An Interview with Mukunda Stiles

As a practitioner and as a teacher of Yoga, Mukunda Stiles has pondered the Yoga Sutras for over three decades. He brings not just a philosophical understanding to the Sutras, but a deep personal experience that helps illuminate the text. In this interview, he shares his insights from his study of the traditions of classical Yoga and Ayurveda.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): In your book, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, you mention that Patanjali wrote the Yoga Sutras for four of his students.

Mukunda Stiles (MS): In Sri TKV Desikachar’s book, Health, Healing and Beyond, there is a section in which he talks about this. He says that his revered father, the great Yoga master Sri T. Krishnamacharya, told him that Patanjali wrote each of the four padas (parts or chapters) as a personalized teaching to four of his main students. That was something totally unique that I’d never read anywhere.

IYM: What did you make of that?

MS: It made a lot of sense. Many sincere Yoga aspirants study the Yoga Sutras and attempt to follow everything in the four padas, but they often feel frustrated at not attaining what is said as the desired outcome. Even Swami Satchidananda, basically, didn’t touch Pada Three. He emphasizes Padas One and Two. Padas Three and Four really only pertain to a small group of people. We can also look at the types of students for whom each pada is relevant, by looking at the doshas in Ayurveda. The kapha-type student is more suited to Pada One, the vata-type to Pada Two and the pitta person is more natural to practice Pada Three. The more we look at it, the more we see that no one should try to master the book—its too big of a scope. Another point is that each pada reveals a natural sadhana—it’s where you are coming from and going to. The student Patanjali was addressing in Pada One is a student who has a naturally arising samadhi, rather than trying to get to samadhi. The focus of Pada One is attaining stability of effortless samadhi.

IYM: You have an interesting translation of the opening sutra in Pada One: “With great respect and love, now the blessings of Yoga instruction are offered.”

MS: Generally the first sutra is understood as Patanjali addressing those who have studied Samkhya and who now are ready to begin the study of Yoga. This is in conflict with what my Guru taught which is that first we are to seek Yoga with the attitude of, “with great love and respect.” That is the prerequisite state of consciousness from which we begin our study of Yoga. If the student approaches the trinity of topics that are Yoga: teacher, tradition and/or text with great respect and love, then the blessings of Yoga instruction can be offered. David Frawley explained to me that Patanjali is a bhakta. Without that devotion, you can’t get it—it becomes a head trip. There is a quote from Vasishta that dovetails with this idea. It’s on Page 499 of Vasishta’s Yoga translated by Swami Venkatesananda: “If the teachings fall upon a qualified heart, it expands in that intelligence. It does not stay in the unqualified heart.”

To me, that is really crucial. You can’t get the second sutra (“Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.”) without that the bhakti body-mind-spirit. Great respect and love is what makes the mind cease its identification—Yoga is not attained by the control of the thoughts. Rather, it comes out of the state of respect and love. When respect and love are present, then the heart is wide open and, as Vasishta says, you have a qualified heart. If you have that, then the teachings will stay. Without love, Yoga is just another vritti (fluctuation or thought wave).

IYM: You’ve made a list of the key sutras for each pada. Could you give us that list and also your take on each of the padas?

MS: The opening sutra of each pada is a hidden key. And, the central teachings of each of the padas are as follows: 1.23, 2.16, 3.35 and 4.24. Pada One conveys the depth of the tradition’s teachings: how to separate your identity from your thoughts, how to develop concentrations needed for absorption into Spirit and the method for knowing God. The first three sutras describe the highest state of Yoga, which is samadhi. Here Bhakti Yoga is offered as a path…

Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.