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Pragmatics of The Yoga Sutra


I consider myself extremely fortunate to study one of the most fascinating Indian texts – Yoga Sutras from some of the greatest teachers like Yogaacharya Krishnamacharya and Desikachar. Not once, but almost 5 times did I study the texts with them. Of course, my hunger did not stop there, and I started integrating the Yoga Sutras in my inner process work and learning theater methodology along with Prof.Pulin Garg and Desikachar. However, it was only 8-10 years back that my friends Saraswathi and Vani requested me to teach the Yoga Sutras, because only a few of us who learnt directly from Desikachar and Krishnamacharya are left. So, that is when I went back to teaching the Yoga Sutra. We went through the whole of the Yoga Sutra four sessions of 4 days each covering 1 chapter at a time. Now it is a second round of teaching the Yoga Sutra in detail, each time I visit it, it allows me to probe deeper into the psyche of the human mind. Here I go further into the pragmatics of Yoga sutras with Gayatri Iyer

Q. How are the Yoga Sutras formulated?

A. It is a text to understand the depth of psychology, consisting of short statements of 7 words each. One should look at it as an algorithm or formulaic statements to look at one’s psyche. A sutra is a string and the beads that adorn the string are our life’s experiences. There are numerous commentaries available that go in-depth into understanding it, but the commentaries are elaborations done in a specific context. So, one has to use the Sutra as a starting point to enquire about the truth of oneself. In recent times Jung is one of the people who often spoke about it as a great text to understand one’s psyche.

The whole text is divided into 4 parts-:

  1. samAdhi pAda– It deals with understanding the samAdhi states of the mind and if the mind is not focused then what are the illnesses that are likely to happen. There are suggestions to work with oneself to cleanse ones perceptive processes and see the world as is. Such a mind then allows a higher Intelligence to take over.
  2. sAdhana pAda– It talks about duHkha and how does one get into duHkha. It suggests the practices to work with the mind to try and end duHkha.
  3. vibhUtI pAda– It goes into further depth from the 2nd chapter, wherein it explains the various extraordinary possibilities of the mind once you get to a stage of dhyAna and samAdhi. It warns that one should not get carried away and should stay anchored in clarity.
  4. kaivalya pAda– A second look on how the psyche works and explains the working of states beyond the attainment of clear perception. How does one look at the world ‘as is’ and by focusing on even subtler states of mind one has a direct experience of the process of creation and of purusha.

Q. So, Patanjali was the author of the text?

A. Patanjali a yOgi of his time was authorized to put together and codify all the knowledge of yOga and therefore is the sUtrakAr for yOga. We see it happening in science also, for example in recent times the Nobel Prize winner Chandrashekhar codified the knowledge of astrophysics. Patanjali wrote the sutra, Vyasa wrote the bhAShya and explained the sUtra. These bhAShya are rewritten by others as the context changes so many people can write commentaries based on the previous bhAShya to refute or accept it.

Q. samAdhi seems to be the real focus here. Is it then so easy to attain samAdhi?

A. A reasonably attentive person can attain samAdhi for short periods of time, this is called kshanikA samAdhi. The key here is to understand the unclear states of the mind and use the practices suggested by the sUtra to remove the disturbing and distorting elements in one’s mind and to move into a subtle and sustained state of attention.

Q. So the sUtra does not really talk about Asana and praNAyAma?

A. Interestingly, only four sUtra of the whole text talk about Asana and about six speak about prANAyAma. A few more speak about the more tangible aspects of practice i.e., bahiranga sAdhana. Unfortunately, that is what has become the yOga of today. Selling a weight loss program based on Asana is much easier than coaxing people to learn yOga sAdhana to reduce one’s duHkha and lead a dhArmic life.

Q. So, then who are fit to learn the sUtra?

A. A lot of the participants in the last session were yOga teachers who had not only learnt the text during their training but also practice it in their life. It is therefore easier to reveal the deeper meaning of the sUtra and the recommended practices. For example, normally when one dreams the images are tough to recollect when one is conscious. But a person who is adhering to a sAdhana it is much easier for him/her to access it and seek some clarity in their lives by examining the dream. The state of dhyAna is more easily accessible to the practitioner. But it is difficult for people with no background in yOga sadhana to understand the depth of the sUtra. The sUtra become an aid to one’s practice. I still go back to chapter 1 when I observe my mind getting clouded. The blockages I feel is clearly played out in my body through an illness or ailment. Then I apply Asana/ prANAyAma techniques or subtle examination of my mind to understand the root of the kink to get back to being healthy. One really needs to develop the quality of listening to one’s duHkha. Any person interested in developing the sAkshi and sakhi bhAva ought to learn the Yoga Sutra. Any person in the helping professions, the healing professions or in leadership needs to understand the Yoga Sutra. Being adept in yOga is recommended as a prerequisite in many shastra like Bharata Shastra, Vastu Shatra, Artha Shastra and so on.

Q. Why do you follow a dialogue way of teaching?

A. In olden times, a student used to seek a teacher based on the question(s) he/she had and then he/ she would stay with the teacher in an Ashram to learn a concept through multiple dialogues and discussions. At the end what came out were some final aphorisms or statements called the Upanishads. It is for the seeker or student to then use these as a starting point to enquire further, apply it his/her life and develop their own sAdhana. This is the Upanishadic way of teaching. Infact Alex Osborn in the introduction to his book Applied Imagination credits the Upanishads for inspiring him to look at brainstorming. There is a theoretical and an experiential component to the whole system because a sUtra or an Upanishadic statement is not the end or something like ‘take it or leave it’. You keep coming back to it when you dialogue and enquire, and it opens something for you if you follow some of the practices mentioned. There is no better teacher or mirror to your psyche than the Yoga Sutra.

