Monday, October 31, 2011

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

This Wednesday, November 2, I begin a four-week course on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. It's nothing less than both intimidating and inspiring. I don't know of any other work that penetrates the veil of the mind and traces the trajectory of soul-awakening with such (almost brutal) clarity, power, and wisdom. 

The array of available books and literature on the YS is bewildering. True, it's nothing like the quantity written on the Bible or the Bhagavad Gita, but it's prodigious nonetheless. No one really knows (or agrees) when the YS were written, or even by whom, exactly. Evidently there is more than one "Patanjali." But this much is certain: whoever wrote it and whenever it was written, it didn't just appear out of nowhere. It is the distillation of a long history of exploration by the scientists of consciousness (the rishis of India). You might say it's as if after centuries (millennia, probably) of experimentation, someone wrote a concluding and summarizing "paper" on their accumulated findings!

The YS are a roadmap to enlightenment. The highway to the infinite portrayed in the YS is also called the 8-Fold (or Limbed) Path. Other synonyms include Raja Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. These all refer to the description of the path of enlightenment given in the YS. (As I cannot be sure of the knowledge of all of my readers, let me say that the true meaning of the term "yoga" is "union." It refers to achievement of Self-realization by uniting one's individual soul with the oversoul of Spirit. By contrast, the more common man-on-the-street uses the term "yoga" to describe the physical postures, positions, or asanas that were developed in more recent centuries and which have the purpose of developing one's health and inner awareness as a foundation for the spiritual discipline of meditation and the spiritual path generally.)

Over the centuries many forms of yoga discipline have emerged with different names and different emphases. All too often they attempt (or appear) to compete or to be distinctly unique. Just as science has enlightened us in the understanding that energy, contrary to the report of our five senses, is the essential and unifying reality of matter, so too the different "yogas" are but different approaches to the same central truth: we are One!

Bhakti yoga is the way of the heart: approaching the Oneness of Spirit through devotion (pure feeling). Gyana yoga is the way of the mind: approaching the Oneness of Spirit through the power of concentration (pure consciousness). Karma yoga is the way of service: approaching the Oneness of Spirit through self-giving and acting as a pure instrument of Spirit. Laya yoga is the way of dissolution of the ego. Mantra yoga is expansion of consciousness through Oneness with the primordial vibration of Spirit (known as Aum). Uniting them all, however, is Raja yoga: the science of meditation which arises when, in combination with one or more of the aforementioned disciplines, we seek "to be still and know (that I AM God)." Raja means royal, or that which rules (or unites) the others. (Ashtanga means, simply, 8-Fold or 8-Limbed.)

As must be obvious to the reader, even the practice of calling these "paths" by their yogic names suggests they come from and are only accessible to devotees attracted to all things Indian. Of course not: devotion, concentration, selfless service, egolessness, and silent inner, prayerful communion are universally manifest in all spiritual traditions.

The YS are aphorisms but unlike stand-alone platitudes there are linked, like threads, creating a chain or path from delusion to enlightenment. The word "sutra" means "thread" (think suture). There are less than 200 hundred sutras. They are divided into four books ("pada"): samadhi pada; sadhana pada; vibhuti pada; and kaivalya pada. Whew! What the heck?

For those of you who stayed the course with me on Swami Sri Yukteswar's book, THE HOLY SCIENCE, you will recognize a pattern. I suppose the ancients must have developed their themes along these lines: describing the process and benefits; outlining the methods; describing the consequences (fruits) ("powers attained"), and giving a glimpse at the goal (Oneness).

At the same time, the unfolding sutras are not linear or strictly a logical progression, either. There is some repetition, some further development, and some detours or tangents along the way. This patterns the simple fact that the path to enlightenment is, itself, NOT a straight-line. Reality and consciousness is more a hologram: each aspect containing something of the whole within itself. God is not in some distant corner of space. Enlightenment is ours right now if . . . . . .  It is, and it isn't! Lifetimes accumulation of error and ignorance can be swept away instantly in a flood of grace but that grace does not come upon the command or will of the ego. And yet, we start where we are: in ego consciousness. A conundrum certainly.

This Wednesday night we will begin our journey. Like the sutras themselves and like our own path to enlightenment, I am not planning with any strictness what we will cover, what we will skip, and how we will develop our themes. This class is based upon Paramhansa Yogananda's teachings of the YS. He studied with his guru, Swami Sri Yukteswar. Yogananda explained that after about only 12 sutras his guru said, :"That's enough. You now have the key." (Yogananda never said exactly WHICH twelve!!!!) So neither are we compelled to read and study all nearly 200 sutras, either!

Yogananda never wrote a summary (a book) on the Yoga Sutras. That's too bad and there must be some overarching reason. Swami Kriyananda did, however and it is a renowned classic in its own right: THE ART AND SCIENCE OF RAJA YOGA (Crystal Clarity, Publishers, Nevada City, CA USA). (Swami Kriyananda is a direct disciple of Yogananda and one of the very few still living and teaching today.) This book does not, however, discuss or analyze the sutras directly. There are unpublished transcriptions of Yogananda's lectures on Patanjali however.

This series will be our second experiment with internet streaming. You can go online and sign up and pay for this class and attend it in real time (7:30 to 9 p.m. PST). Be sure to do this before about 3 p.m. this Wednesday. If we or you encounter technical difficulties we will provide a link to the audio recording as a substitute. I prefer students come in person, of course, but if you are reading this from India or Russia or New York, we at least have something to offer to you.

More blog articles will flow as they, well, flow!


Nayaswami Hriman