The Secret To Understanding Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
If you practice any form of yoga, at some point you will probably hear mention of Master Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, considered the “Bible” of yoga practice and philosophy by most serious modern yogis. This first-century work is actually a compilation of teachings about yoga derived from various sacred texts which are far more ancient—at least a thousand years older, perhaps even up to four thousand.
Patanjali, both a scholar and a sage, consolidated these teachings into 196 short, densely packed, aphorisms or verses, and organized them into a precise system of how to practice yoga in order to attain enlightenment (which, in case you haven’t heard, is the goal of all yoga practices—not the yoga butt, which is just a nice side effect!). The original, older texts focused on the “why” of yoga, the result of the practices—the various stages of enlightenment—rather than the actual practices themselves.
The Yoga Sutras were the first text to name, arrange and explain how to do them.
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The First Word
Patanjali (who also wrote the foundational works of Sanskrit grammar and Ayurvedic medicine) laid out the yoga method very specifically. Nothing is extraneous or random, and the order in which the information is presented is significant. Knowing this, it should be of great import to anyone studying the Yoga Sutras that the very first word of the text is: Now (atha in Sanskrit).
The First Verse
The Yoga Sutras begins with the verse atha yoganushasanam, which—as with many texts translated from another language—has been interpreted by various people in various ways, filtered through their own experience and understanding. For the most part, the differences in the translations of this important verse are subtle, and read something like: Now is the exposition of yoga.
Now Is Present
Patanjali jumps right into it. You open the book, and with no introduction at all, the author/teacher says, “Okay, let’s get down to it.” There’s no time like the present. Why not now? You’ve opened the book, which must mean you have some interest in these teachings, so why wait? He hooks you in from the very first verse, as if you had already committed to the deeper study of yoga, simply by opening the book.
Now Is Past
But what led you to now, to this moment? What inspired you to open this book? How do you even know about it? After all, it’s a foreign text written well over a thousand years ago—not exactly a title you’re likely to find on the New York Times Best Sellers or Oprah’s Book Club lists.
According to many interpretations, and implied in the abruptness of the first verse, is the idea that you have already done a certain amount of previous study and preparation to get you to this point. Whether that means in this lifetime or many prior ones is not relevant. What is relevant is that you have already begun the work. In fact, you have completed the groundwork required for your introduction to the Yoga Sutras. Think pre-req for Yoga Studies 101. These practices are profound, and the fruits—according to another verse (paraphrased)—are attained only after a long time and through hard work with sincere intention.
“Who signed me up for that?” you might be asking at this point (now!). Well, if you have opened the book, then apparently you did. Deeper study of yoga is not just a part of your karma (consequences of past actions); it is also a part of your dharma (spiritual duty or path)—both of which are determined by you, through your thoughts, words and actions, from all lifetimes: past, present and future.
Now Is Future
Okay, so you are going to start studying. Start—that’s the beginning of something, right? You are going to start right now, from this point onward. So back to the subtle implications of the words, now, in this phrase, is pointing to more than just this moment—and it’s not related to what happened before. (Now!) It implies the future. You are going to start the studies now, and they will continue for some time, until you master the practices and become enlightened (which, by the way, is guaranteed from the moment you step on the spiritual path).
Now Is Past, Present and Future
And so here you are, where you arrived through your own past efforts, committed to your future development, starting right now. Past, present and future layer, blend and merge into this very moment. And now this one—which is different from that one, but still now, which is all there ever was, is or will be.
Now Is Beyond Time
Once past, present and future click into place in the now, you are suddenly transported outside of time, beyond time, into the timeless reality of the universe and of your own existence. Now works like a wormhole, a cosmic passageway into the limitless expanse and changeless reality of who you really are. This is enlightenment.
Now Is The Key
So—hidden in plain view—with the very first word of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali offers us the key to the text, to the practices, to our own enlightenment and, ultimately, to the entire universe. If you can learn to experience, to know, now, in every moment, then you don’t need to read the rest of the book.
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