Yoga Sutras 101: what are they and is yoga a religion?

here and now

The Yoga Sutras are considered the  basis for Classical Yoga as we know it today and were written down some 2000 years ago by an author cited as Patanjali.

There is much controversy as to the author’s (or authors’) identity and even the date of the manuscript, so for convenience, we’ll go for Patanjali, 2000 years.

What is generally agreed is that the author was not the founder of yoga; but, rather he was a scholarly consolidator, codifier, and recorder of an existing oral tradition and philosophy.

The Sutras were not meant to be a comprehensive ‘how-to” guide; instead,  think of them as “Cliff’s Notes”  based on teachings that passed for generations from guru to student.

Each sentence is an aphorism, concise, and loaded with meaning. They begin simply enough, “Now, the study of Yoga,” but even the word “Now”  means more than you might think. Many a swami has lectured on the Sutras without making it past the definition of now!

The Yoga Sutras provide a framework of “limbs”  which are like rungs on a ladder (hierarchical view) or spokes in a wheel (holistic view) for realizing one’s true identity and a state of being known as “samadhi.”  It’s very similar to Buddhism and important to remember that before the Buddha became a Buddha, he was a Yogi!  Samadhi may be described as the absence of suffering and not contingent upon the material world.  The good news: you have already practiced several of these limbs in class including Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, and maybe even Dharana.  More about the individual limbs later in class.

Some refer to yoga as a science,  a wellness technology,  or a practical philosophy for everyday living– especially in dealing with the suffering of life.  Yes, the Sutras make reference to God, but in modern times, it has been divorced from the Hindu religion, especially here in America. Of course, some Hindus take offense to this and assert that without the devotion to a (Hindu) deity, there is no yoga.  In most of the world, however,  today’s Sutra interpretations refer to a “small g”  god — that inclusive  god that may be of any denomination, life force, or the divinity within.

I see yoga as a total wellness system and the Sutras as a road-map on how to achieve the healthiest version of oneself–mentally, physically, spiritually.  It can be an “enhancer” if you’re already religious, creating time and space in your life for deeper prayer and contemplation.  If you’re atheist or agnostic, it can bring you tremendous peace without asking you to believe in anything.

Yoga is first and foremost experiential–you experience your own truth.  That said, it is not moral relativism.  The “Yamas” and “Niyamas” are sometimes called the “10 Commandments of Yoga” and are pretty clear about what is and is not acceptable behavior.  That said, the reasoning behind them may be somewhat obtuse from a Christian perspective.  It’s not necessarily morality for godly approval, but rather morality for the sake of reducing the drama in your life, enabling greater ease in meditation.  For instance, don’t steal because you’ll live in constant fear of getting caught which will be a distraction to your yoga practice.  The Yoga Sutras don’t put forth the highly personalized relationship with God and Jesus found in Christianity and thus, many Christians feel it’s not a hindrance to their religion. If anything, Christian yogis report the ability to meditate or concentrate for prolonged periods, is helpful in prayer and the study of scripture.

We will be exploring the Yoga Sutras in future newsletters and posts.  You will have a chance to participate in a Yoga Sutras Workshop to delve deeper into the Sutras if you wish–probably sometime in Feb/Mar when we’re all dealing w/ a little climate-induced suffering.  So stay tuned and stay tuned in!

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Shaila Cunningham

Shaila Cunningham