The Yoga Sutras are 196 short aphorisms written 2500-3000 years ago by someone named Patanjali as an instruction manual for living an enlightened life. This highly-influential work is divided into four chapters or padas and includes a detailed description of the the eight “limbs” of yoga (see illustration above).
In January of 2014, yogi Mark Zimmerer wondered what this ancient text might have to say to us in the 21st century and began the project of compiling various English translations of the Sutras into one document.
Zimmerer gave a talk at the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in July, presenting his insights on the various translations, while mixing in modern cultural touchpoints ranging from Star Wars to Kurt Vonnegut. He states, “In Patanjali’s time, [yoga] was not acrobatics, aerobics, cardio kickboxing or yoga booty boot camp.” According to Patanjali, “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.”
Zimmerer goes on to describe the undertaking of this ambitious project, “The first copy I found, translated and commented on by Sri Swami Satchidananda, seemed a little like the ramblings of a beloved, but crazy, uncle. So I found another copy, The Essential Yoga Sutras, by Roach and McNally. This one sounded like a couple of poetry majors using the text as a eulogy to a long-loved professor who I had never met. I began to wonder if there was a definitive English translation. I looked online and found a few kindle versions for a buck or less … Something about these, particularly the [edition by] Charles Johnston, made me think the translator was trying to make the text more palatable to a Christian audience. Further search led to more editions, and soon an endless variety of Yoga Sutras. I found Inside the Yoga Sutras, The Book of the Spiritual Man, How To Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali, The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras, Threads of Yoga, Chicken Soup for the Purusa, and, finally, Vegetarian Tofu Broth for the Yoga Sutra Soul.”
Threads of Yoga, a “remixing” of the Sutras by Matthew Remski, proved to be a standout translation according to Zimmerer. Here is an excerpt from Remski’s book:
“Unique to its time, and fascinating to our own, Patanjali’s path presents a democracy of evolutionary seeking, a do-it-yourself spirit, and the radiance of brevity. For those of us whose root spiritual texts were mythic/heroic (Exodus and the Gospels), elegiac/romantic (the Psalms), legalistic/neurotic (Leviticus), confessional/didactic (the Letters of Paul), or hallucinogenic (Revelations), Patanjali offers something very different, something that sounds every bit like a rational and customizable road map for a very personal journey … The scope of Patanjali’s project is magnificent: what is our internal strife? He presents no fatalistic creation story, no overt narrative of a great fall from grace. His therapy begins without specific blame, giving an outline of what can clearly be known by everyone.”
The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, which means to “yoke,” “unite” or “attach.” While most yoga practitioners know that there is more to the ancient tradition of yoga than simply posing and breathing (as seen in columns 3 and 4 in the diagram above), few push themselves beyond their physical practice to a union with the philosophy presented in the Yoga Sutras.
For those wanting a deeper understanding of yoga practice, or even those who wish to learn more about the history of yoga and the depth and breadth of wisdom given to us in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Zimmerer’s talk is a great place to start.
LISTEN TO THE FULL AUDIO OF ZIMMERER’S TALK:
“Just Who Is This Patanjali Person (or The Yoga Sutras As I Can Read Them)” by Mark Zimmerer
Here is the full sermon archive of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship:
Here is a video of author Matthew Remski discussing and reading from his translation, Threads of Yoga: A Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras, with Commentary and Reverie.