Patanjali and Astanga

To those new to yoga, the title may look like nothing but jargon, but I’m hoping that a little basic information will change that.  We don’t often get history lessons while practicing yoga, but having some background about the philosophy and purpose of the discipline can bring added depth to each sadhana. 

Patanjali was a seminal thinker who lived, as B.K.S. Iyengar writes, “some time between 500 and 200 B.C.” (1). He predated the concept of a “Renaissance man,” but epitomized just that – he wrote extensively about linguistic grammar, yoga, and ayurvedic medicine, and his works have prompted volumes of commentary over the course of more than a thousand years. It was Patanjali who described Astanga yoga, which originally stood not for classes of high-speed contortions, but for an eight-fold path of yogic pursuits.  Essentially, what Patanjali was introducing when discussing “Astanga” is the infrastructure of yoga itself.

Patanjali penned a collection of one-hundred and ninety-six aphorisms that we now know popularly as the “Yoga Sutras.”  This work covers the steps and stages that a yogi/ni will follow, from basic consciousness to cautions about “spiritual plateau,” and the ultimate goal of “emancipation” (Iyengar 4), a freedom from the fluctuations of life and our attachment to them.  To say that the scope of the sutras is vast is somewhat of an understatement, but Patanjali so elegantly categorizes and organizes his philosophy, it remains accessible and pertinent.

What are these eight paths that Patanjali describes?  Again, as Iyengar writes, there is yama – behavioural restraint, niyama – spiritual observances, asana – postures and practices of postures, pranayama – control of breath, pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses, dharana – concentration, dhyana – meditation, and samadhi – complete absorption (xvii).  What I found astonishing, when I first began to study the history and philosophy of yoga in addition to the basic asanas, was the fact that yoga is as much a mental pursuit as it is a physical one.  This is a revelation to those who begin with a belief that yoga is an alternative form of exercise.  While it can certainly be used this way, and to restorative effect if approached correctly, it is a system of boundless potential, far beyond its physical components.

I find Iyengar’s commentary on the sutras thoughtful and helpful.  While Patanjali writes clearly and with intentional design, intervening millenia between author and audience can obscure what might, at one time, have been self-evident.  Iyengar clarifies what a modern reader may find difficult to understand.

Given how much information about yoga has been published over the past handful of decades, it can be difficult to determine what is truly well researched and based on genuine material.  For this reason, I have always sought out those books that are closest to primary sources as possible.  I would say that consulting Patanjali is the best way to approach the source of yoga itself.  B.K.S. Iyengar’s translation and commentary, entitled “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” is an excellent first step in understanding the aims and approach of yoga itself.


Iyengar, B.K.S. Lastname, Firstname. Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New Delhi: HarperCollins, 1993. Print. 


One comment on “Patanjali and Astanga

  1. anantha says:

    good start to a long haul of education on yoga, I’m sure

    aside from the subject a bit, reading this reminded me of a session attended given by BKS’s doctor who shared slides of BKS doing all kinds of stance at the age of 82 and said how his blood-pressure stayed normal all the time……….

    btw, my laptop is starting to behave crazy now….may be time to start yoga b4 feel like ‘hurl it out of the window’ 🙂

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