yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ || (YS 1:2)
There is invariably a time in every serious yogi student’s life when she picks up a copy of the Yoga Sūtras by the Indian sage, Patañjali. A foundational yoga text, the centuries-old Yoga Sūtras is a synthesis of various yoga schools and practices in vogue several hundred years before and after the Common Era (CE).
I can still recall my first reading of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras—I was unnerved. I couldn’t get beyond the second sūtra—Patañjali’s definition of Yoga—which to my vastly unexperienced mind, seemed to suggest self-annihilation. In the various translations that I was looking through, I read words like extinguish, restrain, and suppress, in conjunction with other words like mind-stuff, thought-waves, and citta. My first reaction was “huh”?! I felt as though Patañjali was saying that, from here on out, as a practicing yogi, I was supposed to cease all thinking and basically get rid of who I was. Red flags went up. Threatened, my ego mind feared the end of itself. My intellect brooded: “Oh, hell no,” I thought, “if achieving the highest state of yoga meant extinguishing myself, then why would I want to be a yogi?”
The ideas that Patañjali put forth were all too new, all too disquieting. I was, after all, just doing yoga to make my body feel better, to relieve a little stress, and to relax. Nothing more. Okay, my mind did feel better, a bit more serene. And, yes, I was in many ways happier. But, restrict, or worse yet, suppress my mind—I felt like I was back in Catholic school with a ruler looming. It all seemed so punitive.
Not understanding, but driven by a desire to know more—or maybe just prove Patañjali’s notions wrong—I started to collect and read as many translations on the Yoga Sūtras as I could find. If my comprehension of Patañjali’s text increased at all, it was only slightly. Basically, I was still baffled, but aversion gave way to intrigue—I was hooked. I felt magnetized by some mysterious force.
Yet, this state of citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ that Patañjali described still perplexed me.
So—Capricorn that I am—I dove into the study of Sanskrit to get a deeper sense of the words in their original language. But in the end, what really transformed my understanding of the text was guidance. Luckily for me, that guidance took the form of the teacher. In India, the student sits at the feet of the teacher to learn. In fact, the word upanishad [upa + ni + ṣad]—what many students of Indian philosophy know as the later Sanskrit texts of the Vedic corpus—actually means “to sit near (the feet of the master)”.
That’s exactly what happened to me. Although I am personally blessed to have had so many wonderful teachers in my life, in regards to the question of Patañjali, two titans stand apart from the rest—Om Prakash Tiwari, a luminary in the promulgation of yoga and the late Dr. Ram Karan Sharma, a heavyweight in the world of Sanskrit. The essence of the Yoga Sūtras has been graciously imparted to me sitting at the feet of these two intellectual giants, and I am forever indebted to their humble generosity and wisdom.
Now as I consider my dismayed first encounter of Patañjali, I smile—fear has transformed itself into curiosity.
I used to describe my relationship to yoga as a dream of falling into a deep, subterranean well, and as I tumble downward, I could perceive no end. Yet there was no fear—for falling had become this exquisite sensation of going deeper and deeper. Like the dream of tumbling deeper into the practice, my study of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras is equally and exquisitely unending: I have yet to know more and more.
Image: Wood Carving of Indian Sage Patañjali