Is modern yoga practice inauthentic because it does not properly reflect Patañjali’s teachings?

Yoga today has come a long way from the original, classical teachings of yoga but ultimately, as in Indian philosophy and religion, this is an accepted progression on the path and understanding of how it is useful and still stays relevant today. Western philosophical thought and religion is canonical but Indian religion is functional and has changed through the centuries. There is no debate on legitimacy of an evolving process. Contemporary yoga is not inauthentic because it does not adhere to Patanjali’s yoga sutras precisely and is not completely distinct from it either. Our world today as we know it is primarily concerned with satisfying the five senses. Yoga, was born through Samkhya philosophy; the idea of realising the absolute truth of the distinction between soul and body, purusha and prakriti. Yoga has evolved but still purports that living by ones sense’s alone, cannot transform or free the soul from its restrictions. Authentic yoga is essentially a transforming way of living and this contemplation on what it actually means is forever refining itself, so more and more generations can imbibe it. Although it is apparent that Patanjali is delineating yoga of the mind, while Hatha yoga is more concerned with yoga of the body. The understanding is still classical in the sense that the lower limbs of ashtanga, namely yamas, niyamas, asanas, pranayama and pratyahara are part of the first five steps, of eight steps taken towards the latter three, collectively known as samyama, which is dharana, dhyana and Samadhi. The goal in Patanjali’s sutras is “chitta vritti nirodha” the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In Hatha yoga the goal is conversion or divinisation of the material body, in order to transcend it. Patanjali wrote in pithy aphorisms and spoke of the way in which matter can be overcome to reach kaivalya- sattva purushayohshuddha-samye, a perfect balance between purusha and sattva, spirit and matter. Contemporary yoga endeavoured to flesh out the earlier limbs in order to be inclusive of all people as opposed to a small majority of renunciates.

Patañjali’s Yoga has experienced considerable alterations over the millennia and centuries. According to the needs of an age and its society, variable traditions of yoga have come into vogue.
Then, in light of the physical body, it might offer a means by which enlightenment is achieved, although it is nothing to do with the true self and the definitive realisation involves the complete separation of the atman from the body in which the cycle of karma compels it to exist in. Now as thought has moved on, we have an alternative view of the body in which the body is not so much to be transcended but rather empowered and transformed into a different kind of substance. The process by which this conversion is achieved is multifarious and esoteric, and is based on tantric rather than samkhya ideas on the nature of matter and the material body. In spite of the very different ideologies involved, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika maintains some contact and continuity with the earlier ideas on Yoga.