Q. Who has the adhikAr to teach the text?

A. Desikachar used to say that any person who has got in touch with their duHkha and is also continuously also working to reduce the duHkha to live more meaningful a life is a true sAdhaka. Additionally if one is concerned deeply about the duHkha of the world one has the adhikAram to teach.

Q. How does Yoga Sutra and inner work go hand in hand?

A. The sUtra per se can become a very dry text to study and understand, I believe it needs a human story like the itihAsa-purANa to make sense out of the sUtra. When looks at these stories as an allegory to ones own mind and ones own inner drama, the depth of the meaning comes alive. For e.g. in the Samudra Manthan is an excellent allegory on how to look at the mind, the blocks and inner distortions etc. Meru is equivalent to the spine, entering into a deep enquiry is the churning of one’s inner self. All the poison that comes out is dealt with and then in the next stage is when the various gifts arise and finally amritam is offered to the person. The purANic stories are a darshana because they mirror our inner journeys. Krishnamacharya would illustrate the sutra by relating purANic stories and sometimes share his own reflections. Desikachar would compare everyday issues with the sUtra.

Q. How was it a darshana for you?

A. Each time I studied the yOga sUtra with Krishnamacharya and Desikachar, it was explained in greater depth and clarity. Also, as our teachers, they understood where we were based on our conversations with them, the types of questions we asked and the issues we discussed with them. The meanings enunciated would reflect their sensitive understanding of our state of mind. So, it always led to a lot of introspection and clarification of my own inner processes. Also, I was engaged with Prof Pulin Garg and learning the Identity Group work from him and his colleagues. This was potent combination. In a laboratory learning process, one engages in deep self disclosure, and therefore has a deep view of ones own inner world and that of others. Often the universes they opened up were like real life illustration of the sUtra!

In my way of imparting the learning I encourage each person to share their struggles and insights. So these workshops become like a mini lab.

Q. So, the western psychology also acknowledges the Yoga Sutra?

A. Well, Jung studied it along with the Upanishads. He refers to these in many of his writings. Jung understood the power of the prANic energy inside us, whereas Freud reduced it to mere sexual libido. Many advances in Western psychology have come from a study of Yoga and Buddhism.

Q. What is the basis of the sUtra?

A. Yoga accepts all the tenets of Sankhya. Sankhya is the most ancient Indian philosophical text available to us. It speaks about the evolution of the world, the evolution of the mind, and about many fundamental realities. It is not a religious text as commonly understood. Yoga takes these concepts forward and speaks of practices through which one becomes capable of realizing the truths spoken of in Sankhya. The Yoga Sutra is therefore a pragmatic way of gaining an insightful mind and living a meaningful life. Its main focus is to remove the blocks to perception spoken off in Sankhya and awaken the dharmic flow of prANa that Sankhya refers to. Yoga is the practical side of Sankhya teaching us how to remove the preceptory blocks within us.

Q. What is the follow up practice post learning the sUtra?

A. The text must help you continuously enquire ‘How can I be the best that I can be?’ and how do I relate to others in my life, whether it is my work or home. The text must be applied to understanding your psyche and life. Apart from a personal sAdhana which is of utmost importance having the support of a shared study group is a great aid to enquire deeper. If this group can also be one where one can share one’s inner struggles the Yoga Sutra study can become the centre of an Upanishadic space. Some of the people studying with me are doing this and it is making a big difference to their lives.

Q. Are you still teaching the yoga sUtra?

A. Yes, as a matter of fact I am scheduled to teach the second chapter i.e. sAdhana pada as a starting point for those interested to start learning the yoga sutras in May 2019 at the Ritambhara Ashram, Kotagiri. Do reach out to ashram@ritambhara.org.in for details


Raghu Ananthanarayanan
Raghu Ananthanarayanan is a post graduate from IIT Madras who has focused on human behavior. He brings together his Yoga Sadhana and understanding of technological systems to bear on his central quest: how can each of us be the best that we can be? He uses yoga, Theatre and Puranas to enable people to realize their deepest aspiration. As the co-founder of Ritambhara Ashram, which is a quiet reflective space to help individuals, groups and organizations discover their dhamma, and a life full of rasa. He is an author of several books, last one being Leadership Dharma: Arjuna the Timeless Metaphor. He is presently engaged in creating a Coaching Certification program called "Awakening Arjuna". His website is www.raghuananthanarayanan.com
Gayatri Iyer
Gayatri Iyer is the curator for Indica Pictures, freelance creative consultant, writer and artist. A free spirited yogi with a deep love for yoga, India, theater, food, watercolors and story-telling which evident through her book, Life’s Macchiato: A collection of your stories,.The best part is that all these passions saw the light of the day through her adventures like her food start up Chef In A Box, a designer stationery line called Ahem, Theater performance in a play called Unrest, freelance illustrator, story teller, travel and creative consultant. On a never ending quest, she hopes that the list of discoveries never end.
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Raghu Ananthanarayanan is a post graduate from IIT Madras who has focused on human behavior. He brings together his Yoga Sadhana and understanding of technological systems to bear on his central quest: how can each of us be the best that we can be? He uses yoga, Theatre and Puranas to enable people to realize their deepest aspiration. As the co-founder of Ritambhara Ashram, which is a quiet reflective space to help individuals, groups and organizations discover their dhamma, and a life full of rasa. He is an author of several books, last one being Leadership Dharma: Arjuna the Timeless Metaphor. He is presently engaged in creating a Coaching Certification program called "Awakening Arjuna". His website is www.raghuananthanarayanan.com

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