We have all heard of someone who is famous for doing yoga. Our current technology of social media has launched thousands of yoga gurus or experts. Although I have no aspiration to become a yogic scholar or expert, I have begun my path into the practice and philosophies of yoga. I committed whole-heartedly into a yoga teacher training course for January of 2019. I thought what better way to welcome a new year through a new level of commitment to discovery and self-knowledge. Little did I know this was the very root of ancient yogic philosophies and I would join a tribe of historians, practitioners, gurus and students.
So who else IS on this very high-trafficked pathway to enlightenment and self-knowledge? Is it the many talented people who are inverted and contorted on Instagram? Or is it the famous authors of so many yogic books? Surprisingly, the most revered person(s) and scholar of yoga is nearly unknown to the outside world, Patañjali.
Who is Patañjali? His life is dated to mid-second century BCE by both Western and Indian scholars. He is so revered in the Hindu traditions that he is widely known as Maha-bhasya or “Great commentary”. He is also said to have been an evolved soul who returned in human form in order to help lift others out of their sorrows.
Patañjali’s very famous composition was entitled Pātañjalayogaśāstra (“The Treatise on Yoga according to Patañjali”) His oeuvre comprises of the Sanskrit sutras (a rule or aphorism in Sanskrit literature) about Yoga (Yogasūtra) and integral to the sutras, a work called the Bhāṣya or “commentary”.
In Hinduism, sutras are a type of literary composition in the form of an aphoristic statement. Each sutra is any short rule that offers teachings of ritual, philosophy, grammar, or any field of knowledge.
Patañjali’s insight comes in 196 aphorisms, which to yogis is known as maxims of truth. The aphorisms provide a step-by-step path toward enlightenment for the spiritually un-evolved. While these statements are compact and efficient in their use of words, when combined or used together they offer endless debates and discussions.
Patañjali is the author of ashtanga yoga, which is also widely referred to as the eight limbs of yoga. This writing explains a natural progression of techniques to train the body, mind, and senses for spiritual evolution. Through intellectual stimulation, analysis, and physical rigour, it offers a system for attaining self-realization.
So thorough and complete with reasoning and vast amounts of text, Patañjali is considered the authority of classical Sanskrit for that past 2000 years. His ideas and philosophies have been influential to ancient eastern religions such as Buddhism and Jainism.
The second limb of the Eight Limbs of Yoga is called the Niyamas. They are ways we can behave to elevate ourselves and become more evolved highly conscious humans. They offer a process and order to develop a personal code of discipline and spiritual aspiration on an arduous yogic path. They are to help reduce mental and emotional challenges so the yogic individual has the tools and techniques for the necessary commitment to a yogic life. The yogi is encouraged to engage in self-reflection by analysing the impact they have on others.
The five niyamas (codes of conduct/regulations) of Patañjali’s Eight Fold Path are:
- Saucha (purity or cleanliness)
- Santosha (contentment)
- Tapas (austerity)
- Swadhyaya (self-study)
- Pranidhana (devotion to God).
The second of the Niyamas is Swadhyaya, self study. Sva is interpreted as ‘self’ and adhyaya means ‘investigation or inquiry’. Swadhyaya encourages one to self-inquire daily through practices such asana, pranayama and meditation. This is based on the belief that we need to constantly work at improving ourselves and self-study is a mandatory process to achieve enlightenment.
For those new to the immense and rich history of the yogic tradition and scholarly works, the mind and spirit will become one with the physical. At first, you may approach yoga to build fitness, strength and flexibility, or for any number of reasons, such as a sense of community or self discovery. Through asanas, pranayama (breathing technique), meditation, scholarly study, self-reflection…all of this culminates to the very definition of what Patañjali defines as his second Niyama: Swadhyaya.
I have spent four weeks sweating through grueling asanas, finding my breath through Ujjaya, studying yoga nidra, making new friends, building curiosity through caring teachers, and so much more I can’t list it all here. Through this exploration within this essay I see now how everything we have done is a part of Swadhyaya.
I bow with gratitude to the work of Patañjali.