BOOK REVIEW: Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali ed. by B.K.S. Iyengar

Light on the Yoga Sūtras of PatañjaliLight on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The “Yoga Sutras” are 196 aphorisms about yoga that were penned by a sage named Patanjali around 400 CE (i.e. AD.) Unless you’re a Sanskrit scholar with expertise in the history of yoga and the region that birthed it, it’s hard to gain anything from reading the Sutras directly. The Sutras are written in a terse style in a sparse language, and so most readers aren’t equipped to interpret them – which takes not only knowing the language but have some understanding of the context in which they were written. This means the Sutras are most commonly packaged into a book-length manuscript that includes not only the translation but also analysis and commentary.

There are many such books available, but the challenge is to find one that: a.) comes as close to the original meaning as possible without either misunderstanding or tainting the meaning with the translator’s and / or commentator’s worldview / ideas / ego; b.) is approachable to a modern reader. With respect to the latter, it’s easy to find free translations on the web, but often these were produced over a century ago, and can make for challenging reading for today’s readers. While it may seem like it would be closer to the source material, it can also be thought of as injecting another layer of culture in between the original and the present-day reader.

The Sutras are organized into four sections. The first section introduces the reader to yoga and explains the state of mind called Samadhi. The second section outlines the eight-fold practice of yoga called Ashtanga Yoga. The eight limbs include the two aspects of yogic ethics, yama and niyama, as well as postural yoga (asana,) breath exercises (pranayama,) sensory withdrawal (pratyahara,) concentration (dharana,) meditation (dhyana,) and the aforementioned Samadhi. The third section focuses on the super-normal abilities yogis are said to achieve, along with a warning that the pursuit of these abilities can become a fatal attraction with respect to one’s growth. The final section discusses the liberation, that is the ultimate objective of the practice of yoga.

The organization of this volume makes it suitable for readers of a wide range of levels of experience and scholarly understanding, and allows a reader to benefit from a shallow or deep approach to reading / research of the Sutras. It includes the original Sanskrit, then a Romanized alphabet phonetic write up of the original Sanskrit Sutra, and then a listing of the various meanings for each of the Sanskrit word. Then it has the English translation of the Sutra as literal as possible. Finally, there is B.K.S. Iyengar’s commentary and analysis. Sometimes these elaborations are just a few lines and sometimes they’re a few pages, but most commonly each is about one page. I like the approach of providing the original as well as information that facilitates the reader systematically piecing together his or her own understanding of each Sutra. I think it shows both humility and eagerness to support students on the part of the editor.

There are various appendices, indexes, and a glossary to make the book more useful.
This isn’t the first book of translation and commentary of the Sutras that I’ve read. However, it is the most readable, approachable, and useful that I’ve read. I would highly recommend this book for all practitioners of yoga.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Sutras by Patanjali [Trans. Charles Johnston]

Yoga Sutras of PatanjaliYoga Sutras of Patanjali by Charles Johnston

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are about a billion editions of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. The one I got was a free or very cheap on Kindle, and is, therefore, probably not the best edition. I don’t know that the Kindle version I got still exists because it included a supplemental essay by Swami Vivekananda that the version I linked to on Amazon doesn’t. However, the translation is the same, and is by Charles Johnston.

For many old works, the edition might not matter too much, but for Patanjali’s Sutras it matters a great deal. First, there’s the issue of the quality of the translation. Beyond that, however, is the question of the analysis. The Yoga Sutras are extremely brief, consisting of only 196 aphorisms. Owing to the terse brevity of the Sanskrit language, many of these aphorisms are only a few words long. That means that there isn’t a high degree of precision in the language of the Sutras, and, consequently, there’s a great deal of room for misunderstanding and misinterpretation. It’s for good reason, therefore, that most editions are 90% or greater commentary on Patanjali’s words.

The Sutras are typically divided into 4 chapters (this convention apparently came well after Patanjali wrote them.) The first section lays out the objective of yoga. The central notion is the need for Chitta Vrtta Nirodha, which basically means to transcend the fluctuations of the mind. Patanjali’s point is that the problem faced by mankind is that people’s minds are run amok. There is a need for some system to facilitate correction of all this monkey-mindedness. That’s where Chapter 2 comes in.

The second chapter lays down an outline of Ashtanga Yoga, which is the eight-fold path of Raja Yoga (i.e. Royal Yoga). While modern-day people tend to think of yoga only as pretzel-like physical postures, that’s just one of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs are: commandments (yama), rules (niyama), postures (asana), control of breath (pranayama), withdrawal of the senses (pratyahara), concentration (dhanara), meditation (dhyana), and liberation (samadhi.)

It’s interesting to note that the limb that many think of as yoga, i.e. the postures, is one of the most briefly covered. Most famously, Patanjali says in Ch.2, Sutra #46, “Sukham Sthiram Asanam” (i.e. postures should be stable and effortless.) The massive body of asana that developed in Hatha Yoga were initially just a means to give one the ability to sit still for a long periods of time comfortably enough to get one’s mind in order.

The third chapter talks a little bit about the last three of the eight limbs (i.e. concentration, meditation, and liberation.) However, the bulk of this chapter is devoted to the supposed magic powers that yogis claimed to have had as a result of their work on improving their minds. For skeptics and scientifically-minded individuals (e.g. yours truly), this is where the Sutras take a silly turn. The translation in question came out in 1912, and it’s clear that rationalism was already gaining hold and magic was getting to be a harder sell. I suspect that was the reason for the inclusion of Swami Vivekananda’s essay entitled “The Powers of the Mind”—to capitalize on the gravitas of the renowned yogi to convince people that chapter 3 isn’t bunk.

The fourth chapter wraps up the book neatly–discussing karma and the liberation of the karmic cycle achieved through the state of higher consciousness called samadhi.

If one has more than a superficial interest in yoga, it’s pretty much obligatory to read some edition of Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. I didn’t find this edition to be devastatingly poor, but there seems to be a consensus among reviewers that it’s not among the best translations / commentaries.

I would recommend that one read some version of these sutras, be it BKS Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Swami Vivekananda’s edition, or Swami Satchidananda’s version. I don’t have any experience with these other editions, though I have read works by BKS Iyengar and Swami Vivekananda, and found works by both to be well-written and clear. Notwithstanding the parts about magical superpowers, the book does provide a lot of food for thought, and in nice bite-sized pieces.

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