Yoga is a complex practice that has touched the lives of a countless number of people. The definition of the term and its traditional meaning is to completely know yourself, or the union of becoming One. Though yoga is practiced by millions of people today, many yogis don’t know the origins of their favorite postures or even the practice itself.
Yoga’s true origins are somewhat unknown, but many trace the version of yoga we most commonly think of in modern times to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The Yoga Sutras played a major role in the establishment of a widespread yoga practice, and still influences many practitioners and instructors today. Despite his important place in establishing yogic culture, not much is known about Patanjali. It’s believed that he was a yogi who lived in rural India roughly 2000 years ago.
The Yoga Sutras are a set of aphorisms that focus on the philosophy of yoga, moral and ethical guidelines, and the components of a yogic life. While Asanas are very important in any yoga practice, the Sutras reinforces the idea that yoga is so much more than physical. The original set of the Sutras was written in Sanskrit, though plenty of English translated versions have been produced. The book contains 196 sutras (although because there is some redundancy, some argue there should really only be 195 counted sutras). Regardless of the exact number of sutras, Patanjali produced them with the goal of showing yogis the true meaning of yoga.
The Sutras are divided into four chapters, or padas, each with a distinct focus:
- Samadhi: The first section of the sutras, Samadhi’s focus is on the mental components of yoga. Patanjali wrote on concepts such as enlightenment and meditation, with a focus on becoming One, with yourself, others, and the Earth as a whole. Two guidelines Patanjali offers to achieve this is detaching from material items, and maintaining a consistent practice. The idea of maintaining a consistent practice is still very present for dedicated yogis today.
- Sadhana: In the Sadhana pada, Patanjali introduces the idea of the Yamas and the first six of the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs are the most commonly known and referenced aspects of the Sutras today. The eight limbs contain things such as moral and ethical guidelines for a yogic life, meditation, and the asanas. The asanas have come to be what many people associate with yoga today.
- Vibhuti: This chapter once again focuses on the mind, and the great “power” that comes when yogic Union, becoming one, is achieved. It highlights “the ability of yoga to empower the mind,” an extremely important concept for any yogi to grasp, regardless of where they are in their journey. This section also contains the final two of the eight limbs.
- Kaivalya: The last of the Sutras’ padas, Kaivalya discusses the liberation of the mind that occurs as a result of following the Sutras. It is the culmination of all of the previous aphorisms outlined by Patanjali.
The Yoga Sutras are an incredible text, and it’s worthwhile for any yogi to give a shot at reading through them. The aspect of the Sutras that has really persisted and is most likely to be known by yogis today is the eight limbs of yoga. The eight limbs, comprising the eightfold path, provide guidelines for how to live a meaningful life. The eight limbs are comprised of the Yamas (outward conduct), Niyamas (inward conduct), Asanas (physical postures), Pranayama (breath), Pratyahara (sensory transcendence), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation or contemplation), and, finally, Samadhi (a state of ecstasy, when the meditator connects with the divine).
Pieces of all of the eight limbs of yoga can be seen in modern day yoga classes, and even some aspects of yoga culture. But, the limb that has persisted and is most commonly associated with yoga as a whole is the Asanas, the third limb of yoga.
Asanas had origins, and a different meaning, even before Patanjali’s time. In Sanskrit, Asana comes from the base “asi,” which means to be. Thus, translated, Asana means “a state of being.” The original asana was simply a seat, typically the seat one took for meditation. As we know, asanas have evolved to mean much more than a meditative seat.
Patanjali expanded on this idea when he discussed Asanas as the third limb of his eight limbs of yoga in the Yoga Sutras. The Asanas as referenced in the Sutras were originally designed to prepare your body for meditation. The only real description of a physical shape given by Patanjali was that the body “should be steady and comfortable, yet firm and relaxed.” There was no specific postures, other than a comfortable seat, referenced in the Sutras.
What is referenced is Samadhi, the last of the eight limbs. As previously mentioned, Samadhi is union with the divine and is the last step on the eightfold path, and often comes to practitioners during meditation. Practitioners need to be able to meditate for an extended period of time in order to reach Samadhi, so Asanas really were designed with the goal of enlightenment and union of the mind, not getting defined triceps from all of those Chaturangas.
Still, Patanjali’s description of the Asanas plays into what we’ve come to see them as today. Despite not mentioning any specific poses, Patanjali did acknowledge that a healthy body plays into one’s ability to meditate and achieve enlightenment. Although he probably didn’t imagine the intricate flows of postures many people practice today, it’s easy to see how his original description slowly evolved into our modern perception of Asanas.
Ashtanga yoga was developed by K. Pattabhi Jois, who studied with yoga legend T. Krishnamacharya at the College of the Maharaja in Mysore, India. Patthabi was a student in the 1930s and was very influenced by the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. An Ashtanga practice incorporates standing Asanas including Surya Namaskar (sun salutations) and quite a few rounds of Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dogs), but maintains its strong connection with the Yoga Sutras with its intention- to draw practitioners inward, and guide them into living a life more in tune with the moral and ethical standards of yoga philosophy. Many of the foundational postures of an Ashtanga practice are regularly included in Hatha and Vinyasa classes.
So, how did we transition from a comfortable seat to some of the more physically demanding postures we practice today? According to Mark Singleton, the poses that we currently consider the Yoga Asanas have their origins less than 200 years ago. They were developed as a result of the mixture of the ancient Indian yoga practice combined with European gymnastics and bodybuilding. Which, when you think about many of the postures regularly practiced today, makes a lot of sense. For many people, today’s yoga is purely a physical practice. But, whether they realize it or not, all of those fancy postures stem from the original intention to prepare one’s body for meditation.
And, the formation of our modern poses by mixing with European athletics is not to devalue them whatsoever. In fact, some of the most commonly practiced postures such as Surya Namaskar, do have ties to ancient times. Surya Namaskar is said to have developed from an early sunrise worship of the sun, praising Surya for being a source of light for the world.
Even if the poses themselves weren’t practiced in the times of Patanjali, practitioners can keep his Sutras in mind while practicing and connect their poses to some of his guidelines. For example, consider the case of “airplane pose.” Though this pose clearly was not thought up by the gurus thousands of years ago, it can still connect you with the original purpose of yoga.
Balancing postures require students to clear their minds of the external, and focus inward, getting you one step closer to preparing your mind for meditation. And, whether you realize it or not, by flowing through the Asanas you are pretty much always preparing your body for relaxation in Savasana by expending energy and preparing your body and mind for rest.
It’s no secret that modern yoga, especially our Asanas, are a far cry from what gurus like Patanjali practiced thousands of years ago. But just because the physical expression is different, students today can still tap into the Sutras during their practice and work towards the goal of enlightenment and unity. Try to keep this in mind during your next flow and see where this heightened awareness takes you during Savasana. You may find yourself just one step closer to achieving Samadhi.