In this article, Gary Kissiah shares the evolution of his relationship with the Yoga Sutras and what led him to create his own book on the subject: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—Illuminations of the Sutras through Graphic Design, Imagery and Commentary, Gary’s book is a beautiful contribution to Yoga. He presents each sutra in a layout that contains the Sanskrit text, a translation, an image and commentary to illuminate its meaning. The supporting commentary is drawn from sacred writings and spiritual or academic authorities. Gary used images and commentary from many different traditions because he feels that the wisdom contained in the Sutras is beneficial to all people, regardless of their culture, religion or spiritual practice.
I have studied Yoga and taken classes from many different teachers across the country, as well as abroad for the past ten years. Because I travel so much, I have not followed any particular school or teacher but have benefited from all of the teachings from the various traditions. Most of my Yoga classes have been focused on asana practice with only passing references to Yoga philosophy. I found that, as my practice progressed, I became more and more interested in understanding Yoga philosophy and the great questions that Yoga addresses: What is Self-realization and how does Yoga help us attain it? What are the causes of human suffering and how do we alleviate them? How does Yoga help us lead a more joyous and open life? What are the moral imperatives of the yogic path? What is the nature of the Supreme Being and how does the Supreme Being relate to the fluctuating world of nature?
As the popularity of Yoga has exploded over the last decade, it has brought a bewildering array of new Yoga schools, ideas and trends. Some of these have evolved more from American pop culture than from Indian spiritual traditions. We now have koga (kick boxing Yoga), doga (dog Yoga) and punk rock Yoga. This was recently highlighted in a recent New York Times article, “When Chocolate and Chakras Collide,” which explored whether serving dinner, wine and chocolate after a Yoga practice is consistent with traditional yogic practices. Without having a firm grasp of Yoga philosophy, how could I distinguish authentic modern adaptations of core Yoga traditions from Western and even Indian fringe movements in Yoga practices?
As I began to explore various commentaries on the Sutras, I discovered that many of them are academic, difficult to understand and assume knowledge of Sanskrit and Yoga philosophy. Very few were written at an introductory level for the lay student. I also found that the commentaries varied enormously in their analysis of the Sutras, their translation of the Sanskrit text and level of discourse. On any given Sutra I found very different translations of the source text and divergent views on its meaning by the commentators. Even though I approached my study of the Sutras with a great deal of dedication and zeal, I found it quite difficult to reach even a rudimentary level of understanding, to relate these teachings to my personal practice and to find relevance to modern life. This feeling was shared by many of my fellow students. It seemed to me that an inviting introduction to the Yoga Sutras with a new approach to unpacking their meaning would be beneficial to the Yoga community.
After I began my studies of the Yoga Sutras, I took a sabbatical to travel to India and deepen my Yoga practice. I studied at Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh. Every evening as the sun set over the Mother Ganga, crowds of people gathered on the steps leading to the water’s edge in front of the ashram, and Swami Chidananda Saraswati led the arati ceremony. He describes the ceremony: “Arati is the beautiful ceremony in which deepas (the oil lamps) are offered to God. Arati can be done to a deity in the temple, it can be done on the banks of the Ganges to Mother Ganga, or it can be done to a saint. It is performed to God, in any manifestation, any form, by any name. The essence of the arati ceremony is that all day long God offers us light—the light of the sun, the light of life, the light of His (Her) blessings. Arati is a time when we say, “Thank you,” and we offer back the light of our thanks, the light of our love and the light of our devotion. We realize that the small deepa is nothing compared to the divine light, which shines on us all day. So, arati is a ceremony of humility, a time in which we acknowledge that “God, you are everything. I am nothing. All day you shine upon the world. All I can offer you is this small deepa, a flame, which will be blown out by the passing wind. But, I offer it with devotion and with love. Please accept my offering.”
The images of the flickering candles floating down the Ganga in their little boats made of leaves, the golden deepas offered by the priests and the beauty of the people sitting on the steps singing the Vedic chants are something I will never forget. As the darkness fell, I received an inspiration. I would write a book on the Yoga Sutras for the reader who is approaching the Sutras for the first time. The book would use imagery, graphic design and commentary to provide an inviting entry into this great and ancient wisdom writing. I also hope to publish the book on the new Apple iPad to take advantage of its multimedia capabilities. This will enable me to integrate chants of each of the Sutras into the book. Thus, a reader may read the Sutra in both Sanskrit and English, see the image and hear the chant of the Sutra. Through modern technology the reader may experience the Sutras orally in the spirit of the Vedic tradition.
