Exploring the Yoga Sutras: The Beginning
by Andrea Fulkerson
Based on a Course from Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies by Professor Dr. Nicholas Sutton.
When the mind knows itself and loves itself, there is a trinity, a trinity of knowledge, love and awareness.
The triangle has been used as a symbol for a long time. It can represent the masculine or the feminine depending on its orientation. Point up and it represents stability and a firm foundation; point down and it exposes the descent into the physical world of water and earth. A Christmas tree shape is an example of an isosceles triangle where two sides are equal. For me, the triangle represents my journey to the Yoga Sutras, like looking into a telescope and seeing much more than what the hole itself exposes. The curious part is that if you turn the triangle so the base is on the bottom, the two equal sides lead you closer and closer to the pinnacle of the point. It is this representation that has led me and many others in recent times toward Patanjali’s message in the Yoga Sutras. These amazing aphorisms have been recognised for centuries in Hindu tradition as the authoritative text that establishes the Principles of Yoga doctrine and practice, but only recently has the world been peering through telescope, to understand what they mean historically, and how we can apply them to our lives today.
I became interested in this reading many years ago after an exploration of university based Religious Studies, a dive into Buddhism, Islam, and many books on spirituality. Twenty-five years worth of seeking to be exact. Starting broadly and then unconsciously narrowing to Patanjali’s text. This exploration was my way of trying to understand what happened to me on the 28th of May, 1988.
It was on this day that my life shifted dramatically, and my journey of the nature of things began. On that day, I got to witness the triangle from almost every vantage point.
As with most spiritual awakenings, mine came with the confusion of being placed back into the world upside down. Disoriented and trying to find the horizon, I began to consume book after book in the attempt to understand the nature of reality — a concept that seemed very stable before the head on collision. I laugh as I write those words because they exemplify in a physical linguistic the mental construct of having one’s mind being abruptly shifted from stability to confusion. Somewhat like the massive explosion that occurs during nuclear fission reactions. After watching historic video clips of soldiers witnessing the first atom bomb explosions, I have come to the conclusion that there is often confusion when something profound happens that is not understood.
I don’t think I am unusual in wanting to understand what it means to be human. In fact, the older I get, the more I think it is why we are here. I have studied in great depth biology, genetics, physiology, chemistry, psychology, cell and molecular biology, structural anatomy, and the list goes on. Many years of it, and aside from that time in the chemistry lab when I yelled out,” Ahhhhh, this is how it all works!!!!”, there have been few times when I can say it all came together into a cohesive understanding of why I am here. Fortunately, words have given humanity the ability to share insight and knowledge, and it is in the Sutras that I began to gain a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the mind.
In true Patanjali fashion, we start at the end and end up at the beginning. The upside down thinking that asks us to question everything we know so that we may be in what Geetaji has called, “the beginner’s mind”. It is here that the world of wonder unfolds like a journey into fantasy, only to realize that it is more realistic than anything we can imagine. I have heard it called the ancient hymn — the song of our beginning, and it is toward this place that we are guided in the four padas of the sacred text.
Yogis and scholars try to unwind the meaning of the sutras. Yogis from their gurus and an inner journey and scholars from the written works left behind. Perhaps a dash of both will expose the truth for anyone willing to dive inside.
Four early commentators stand out in our exploration of the Yoga Sutras: Vyasa, Sankaracarya (teacher of Advaita Vedanta), Vacaspati Misra (adherent in the school of Advaita Vedanta), and Vijnana Bhiksu (writer and interpreter of sacred texts). The earliest, Vyāsa, being depicted in the image above and his commentaries will be the primary translation for this writing. He is thought to be the same Veda-Vyasa that compiled the Vedas and the author of the Mahabharata. Some consider him Patanjali himself.
The former three base their commentaries after Vyasa, and add their own interpretations and extensions of the basic aphorisms of the Sutras. A study of the Bhagavad Gita, which suggests the same basic pattern of ideas, has been said to further light the vision of the Sutras themselves (OCHS, 2020).
There are many challenges with the reading of Patanjali’s work, one being the language with which it is written. Words are kept to a minimum and verbs are rarely included, which challenges the reader with less absolute clarity. Additionally, many of the terms used by Patanjali have no precise equivalent in the English language. Because of this, the commentaries of scholars and the early practitioners of yoga are indeed a goldmine.
Despite its challenges, it is evident that the primary aim of Patanjali is to offer a means by which the committed practitioner can achieve a high level of spiritual progression leading to the ultimate release from rebirth into enlightenment and liberation. Understanding our true spiritual nature (sva-rupe) moves us off the road of misery and toward the ultimate goal of liberation of the mind. But what does that really mean?
