What is Patañjali’s Yoga?

"What is Patanjali's Yoga?"
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If you want to take in the previous three posts in this series, you can find them linked below! These will provide you with a foundation as we continue narrowing our focus on this philosophical exploration together.

*SPOILER ALERT*

‘Yoga’ is not a synonym for ‘movement.’ If you haven’t started doing this already, I encourage you to practice using the word ‘movement’ to refer to movement, ‘stretching’ to refer to stretching, and ‘Yoga’ to refer to a category of moral philosophy. This is what decolonizing yoga looks like.

 

Notes:

  • In the following paragraphs, ‘YS’ is short for ‘Yoga Sūtra.’
  • The source for all Yoga Sūtra references on this page is: Patañjali. Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra: Translation, Commentary and Introduction. Translated by S. Ranganathan. Edited by S. Ranganathan, Black Classics. Delhi: Penguin Black Classics, 2008.
  • Please check out Dr. Shyam Ranganathan’s work here! www.yogaphilosophy.com

 

I have chosen the following teachings to highlight the key instructional premises of Patañjali’s contribution to moral philosophical disagreement, as described in the seminal text the Yoga Sūtra.

Let’s get into it!

foundations

In Patañjali’s view, People are intrinsically pure, benign and morally perfect beings. They are characterized by consciousness, intelligence and volition – meaning that they have free will (YS I.29).

People are also considered perceivers, knowers and doers (YS I.3).

  • Thus, People are not only found in human bodies.

Nature as we know it – consisting of everything that is not a Person – comes about in order to provide experiences for People; these experiences are intended to lead to self-understanding and self-mastery for each Person. Nature’s only purpose then, is to serve People (YS II.18, 21-23).

Nature includes the mind, senses and body, with the mind being the most proximate aspect of Nature to the Person.

Under normal circumstances, when People do not practice Yoga, they approach the project of self-understanding reactively (YS I.4).

When People do not understand their true essence, they act in ways that are harmful, covetous, deceitful and unrestrained in their interactions with themselves and others (YS I.4).

An alternative for People is to practice yoga, and approach the project of self-understanding actively, which can lead to the ultimate outcome of yoga: kaivalya (liberation) (YS II.25).

In order for a Person to understand themself, they practice impressing their essential nature on their immediate and proximate Natural environment, so that their environment becomes a mirror bearing their reflection.

Therefore, in Patañjali’s Yoga, People aim to restrain the mind (the closest part of Nature to the Person) so that it reflects the essence of them as a Person (YS I.2) – that which is intrinsically pure, benign and morally perfect.

This restraint of the mind is challenging for most People because of, amongst other things, unhelpful tendency impressions that confuse the Person.

Conscious tendency impressions (memory) and unconscious tendency impressions (saṃskāras) are not passive, but a result of the active effort of a Person to retain past experiences as part of their self-understanding (YS I.11, IV.9) – which ultimately results in self-misunderstanding.

  • We put effort into defining ourselves through past events that we hold on to.

Therefore, if People can invest in understanding themselves through established tendency impressions, they can also choose differently and renounce unhelpful connections to fixations, attachments and traumas.

  • This isn’t necessarily easy, but it can be empowering as it recognizes a Person’s role both in their illness and in their psychic recovery.

Tendency impressions are formed as a result of a Person’s reaction to an experience. This sets up psychological dispositions that mature in time, to which the Person will react again, and again, consistently reinforcing the tendency impression.

  • Therefore, without active effort, People’s pathologies acquire a certain momentum of their own.

To practice yoga then is much like the effort to slow down a whirlpool. The practical means of setting up such resistance to harmful tendency momentum is the substance of Patañjali’s practical approach to living and aiming.

If People choose not to set up resistance, their lives are then lived for the most part in reaction to stimuli or feedback mechanisms that have been allowed to persist through a lack of yoga practice.

If a Person is seeking liberation from self-misunderstanding, it is in their long term interests to practice yoga, which restrains the turbulence of the mind, bringing it into line with one’s essence as a Person (YS I.2-.3).

Patañjali stresses that is not intellectual insights from the outside that will liberate People, but instead consistent internal practice. Self-misunderstanding is a very real form of bondage, and a Person’s effort is required to overcome it (YS I.14).

pre-practice

It is incredibly challenging to practice yoga when one’s objective, natural circumstances are unfavourable.

The major distraction that contributes to the scattering of one’s mind is illness. Additional distractions that flow from illness include apathy, doubt, negligence, sloth, non-restraint, delusion, perspectivism, failing to be grounded (flightiness/hyperactivity), and inconsistency (YS I.30).

Symptoms of these distractions include discomfort, depression, trembling of the body and disturbed inhalation and exhalation (YS I.31), all of which can be associated with poor health.

Note that Patañjali here is not only referring to illness of the physical body, but also illness of the subtle body. In yoga, every Person who has not restrained their mind is ill, and in the absence of yoga practice a Person’s illness will continue to distract them with psychic suffering, rooted in self-misunderstanding.