In the spirit of the arati ceremony, I will be offering this book with a great deal of humility. The Yoga Sutras are complex and any deep understanding of the Sutras is a lifelong practice. Moreover, many great spiritual masters and scholars have written commentaries on the Sutras, and I cannot hope to attain their level of understanding. In fact, Sri B.K.S. Iyengar, in the introduction to his book, Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, remarked that he will need several lifetimes in order to plumb the depths of the Sutras! However, if this book serves to encourage students to embark upon a study of the Sutras, to gain insight into its wisdom and to inspire them to continue their studies by reading the masterworks, then it will have served its purpose.
How does the modern Yoga student approach the study and practice of the Yoga Sutras? What relevance does this ancient work have to our lives and Yoga practice in the 21st Century? How can Patanjali guide us as we navigate the freeways to the office, the demands of living in a digital world and the economic and physical stresses inherent in modern society? In ancient India, the teachers used a three-fold method of teaching spiritual wisdom: sravana, manana and nididhyasana. Sravana is listening to a sacred text as it is chanted or spoken by the teacher. Manana is the logical reflection on the meaning of the text, and nididhyasana is absorbing the text through practice and experience.
In the spirit of the traditional teaching method, I believe that approaching the Sutras from several different perspectives is an effective way to learn them and to integrate them into your practice. First, you can chose a sutra that relates to your Yoga practice, or to a problem, conflict or dilemma that you face in your life. I have found that selecting one of the yamas or niyamas (i.e., the great vows and observances) are good for this purpose. After you have selected a sutra, study it and then keep it in your mind throughout the course of your day. As Sri Swami Satchidananda says, “Study them slowly and carefully and meditate on them. You can even learn some of the most important and useful ones by heart.” It may be helpful to write the sutra on a note card and keep it with you. By reflecting on the sutra throughout the day, you may find that it serves to keep you centered and provides new insights into many situations you encounter in your daily life. I recommend the following sutras as good places to start your studies:
Sutra 1.12 Restriction of the fluctuations is achieved by practice and non-attachment.
Sutra 1.29 Meditation on God with repetition of OM removes the obstacles to mastery of the inner self.
Sutra 1.33 The mind becomes tranquil through the practice of friendliness toward the happy, compassion toward the miserable, joy toward the virtuous and equanimity toward the non-virtuous.
Sutra 1.39 Or by meditating on any desirable object that is spiritually uplifting (consciousness becomes calm and serene).
Sutra 2.30-2.31 The yamas are the great universal vows, unlimited by place, time and class. The yamas are non-violence, truthfulness, non-greed, non-stealing and moderation.
Sutra 2.35 When the yogi is firmly established in non-violence, hostility is abandoned in his or her presence.
Sutra 2.42 Contentment brings supreme happiness.
Sutra 2.46 The posture should be steady, comfortable and grounded in joy.
Because the Sutras do not contain imagery, metaphor or narrative that help the reader remember their meaning, I have found chanting to be invaluable in integrating the Sutras into my Yoga practice. Chanting will not only help you remember the Sutras, but it will connect you to the Sanskrit language and the oral tradition through which the Sutras were originally taught in India. Chanting is also an important path for reaching the highest states of Yoga. In his commentary on sutra 1.28, Swami Satchidananda states: “Here we come to the practice of japa. It is a very powerful technique and, at the same time, the easiest, simplest and the best. Almost every religion advocates the repetition of God’s name because all prophets, sages and saints experienced and understood its greatness, glory and power.”
Gary Kissiah has been studying Yoga for the past 10 years at various Yoga studios in California, the Esalen Institute and Parmarth Niketan Ashram in India. He has a Certificate of Yoga Philosophy from the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He offers programs at Yoga centers, including Integral Yoga Institutes, and he is a technology lawyer and enjoys traveling, trail running, graphic design and photography.