I ask that you open your mind as we journey into the Star Trek aphorism of “the final frontier”. In that TV series, the journey is one of outer space, but like the smallest of the Matryoshka Dolls, the journey of the yoga sutras is really a journey past space and time, into the realm of the inner universe. Or as I have heard it called, the journey home.
If you look around yourself at the political climate of the world, I’m sure you will agree that life seems filled with chaos and challenges. A tornado of events that have no ending and go on forever: be it climate, hunger, human rights, the environment, pollution, disease and death. The list is nearly endless. It seems that in the civilized world, the form of conflict is always changing regardless of the time period. A stroll through any historical text speaks of human challenges and hardship; faced over and over again. The threat of physical annihilation is ever present.
“From the perspective of the Yoga Sutras”, says Dr. Sutton, “life in this world is beset by an existential flow of misery and frustration, which can only be stemmed by enlightenment in the form of experiential knowledge of our true spiritual identity, which is always transcendent to the misery and dissatisfaction inherent in its physical and mental embodiments.” (OCHS, 2020). The aim of the Sutras is to offer a way out of the cycle of psychological rebirth. A way of progressing toward and ultimately achieving liberation from material existence — to gain mental freedom.
The exploration of the mind has been going on for millenia. We see many of the ideas of the Sutras in Samkhya philosophy, passages from the Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, and the treatises on Yoga that appear in Book 12, the Santi-parvan, of the Mahabharata. Patanjali himself gives no references for earlier works that he might have used, but scholars believe he gained his knowledge, at least in part, from previous teachings (Sutton, 2020).
Have you ever focused your gaze onto a candle flame? In today’s world it has become increasingly difficult to focus our attention. I notice myself constantly drawn to my smartphone to be updated on the dealings of the world. The capture of our minds with the outer world by the organs of perception is hypnotic. I remember the first time I tried to sit in meditation. Somewhere in my mind I thought I had to sit for 30 minutes. My God! I could not stand it, and years later, after my daily asana practice, I still find it difficult to lay in savasana. My mind begins the daily “to do list” as I stay. Most often it wins, and I get up, and admit there is more work to do.
Perhaps Patanjali was inspired to write his aphorisms because he learned that there was more that needed to be told. That prior teachings needed further work. We will never know, but it is clear that there are many similarities between the Samkhya teachings and the Yoga Sutras, including the gunas, prakrita and purusa. This theory teaches how the world of matter evolved, and the differentiation between the spirit and substance. It asserts that any effect is already existent within its cause because all varieties we see are already present within the more primal non-manifest. The fundamental difference between the two is that Yoga is theistic and accepts a Supreme Deity whereas Samkhya presents an understanding of the world and its creation — no god required.
It goes something like this:
Balanced Gunas (unmanifest) -> agitated gunas = primal prakriti -—> elements of matter emerge.
Elements of matter:
Buddhi: intellect or personality
Ahamkara: ego or sense of personal identity
Manas: the mind that is regarded as distinct
And from this all senses, the body and the external world becomes manifest. Basically, everything we think becomes real for us.
Isn’t it true that knowledge can be gained in many ways? The beauty of being human is that one can learn, re-learn, and un-learn anything. When we’re born, we are positioned into a way of life through our culture, our language, our economics, our ancestry, and our dreams; mostly relating to the body. The Yoga Sutras identify that our true position has nothing to do with anything physical. It presents the understanding of the ideas that form the basis of yoga practice. It is this teaching that begins the journey of thinking upside down (the point down triangle?), an un-learning of sorts, to gain an understanding of the final message Patanjali is presenting.
Perhaps this is why physical inversions are so powerful? I admit that being upside down requires a certain focus, one that is so easily lost when I turn up-side. It requires dedication and practice to train the body and mind to accept this perception. When you first began inverting, how many of you told yourself, “this isn’t for me”?
Yoga, it is said, is a journey of the mind, where the body is not ignored, but used as a tool. I have heard that Mr. Iyengar has said that the body is “the first prop” in this unraveling process. Here the journey of time ends, and the wonder of moment to moment awareness becomes cultivated — revealing how the unmanifest has become manifest.
There is a story of an Indian man sitting cross legged at the airport. I am sure many of you have heard this tale. A small child stands in curiosity in front of the stranger, and asks, “are you a Hindu?”. The man, quietly opening his eyes and gazing at the small figure, says, “no, I am an un-do”. Every time I share this story, I can’t help but smile. For me it represents the innocence and openness of children, and the wisdom of knowing that the life learning process moves in a triangular way. It is a spiritual equalizer and epitomizes the journey of the yoga aspirant, the undoing of our material conditioning in order to catch a glimpse of our own openness and expansion — somewhat akin to looking through a telescope.