These distractions make it harder to practice, which re-affirms unhelpful tendencies, which make it harder to practice, which re-affirms unhelpful tendencies, etc. This is the unhelpful, whirlpool-like momentum that was described in the Foundations section.

Patañjali says that when a Person is experiencing any of these distractions or their symptoms, even just one of following seven antidotes can be employed in order to brighten mentality (YS I.31-.32).

  1. Practice (a) being friendly towards those people and things that are pleasant or amenable to us; (b) showing compassion to those who suffer and appreciating the variegated root causes of evil and suffering; (c) taking joy in those who choose well / are morally praiseworthy; and (d) responding with equanimity to those who do not choose well / are unmeritorious (YS I.33).
  2. Practice interrupting harmful, pathological breathing patterns (YS I.34).
  3. Practice resting your focus in one place (YS I.35, see also YS III.9-.10).
  4. Practice increasing the sattva (illuminative quality in Nature) in your emotional core (YS I.36).
  5. Practice letting go of attachments as strategies for self-understanding (YS I.37).
  6. Practice resting and dreaming (YS I.38)
  7. As a modified option of (3), you can practice resting your focus specifically on spiritual characters or symbols that resonate with you (YS I.39, see also YS II.11).

practice

Through the use of the antidotes, once a person has made their objective, natural circumstances favourable enough, they are ready to practice yoga.

Any action is yogic when it has these three characteristics (YS II.1):

  • It is challenging,
  • It allows you to study yourself / own your values, and
  • It creates space for all other people to do (1) and (2); it is an act of devotion to Sovereignty.

Together, these characteristics describe right procedure. 

During yoga practice, a Person aims to restrain the mind through making decisions based on right procedure, such that they are no longer creating new unhelpful tendency impressions, nor supporting existing ones within themselves.

This is achieved by minimizing afflictions, the most pressing of which is ignorance – the conflation of a Person with Nature. Afflictions that flow from ignorance are egotism, attachment, aversion and clinging to bodily security (YS II.2-.9).

  • These afflictions together constitute both (a) the cause of suffering and (b) why yoga practice is then necessary.

With practice, a Person starts to distinguish themself from Nature, which reduces ignorance (self-misunderstanding), which makes it easier to practice, which re-affirms helpful tendencies, which makes it easier to practice, etc. This is an example of the whirlpool-like momentum that was described in the Foundations section, but a helpful version (YS I.50). This highlights again a Person’s role both in their illness and in their psychic recovery.

When a Person is experiencing any of these afflictions, they can employ the following upāya (remedy) in order to both (a) uncover the genesis of an affliction and (b) abandon it as a method for self-understanding (YS II.26, .28-.29)

The Eight Limbs of Yoga

  1. Commit to upholding the Great Vow: a code of conduct that every Person ought to subscribe to in order to create space for everyone to thrive (YS II.30-.39).
  2. Practice (a) making decisions by way of the three characteristics of yogic action outlined previously, while (b) renouncing anti-Yogic things (maintaining purity of practice) and (c) cultivating contentment with your practice (YS II.32-.33, .40-.45).
  3. Practice postures that are both still and pleasant (YS II.46-.48).
  4. Practice interrupting harmful, pathological breathing patterns (YS II.49-.53).
  5. Practice withdrawing attention from the senses and their objects (YS II.54).
  6. Practice placing attention on a specific physical object (YS III.1)
  7. An intensification of (6); Practice placing attention on a specific subtle object, perhaps of spiritual character or symbol that resonates with you (YS III.2, see also YS I.39, II.11).
  8. Practice experiencing a vision of yourself – a Person (YS III.3).

The practices within this remedy – which build off of each other – are intended to be followed in their order, which move the practitioner from external to internal considerations. The final three stages of this remedy can only be practiced by someone who has made great advances in the first five.

As they constitute a remedy, none of these limbs are the final resting place of Yoga (YS III.7).

The yoga practitioner is encouraged to regard all experiences as opportunities for practice, loosening any preferences they may hold about particular kinds of experiences (i.e. pleasant versus painful) (YS II.15).

The more one practices, the fewer unhelpful tendency impressions they have, and the more helpful tendency impressions they have. One’s success will be proportional to their degree of practice intensity; this means that regardless of whether a Person practices a little or a lot lot, they will have that degree of success (YS I.21-.22)

As a practitioner spends more time in the seventh limb, seeds of ignorance are destroyed. Then, in the final stage while experiencing visions of themself – the practitioner ceases to create new self-understanding by way of Nature (aka ignorance) and they cease to support existing self-understanding by way of Nature. Therefore, old ignorance is being destroyed and no new ignorance is being added.

With time in practice, the final resting place of Yoga is described as the end of ignorance, where there is no longer any need to practice experiencing a vision of oneself (aka discerning Persons from Nature). This is what is called Isolation (kaivalya) by Patañjali.

From this Isolation yields a Person self-understanding that transcends all arbitrary, contingent distinctions between People. There is an understanding that all Persons have the right to the knowledge that is revealed through yoga.

