Introduction to Raja Yoga: Patanjali's Yoga Sutras for Spiritual Growth
August 24, 2018
“For everything there is a season.” “Measure twice, cut once.” “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” These types of pithy sayings are known as aphorisms. (The book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible is full of them.) They are easy to remember and contain a readily recognized truth. Raja yoga – or royal yoga, the yoga path of spiritual growth -- is based on a series of aphorisms called sutras in Sanskirt, that are attributed to an ancient Yogi sage, Patanjali. Not much is known about Patanjali—whether he was one person or many, when he lived or what kind of profession he had.
The sutras that he is credited with authoring are thought to have been written down anywhere from 200 BCE to 200 CE. Patanjali is not considered the originator of yoga—the practice of yoga is much older, dated by some scholars as early as 5000 BCE. But Patanjali’s yoga sutras are considered by many to contain the essence of yoga--a distillation of the yoga spiritual technology written down in a simple, accessible manner to encourage each of us to find our Authentic Self, God within, and in so doing experience the peace that "surpasses all understanding."
As far as we know Patanjali was not a religious leader. He proposed no theology, no dogma, wrote no creeds nor sacred texts, nor founded a religious community. In fact Patanjali, in the yoga sutras, despite living in the ancient world of the Indian subcontinent, does not describe any religious practices at all-- neither Hindu nor Buddhist. He does acknowledge that worship is one path to spiritual growth (Sutra 1.23) but adds that we are free to worship the God of our heart. (Sutra 2.44.) Not sure about what you believe? No worries--Patanjali encourages seekers to then meditate on anything that they find life affirming. (Sutra 1.39.)
Despite this rather cavalier attitude towards religion, inherent in the yoga sutras is the assumption that the Supreme Creator, God (Ishwara) already abides in each and every one of us as the "Seer" (Purusha). Seer is often translated and understood as pure consciousness or our Authentic Self, our soul. The sutras assert that our biggest obstacle to experiencing this truth of God within is our misidentification with our own endless internal narrative (called vritti in Sanskrit and often translated as mind-stuff modifications). These yappy little thoughts in and of themselves are not a problem. The problem lies in our attachment to them, to our own ego-centric, selfish version of reality. To reconnect us with our Authentic Self, Patanjali's sutras describe practices that seek to remove the obstacles that keep us stuck in the small self. These practices are called yoga.
Patanjali opens the sutras right off by stating this core tenet of Raja yoga philosophy.
Sutra 1.2 The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is yoga
Sutra 1.3 Then the Seer abides in its own nature
We can hear in these words one of our favorite psalms.
Be still and know that I am God. Psalm 46:10
Patanjali’s yoga sutras 1.2 and 1.3 and Psalm 46 share a powerful truth—to tap into the goodness of our higher power, our Authentic Self of the heart, our Christ, we need to put our self-serving ego aside so that we can open to the Holy Presence. By practicing the intentional quieting of the small self, we can then "Abide in me and I in you." John 15:4
For Christians, we hear in these opening sutras additional intersections with our own faith. We hear echoed in the words of the Lord's Prayer: "THY will be done", "THY kingdom come"--another call to put aside our small self, to "let go and let God." And we hear in Jesus' description of the greatest commandment that we are called to love God with our ENTIRE heart, soul, and mind. (Matt 22:37 and Mark 12:30) And that’s basically the heart of Raja Yoga:
The Raja yoga pathway to spiritual growth and connection with God calls us to disentangle from our small self and open our entire being to the Holy Presence.
The yoga sutras may at first read, to our western minds, seem to have no readily identifiable application to our faith life, our belief in Yahweh, Christ Jesus, the Trinity. (Nor do they seem to have anything to do with Sun Salutations and Downward Dog Pose.) But the sutras actually form a helpful and relatively easy-to follow handbook for spiritual growth when we study the intent behind the unfamiliar words and concepts. Studied in context, we find in Patanjali's yoga sutras a contemplative technology that can both affirm and deepen our own faith--providing practices that help us live our faith in the world and make additional room in our lives to experience God's promised Presence.
In the weeks and months to come we will continue to explore yoga philosophy in this blog post as viewed through our faith-based lens. My favorite translation and explanations of Patanjali's sutras is in the book, Inside the Yoga Sutras by Jaganath Carrera. I particularly appreciate his many references, in his explanations of the sutras, to the New Testament and Hebrew Bible scriptures.
Try this meditation (adapted from our book Yogadevotion:Practicing in the Presence) to begin disentangling from your own vritti--the ceaseless chatter in your head.
Begin your meditation by letting go of all the stories running through your mind--stories people tell you and stories you tell yourself. It may help to name your stories as they arise. As you set your stories aside, notice when the story is yours and when it comes from outside yourself. Notice the emotions the stories trigger. You are not trying to stop your thoughts or squelch these internal stories but are merely setting them aside for a time, to dispassionately observe them without judgment like a librarian placing a book on a shelf.
Savor the stillness between story lines--even if it is fleeting. In that stillness, no matter how brief, know yourself to be a beloved child of God. That is your true story, and it rests in the quiet of your heart.