellect to deepen your understanding.
Think of the first chapter of the sutras, the Samadhi Pada, as the answer to the question “What is Yoga?” Samadhi, like yoga, is a word for union. The root “sam” means same, perfect, complete, and dhi is consciousness. Pada means part (like the foot in the Padangusthasana poses), piece, or chapter. In this first chapter of the sutras, Patanjali outlines the philosophy of yoga, discusses the nature of mind, and lists the obstacles that keep us from experiencing ultimate reality.
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Atha yoganushasanam. Just one word can symbolize an entire pattern of thought, as I. K. Taimni explains in The Science of Yoga. Consider, for instance, the shades of meaning in the first word, atha. Baba Hari Dass says atha (like Om) is the sound of creation, and merely pronouncing atha invokes a blessing. There is power in the moment of now. The past is done; the future is yet to be realized. Only in this very moment can you act, and every moment presents another opportunity to begin. We know that Patanjali compiled the sutras from a long tradition of philosophies and teachings. Atha or “now” signals the culmination of previous knowledge. Many commentators view this “now” from an even larger perspective, shading Sutra I:1 like this: Now, after lifetimes upon lifetimes, you have arrived at this moment in time, at last ready to learn the essential teachings (anushasanam) about the nature of true Self (yoga).
Although they were compiled 2,000 years ago, based on knowledge that stretches back even farther, Patanjali’s sutras are timeless. Human culture has changed since then, and we view yoga through a different lens today, yet the sutras still hold great wisdom for coping with contemporary life. A recent New York Times article focused on the importance of mindfulness training in a society enamored of multi-tasking. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras offer tools for everyone, not just yoga students.
With the very first sutra, Patanjali reminds us to be present, to wake up to reality … and the sutras that follow tell us how. There’s as much magic in chanting Sutra I:1 as there is in Harry Potter saying “Accio!” and as much portent as Arya Stark uttering “Valar morghulis.” Saying atha yoganushasanam is like hitting a reset button. Chanting it at the beginning of your practice clears the space and sets the stage. The rest is up to you.
What are some ways you’ve incorporated sutra study into your yoga practice?