In the Gheranda Samhita, (roughly the earliest copy dates back to 1802, but was orally passed down for probably seven centuries before this time,) we are offered a saptanga-yoga, seven limbs. They are namely, shatkarmas (cleansing) asanas (strong and stable postures,) mudras with which the flow of prana inside the body can be regulated, pratyahara (control of the senses) pranayama using mantras to count the breath, dhyana (three types of meditation) and samadhi. Four out of the eight limbs are still employed to reach the latter two. The fact that this modern interpretation does not accurately delineate Patanjali’s eight- limbed path is to be seen as an improvement and not an omission of the classical path.
Yoga is still thought of as a means of ending the process of karma, and bringing the cycle of rebirth to an end. This is congruent with belief systems in India today and just because western minds may not believe in this philosophy it is unfair for us to simply dismiss it as something that should not be considered.
The Yoga Sutras should be looked upon as a text defining the philosophy of Yoga, explaining why it is essential, what it can attain, how it can be useful and the type of training that is to be undertaken.
It is not written to give a breakdown of how things can be achieved and Patañjali leaves this job to future generations of teachers. This has allowed teachers of different types of Yoga to refer to Patañjali as their basic authority even when the practices they promote have little to do with the precise content of the Yoga Sutras. Modern day teachers like myself still refer to the eight limbs of yoga as an addition to the teaching of asana, pranayama and the yamas and niyamas can always be worked into the theme of a class to shine light on the right attitude of a sadhaka. When training todays teachers to lead group classes it is important for them to understand and consider these restraints and observances in order to give their students an insight into what yoga actually aspires to. Without learning about ashtanga yoga and trying to apply the first 2 limbs, there is no inspiration to teach correctly or enhance a sadhaka’s practice fully. Ultimately they are the same practices one needs to achieve or aspire to in order to reap the full benefits of yoga.
Dhyana, in a classical understanding of the yoga sutras is stated as being- tatra pratyaya ekatananta dhyanam (3.2)- a steady, continuous flow of attention directed towards the same point or region is meditation. In the Gheranda Samhita, dhyana is of three types, bhairanga, antaranga and ekachitta, external, internal and one pointed. All these techniques both ultimately lead to self- realization, Samadhi. Both classical and modern interpretations still define it as control over the body, mental and emotional beliefs to ultimately lead to an unwavering feeling of peace.
The concise style of the Yoga Sutras disallows an elaborate from of discussion, but nevertheless there is a positively clear distinction between the Yoga philosophy supported by Patañjali and the forms of Yoga widely practised today, particularly in the Western world. Maybe as the story goes that Patanjali was a god who fell down to earth and had to relearn what it was like to be in human form, has probably influenced his writing or lack of technique of the fundamental, first limbs, whereas Sage Gheranda, Svatmarana and the editor of the Shiva Samhita were mere sages who had not reached the highest Samadhi yet. So were all too familiar on how the body could be cleansed physically and esoterically and then ultimately used as a vessel to reach enlightenment. This is all conjecture, but not unlikely in terms of Indian spiritual, religious belief. Being concerned with how the body can be moulded into a strong vessel for the realization of god to inhabit it, did not concern Patanjali. However this preoccupation with preparing the body for a higher purpose was definitely around in philosophical thought, years later around the medieval period. There are many restrictions and attitudes that are advised by this change in thought that are not dissimilar to what Patanjali advocates in his first two limbs. In the Shiva Samhita composed between 1300 and 1500 CE it advises against “People who are attached to the objects of the senses and seek pleasure from them are prevented from reaching nirvana.” (aparigraha)(3.52). In 3:34 -37, it states the great hindrances to yoga, “so that yogis can cross the ocean of the sorrows of samsara”, (karmic impressions). “Sour, astringent, pungent, salty, mustard, bitter flavours, too much walking in the early morning, burning oil, stealing, violence, hatred of others, pride, insincerity, fasting, untruthfulness, folly, cruelty to animals, the company of women, the use of fire, too much chatter – whether good natured or not – and overeating: the yogi should definitely give up these. The common thread that Patanjali and this hold are the avoidance of stealing (asteya), untruthfulness (asatya), the company of women (brahmacharya), violence and cruelty to animals (ahimsa). In verses 39 – 41 it states that milk, ghee, sweets, betel without lime, camphor, unhusked and ground food, a beautiful hermitage, fine cloth, listening to philosophical discourses (svadhyaya), constant dispassion (tapas), domestic duties, singing the name of vishnu, (Ishavara pranidhana), listening to harmonious music (samtosha), resolve (tapas), patience, austerity (tapas), purity (saucha), modesty, understanding, and attendance upon one’s guru (ishvara pranidhana): “the yogi should always practice these observances to the utmost.”
Indian thought, which leans towards the view that “the glass is always half full” or “something is always better than nothing”. So the more practical or modern way to regard the yamas and niyamas is as ideals towards which the aspirant should strive for, rather than absolute prerequisites.
Hatha-yoga should be viewed as a preparation for the higher spiritual practices that are Patañjali’s prime concern. Asana is taken up in detail in the first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the second of Gheranda Samahita. The Shiva Samhita in its fourth chapter only states four asanas involving mudras mahamudra, mahabandha, jalandhara and mulabhanda and viparitakarani. The first two books go into great detail with the proper execution of various postures highlighting the sitting asanas, that are normally mastered first in order to make the spine straight in preparation for the kundalini to rise up the chakras, energy centres. Patanajali simply states in 2:46 of the yoga sutras, sthira-sukham asanam – a sitting posture should be steady and comfortable. He does not elaborate more, but this method is advised in order to bring the mental faculty under the volitional control of the practitioner so that the spiritual goal of liberation from rebirth can be attained. This is all that Patañjali is aiming to offer his students. It is not surprising that later practitioners would find the means through this one advice in offering a myriad of postures that help the body to achieve this goal. Patañjali is proposing that when a person achieves this high state of meditation their sitting posture naturally becomes steady and easy to hold. This would seem to be supported by 2:48, which indicates that when this is achieved dualities such as heat and cold, happiness and suffering no longer affect the yogin so that there is no difficulty in sustaining the desired asana.
It is clear that whilst the Yoga Sutras do include asana as a part of the practice it promotes, it is not central to the process in the way that it becomes later in the hatha-yoga teachings.

Pranayama is covered in the second chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the fifth chapter of the Gheranda Samhita. Again more depth is covered than in the yoga sutras as more people presumably start taking an interest in yoga. The modern take incorporates mudras and specific breathing, again all preparations of the body for enlightenment. In 2:2 of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “When the breath is unsteady, the mental processes (chitta) are unsteady but when the breath is steady the chitta also becomes steady. In this way the yogin achieves an unmovable state and for this reason he should restrain the breath.”
It is curious to note here that Svatmarana seems to be making a direct reference to the Yoga Sutras when he talks of chalam and nishchalam chittam, the restless and restrained chitta and arguing that pranayama is a means of accomplishing nishchala-chitta, or in other words chitta-vritti-nirodha. Reiterating that Patañjali saw this as preparation for the higher limbs, a view that is fully sanctioned here.
In verses 39-43 it is evident that hatha-yoga brings freedom from the fear of death as perfecting this art gains the power to transcend both time and death. Svatmarama delineates that hatha-yoga practices can lead to ultimate success in the Patañjali Yoga too, for when the breath is directed into the main nadi, the sushumna, there is a profound effect upon the mind as well. Because of the regulation of the breath a state referred to as manah sthairyam is achieved; sthairyam means “steadiness” or “fixity” and hence this can be reasonably regarded as an equivalent for the chitta-vritti-nirodha, stilling the movements of the mind. Svatmarama is anxious to emphasise the link between the two. Stating, hatham vina raja-yogo raja-yogam vina hathah nasidhyati, that each is required if success is to be obtained in the other, thereby asserting a mutual dependence.
It is interesting when Patanjali also writes about pratyahara that he was aware of the concept of the nadi as a channel within the body, although it is not well defined whether this is a nerve, vein, or one of the subtle channels. The siddhis mentioned in the vibuthi pada are more frequently referred to in texts relating to tantric Yoga and Patañjali displays a familiarity with this, which hints that he may have had a greater knowledge of tantra than he chooses to reveal in the Yoga Sutras.

Veda and tantra are the twin pillars of Hindu belief and practice and have been interconnected from the earliest period of time, so today it is often impossible to draw a clear cut distinction. Therefore it is quite normal to expect that Yoga tradition will draw on both the Vedic revelation, expressed primarily through the writing of Patañjali and a range of tantric sources that are utilised for teachings on Hatha Yoga.

Written for Oxford University, Hindu Studies online, where she received an A for this assignment.

Copyright Sonja Appel © Sushumna Yoga ™