When delving into yoga philosophy, one of the first names you’ll likely encounter is Patanjali. But precisely, who was Patanjali, and how did his ancient wisdom shape yoga as we know it today?
The sutras, the eight limbs of yoga, the yamas and niyamas – these all originate from this mystic sage.
In this article, we're exploring the myths and ideologies around the philosopher and author named Patanjali. We look at his impact on yoga philosophy and how his teachings still exist in modern-day asana classes.
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What we know about Patanjali
Patanjali, also known as Gonardiya or Gonikaputra, was an Indian sage, mystic, and philosopher from the Vedic period.
According to British Scholar Monier Monier-Williams, “Patañjali” is a compound name. It comprises “patta,” meaning falling/flying in Sanskrit, and “añjali,” meaning folded hands.
There is very little knowledge about who was Patanaji. In fact, many people dispute whether Patanjali possessed a human body or if he was entirely mythical.
Patanjali's identity and background
Patanjali is most commonly depicted as half-man, half-snake. He is believed to be the incarnation of the thousand-headed serpent-king named Shesha or Ananta.
Aside from the legends around Patanjali, he is most known as the author of the ancient yogic scripture, the yoga sutras. By translating Patanjali's yoga sutra teachings, scholars have uncovered a great deal about classical yoga.
Interestingly, a man named Patanjali was also credited with two other non-yogic texts. One was about Sanskrit grammar (Mahabhashya), and the other was about medicine (Charakapratisanskrita). However, it is unknown if it is the same Patanjali who wrote these books and the sutras.
When did Patanjali live?
Many scholars who have analyzed Patanajli's works estimate that Patanjali lived between the second century BCE and the fourth century CE.
There are many myths in the Hindu tradition around Patanjali's birth. One is that he fell from heaven as a serpent into the hands of the powerful yogini Gonika, who was meditating.
The legend goes that he transformed into a human form within a few moments, and Gonika accepted him as her son.
Patanjali learned yoga alongside seven other disciples from the yogic guru Nandhi Deva. He later attained Samadhi (enlightenment) through meditation at the Brahmapureeswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu, India. Today, a shrine dedicated to Patanjali still exists there.
What was Patanjali’s role in modern yoga?
Patanjali played a crucial role in modern yoga as his teachings are universal and timeless. For example, each yama and niyama has multiple and comprehensive meanings.
At first glance, a specific teaching may seem irrelevant to modern-day yoga. But digging a little deeper, you will find it is just as applicable today as it was centuries ago.
Plus, although they are of Hindu tradition, the Yoga Sutras are not tied to any particular religious or cultural context. This makes them adaptable to yogis all around the world.
So, while the limbs were originally taught as a path to self-realization, the timeless teachings now serve as a modernized holistic approach to well-being.
Patanjali's impact on yoga culture and philosophy
Patanjali's yoga sutras delve into the nature of the mind, the causes of suffering, and the path to liberation.
They include concepts such as:
- The fluctuations of the mind (Vrittis)
- The nature of the self (Purusha)
- The role of detachment in achieving spiritual goals
These philosophical insights have become the foundation of yoga culture. Yoga schools continue to teach them in their trainings and classes. Moreover, they are commonly integrated into mindfulness practices and holistic therapies.
Why is Patanjali called the father of modern yoga?
Patanjali is known as the founding father of modern yoga. This is because he was the first Yogi to record his teachings in writing via the yoga sutras scriptures.
However, many yogis came before Patanjali, including Lord Shiva (often called the Aadi Yogi, meaning the first Yogi). The difference between these yogis and Patanjali is that they only imparted their wisdom verbally to a few chosen disciples.
Still, unlike Lord Vishnu and Shiva, Patanjali was not seen as a god or deity, nor did he see himself as one. In fact, in one yoga sutra, Patanjali describes god as purusha – a universal spirit that is present everywhere at all times.
Patanjali's enduring legacy
Patanjali's yoga sutras teachings were one of the most significant contributions to yoga, creating a lasting legacy.
The sutras consist of 196 short statements detailing the philosophy and practice of classical yoga.
These teachings not only show the high understanding of human nature Patanjali possessed. They also provide a systematic and organized approach to yoga for the first time in history.
Highlights of Patanjali’s teachings
The most commonly taught philosophical concept from Patanjali's yoga sutras is the eight limbs of yoga.
Here is a brief overview of this core teaching, which is also known as the Ashtanga yoga eightfold path:
- Yamas – Moral codes detailing how we should act in the world and how we should treat others.
- Niyamas – Personal observances of how we should behave towards ourselves.
- Asana – The physical postures we practice, including the seated position used in meditation.
- Pranayama – Techniques for breath control used to regulate the flow of prana (life force).
- Pratyahara – Withdrawing from your senses and the exterior world and turning inwards.
- Dharana – Single-focused concentration to facilitate a meditative state.
- Dhyana – The state of meditation which occurs from an uninterrupted flow of concentration.
- Samadhi – Enlightenment or bliss, where you have attained the highest levels of consciousness.
Practical application in modern yoga
Due to the evolution of this practice, the teachings of Patanjali are becoming less prominent in modern-day yoga.
One reason for this is that our intention for practicing yoga has changed.
The purpose of Patanjali's yoga was enlightenment. Ancient yogis would practice yoga to release their past karmas and become liberated.
But today, most yogis come to their mat to gain a sense of mental peace in their lives. Rather than a path to enlightenment, we now see yoga as a mindfulness tool.
Even so, one part of Patanjali's teaching that remains apparent in modern-day practice is the Yamas and Niyamas.
This is not only a fundamental teaching in all yoga teacher training courses. The ancient wisdom is just as relevant today as it was all those years ago.
By applying these teachings on and off the mat, contemporary yoga practice continues to help raise human consciousness.
Takeaway on who was Patanjali
While we may know little about who was Patanjali, what we can be clear on is the significance of his teachings in modern yoga practice.
Yoga schools worldwide transmute his timeless wisdom through teaching about the eight limbs of yoga. So, while the way we practice yoga keeps evolving, there is great hope that the insights of sages like Patanaji will continue to live on. Curious to learn more about the ancient sage's of yoga? Check out our article about Swami Vivekananda.
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