The Yoga Sutras: A Brief History

Five thousand years ago, when yoga was first being taught and practiced, people learned and studied very differently than they do today. Obviously, there were no powerpoint slides, and vellum which a form of parchment, was probably not available for another 1,000 years. And so yoga, which was primarily a spiritual discipline, was taught orally, by word of mouth, from master to student. No hand-written notes or doodles. After years of study the student would gain enough knowledge and status to begin teaching information learned from the master. Not surprisingly, the student’s teachings might not have contained all the information shared by the master and the student might have inserted some personal stories or interpretations. This continued over many years and within a generation or two, the teachings began to change.  The original teachings of the master would still be evident but some of the details would fall away, and some of the robust understanding would weaken a bit.  

It was in this context approximately 2500 years ago, that Patanjali chose to write down yoga’s key tenents perhaps so that we would not lose the ancient teachings altogether and so that future generations could have a clear idea of what people believed and practiced thousands of years ago. There is no consensus as to whether Patanjali was one person or a group of people who came together to compile these ideas but today, we refer to this book as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

So, what exactly are the Yoga Sutras? They are essentially 196 verses, often reading like short-hand notes that are meant to provide a path to everlasting peace, insight, understanding and contentment.  Sadly, we’ve lost most of the robust teaching of the original masters explaining these verses and expounding on exactly what each sutra means.  In modern times, many scholars, philosophers, and yoga teachers have written on the yoga sutras sharing their beliefs, research, and personal understandings of each verse.  Studying the yoga sutras with our modern approach can indeed provide a deeper understanding of human nature, the obstacles to achieving any goal you set for yourself, and ways to overcome obstacles on your path to freedom from suffering.   They also provide a window into a world thousands of years ago.  Whoever Patanjali was we are immensely grateful that in ≈ 400 BCE, he/she/they had the foresight to write things down and guide us from the past to a more meaningful future.

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