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The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

by Pataanjali, Alistair Shearer

Buy the book: Pataanjali. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Release Date: 08 January, 2002

Edition: Hardcover


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Buy the book: Pataanjali. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Engaging translation but not the best commentary

This book was first published in London in 1982 as Effortless Being: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. I assume the translation of the sutras is the same while Shearer, who is a disciple of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, has updated his Introduction. The text is presented in a sky blue color that is easy on the eyes and does not distract from the meaning of the words. The design by Barbara Sturman is indeed very attractive while the small size of the book (4.75 by 6.25 by 0.75 inches) makes for easy portability.

The translation itself takes up about one-third of the book while Shearer's commentary takes up most of the rest. The translation is strikingly original and interpretative. Patanjali's famous first line, which I recall most agreeably as "Now, instruction in yoga" (which I have from Ernest Egerton Wood's Practical Yoga, 1948) is presented as "And now the teaching on yoga begins." B.K.S. Iyengar, in his Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (1993), which I highly recommend in addition to this book, has "With prayers for divine blessings, now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga."

Clearly the differences with this first line are mainly stylistic with Iyengar emphasizing a spiritual and religious tone while Wood's aim was to reflect Patanjali's succinct style, with Shearer looking for lucidity and an affinity with the modern English expression. But let's look at the second sutra. Shearer's "Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence" is very pretty, and when one realizes that "silence" to Shearer is akin to godliness (he quotes Meister Eckhart on page 24: "Nothing in all creation is so like God as silence"), it works in a symbolic sense as well. Professor Wood's "Yoga is the control of the ideas in the mind" places a very different emphasis. But in Shearer's understanding, the idea of "control" is inappropriate. He sees instead that "Once pointed in the right direction, the mind will begin to settle down of its own accord. It needs no control or forcible restraint." (p. 68)

From my experience (I began my practice of yoga in 1974) both of these ideas are correct; and indeed it is a synthesis of conscious control of the ideas of the mind along with a sense of falling away that leads to meditation and samadhi. It is a mistake to imagine that one makes no effort, since it is the very essence of yoga that one does indeed make an effort and uses technique in order to find liberation (rather than, say, faith or knowledge). Yoga is above all a practice and nothing in it can be fully appreciated without practice. But it is also a mistake to think that one can through force of will achieve samadhi. What is required is a controlled practice in which one leads the reluctant mind and body to a place of relaxed concentration in which meditation is allowed to take place.

But let's now look at how Iyengar translates this famous second aphorism: "Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness." He adds, "This vital sutra contains the definition of yoga: the control or restraint of the movement of consciousness, leading to their complete cessation." (Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, p. 46)

While I think Shearer's translation is very much worthwhile, I am less enthusiastic about his interpretation. He devotes the last part of his Introduction to the famous "siddhas" (psychic powers). He attempts to justify and explain them in terms of quantum mechanics, averring that "the subatomic universe...reveals a reality that is every bit as strange as Patanjali's." (p. 79) He even compares the superfluidity of helium near absolute zero to what is possible in the "least excited state of awareness" (i.e., the self in samadhi). This sophistic suggestion, which has largely been discredited, at least in the scientific community, relies on the false belief that the human mind (a macro object all the way down to the molecular level) can in some way operate on the quantum level. This is "New Age" babble of the most annoying sort and does not in any way explain the so-called psychic powers. Anyone who has practiced yoga long enough and has become adept at meditation has experienced these psychic powers, but realizes that they are phenomena of the mind and have nothing to do with ordinary consciousness or ordinary experience. They are--and this is why they are valuable and why Patanjali mentions them--signposts on the way to samadhi. When one experiences a siddha, it is an indication that one has stilled the ordinary mind and is making progress. I don't think Shearer really understands this.

I could also take exception to his interpretation of some of the limbs of Patanjali's yoga, or express my appreciation of some of his insights. For example, I think his translation of shaucha (sauca) as "simplicity" instead of the usual "cleanliness" or "purity" is very agreeable. On the other hand, I could disagree with his interpretation of brahmacharya as something more than celibacy. I think brahmacharya means exactly that, celibacy. Or I could find his idea that pratyahara is akin to William Blake's "closing the doors of perception" (p. 68) interesting and worth adding to the regular meaning of "withdrawal of the senses." But these fine distinctions would be beside the point. Note well that the sole purpose of Patanjali's yoga is liberation from the pair of opposites (pleasure and pain) that dominate our lives. The word "samadhi" (the goal of yoga) means both the highest level of meditation and something akin to the Buddhist "satori," or enlightenment. All of yoga is a means to this end.

For anyone beginning their yoga practice this book can help, but it should be understood that reading this or any other translation and interpretation of Patanjali's yoga sutras is only the beginning and is actually worthless without the concomitant practice of yoga.

From Amazon.com


An excellent translation and commentary. This book should be ranked with commentaries of yoga masters such as McAfee's "Beyond the Siddhis" and Satchidananda's "Yoga Sutras", as one of the best books available on Patanjali's sutras. It is well written, focused, easily understood and goes to the core of the sutras - self understanding, with great insight. Shearer has done a great job.

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