Conclusion

This brings us to the end of the instructional teachings I’ve chosen to highlight.

At this point, I hope that you can appreciate

  • How incredibly different yogic living and aiming is from imperialist living and aiming.
  • How living and aiming in this way has the opportunity to interrupt systems of harm and create space for every single person to thrive.
  • How YOU are the one person revolution, capable of impressing your morally perfect nature on your environment in order to create change.

I also hope that you can appreciate how inadequate ‘modern yoga’ is at teaching yoga.

Sifting through the entire Yoga Sūtra to pluck out Limbs 3-5 out of the 8 Limb remedy, interpreting those limbs from a colonizers perspective, and packaging and selling those teachings.. is the work of western imperialism.

Not only is this narrow focus inadequate to achieve liberation on Patañjali‘s view, it is also a tactical move by imperialism, because practitioners will think they are moving towards liberation when in actuality they are upholding the imperialist status quo.

Once again, I implore practitioners – especially anyone who shares yoga with others – to decolonize the teachings. This is no easy feat; you may ruffle feathers and if you are a teacher you may lose clients and jobs. However, the liberation that comes from ACTUALLY practicing yoga is unlike anything I have experienced before, and YOU can both experience it yourself and be part of others experiencing it too.

The book cover of Dr. Shyam Ranganathan's translation of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra.
Image Description: An image of the book cover of Dr. Shyam Ranganathan's translation of Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra. In the foreground is a statue of Patañjali in the incarnated form of the Serpent-God Ādi Śeṣa. There is a garland around his neck. The background is red with black Sanskrit writing. Underneath the statue reads, "Patañjali's Yoga Sūtra" and "Penguin Classics."

Wondering how to decolonize the teachings?

The first step is to actually access the original teachings.

Everyone who (a) cannot read Sanskrit, and/or (b) does not know how to explicate philosophy, is at the mercy of a translator. And 99.9% of the time, translators filter the teachings through their lens of perception, rather than explicating philosophy. Hence, hundreds of INTERPRETATIONS of Patañjali’s teachings with very few that actually capture the essence of this contribution to moral philosophical disagreement.

Therefore, no matter how many translations of the Yoga Sūtra you might have, I could not more highly recommend Dr. Ranganathan’s translation (pictured here, www.yogaphilosophy.com/yoga-sutra).

Until you work with a translation by (a) a philosopher, and (b) someone committed to combatting orientalism, I am of the opinion that you have not yet actually come into contact with Patañjali’s teachings.

And just when you thought this blog post couldn’t get any longer..

Who is Patañjali?

A statue of Patañjali in the incarnated form of the Serpent-God Ādi Śeṣa.
Image Description: A statue of Patañjali in the incarnated form of the Serpent-God Ādi Śeṣa. Half-snake, half-human, Patañjali sits on his tail with seven cobras' heads above him. His lower hands make the Añjali mudrā, and his upper hands hold a conch and wheel.

Saint Patañjali is one of the 8 disciples of Mahaṛṣi (great seer) Nandinātha.

Patañjali is also one of 18 Siddhar-s in the 18 Siddha Tamil Tradition. Siddhar-s are those who have reached such advanced stages of self-understanding that they have acquired powers (siddhi-s). 

In this Tradition, the Siddhar-s were the scientists, doctors, philosophers and teachers, all rolled into one. They had wisdom that transcended Topical lines, and therefore were able to integrate concepts and pull knowledge from different fields in order to make ground breaking contributions in their chosen areas of research.

Therefore, the Siddha Tradition acts as an umbrella for all sorts of Topics on which Siddhar-s shared.

 

One of the Topics on which the Siddhar-s shared is moral philosophy (disagreements about how to live and what to aim for),

and within moral philosophy is Yoga (right procedure causes good outcome),

and within Yoga we find Patañjali’s work – aka, Patañjali’s Yoga.

 

It is valuable to understand Patañjali as a Siddhar, because when engaging with an orientalism-free translation of the Yoga Sūtra, it can be seen that his theory of moral philosophy weaves how to live and what to aim for with other concepts including physical health and – as you may have noted from the teachings outlined above – mental health.

“The Yoga Sūtra sets out a sophisticated theory of moral psychology and perhaps the oldest theory of psychoanalysis. For Patañjali, present mental maladies are a function of subconscious tendencies formed in reaction to past experiences. He argues that people are not powerless against such forces and that they can radically alter their lives through yoga – a process of moral transformation and perfection, which brings the body and mind of a person in line with their true nature.” – Dr. Shyam Ranganthan (www.yogaphilosophy.com/bio)

Okay! Let’s leave it there. That’s more than enough for one day!

When you’re ready..

When you’re ready to explore Patañjali’s Yoga more, you can check out the reclaim. Framework that I have compiled, which outlines a strategic approach to learning and living yoga as it is presented in the Yoga Sūtra.

If you have found this post interesting, please consider sharing it with your network by clicking one of the icons below!

 

Until next time, in practice,

Tara

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What is Patañjali’s Yoga? – the one person revolution