atha yogā ‘nuśāsanaṃ
With these few simple words, we enter the path to infinite, unbounded peace; to harmony, unity, bliss; to a knowledge of the divine innermost Self.
These words also introduce us to the sage Patanjali and his Yoga Sutras, both of which laid the foundation for the physical and spiritual practices we today call “Yoga.” Patanjali’s Sutras outline for us the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga–the original yoga sequence–and ultimately guide us, through the most intimate details, to an embrace of kaivalya, or total liberation from the wheel of karma.
This first of Patanjali’s sutras is often overlooked: only three (sometimes written as two!) words, translated in English as “now, Yoga”, or maybe, “now, the teaching of Yoga begins”, this sutra is perhaps one of the only aphorisms we encounter in the whole book that doesn’t immediately give us pause. If we take these couple words at face value, they seem innocent enough. Uncomplicated. And they are. But we should not allow this simplicity to obscure from us the words’ true depth. In fact, this harmless, unassuming sutra ultimately contains all we need to know about yoga, liberation, and how to get there. In other words: if one truly grasps the full meaning of this first sutra, s/he need not read the rest of the text.
How can this be? Let’s start with “Yoga.” The Oxford English Dictionary notes that “yoga” is derived from “the same Indo-European base as ‘yoke'”, and can mean an “act of joining”, “employment, endeavor, act of applying oneself to a task”. More specifically, the OED notes that yoga’s “ultimate aim […] is spiritual purification and self-understanding leading to samadhi, or union with the divine.”
Our entire yogic practice–from our meditation, mudras, pranayama, asana, and even our study of the sutras–is devoted to working towards this spiritual union, with the innermost Self, and with the beautiful spirit that resides in all of us, constantly striving toward wholeness. Purusha, the higher Self, is always there within us. What yoga asks is for us to work on coming into awareness of and oneness with that higher Self, and Patanjali’s sutras are a roadmap to achieving this aim.
The dynamics of the higher Self, the individual ego-self, and how we unite the two are too extensive for a single blog post (go read the Sutras!), so let’s leave the term here. Yoga, as union with the divine Purusha, allows us to achieve first samadhi and later kaivalya (two separate levels of stillness and transcendence); and the job Patanjali has assigned him/herself is to outline for us how to get there, step by step, in the remaining four books of the Sutras.
Now, Yoga. We have covered (albeit briefly) “yoga.” Now, now.
What does “now”, in this sutra, entail? As mentioned above, other translations (like, for example, Judith Hanson Lasater’s) of the sutra often lean towards “now, Yoga begins”, or “now, this is how I perceive the teaching of Yoga in the world”–there are manifold translations out there, which will all pop up (now!–see what I did there?) with a simple Google search. But I like Dennis’s translation much better. Yoga does not begin. Its essence is not a teaching or a state in the world. Yoga is an experience. Yoga is. Another way of saying this? Now, Yoga.
“Now, Yoga” shows us, as close as possible with text, what the state of Yoga is really like. It is now. In the experience of absolute bliss, we enter timelessness, the eternal Now that has everything to offer us and requires no effort, no change, no resolution. If we can come into union with the higher Self, now, we have found yoga. We have found kaivalya, true liberation, for this moment and forever. We have completed our journey. We need not search–we need not read–any further.
That said, reading the Sutras is certainly a worthwhile pursuit, for those of us who are still working our way through our yogic journeys and to a full understanding of what liberation really requires. Dennis Hill’s beautiful translation and commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is available to walk you through the procrss.
Interested in getting closer to your inner Self? Try meditating for a week or two using one of Patanjali’s pranayama exercises: Pranava OM (see Sutra 1.34).
- Take a full but peaceful inhale. Don’t force the breath; allow it to move naturally into the body.
- As you exhale, release the air slowly and evenly, silently mouthing “OM” or “Om Namah Shivaya” to yourself.
- Pause at the bottom of your breath. Constrict the back of the throat, holding your breath with no air in the body. Relax. Appreciate the stillness you have created in your body.
- Inhale this newfound stillness, fully and peacefully.
Questions? Comments? Feel free to post here on the blog, or stop by the studio to chat with one of our teachers and learn more. Namaste, sweet yogis!