The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Reviewed by: Sharon Conroy

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary, with Insights from the Traditional Commentators. Written by Edwin F. Bryant. New York: North Point Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0865477-360. 672 pages. $35.00.

A Scholar's Invaluable New Commentary Written in a Clear and Engaging Style

In the late 1980s, I began to work with Senior Teachers Patricia Walden and John Schumacher, both of whom studied the Yoga Sutras and integrated them into asana class. Patricia became my mentor. In 1990, following her suggestion, I took up Patanjali's work, reading one sutra a day and, as she had advised, letting it wash over me like water. This turned out to be excellent advice as it allowed me to approach this important text with a more quiet, less grasping mind.

I started with two commentaries my teachers recommended, How to Know God, by Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda, and The Science of Yoga, by I. K. Taimni. When B.K.S. Iyengar's commentary was published in 1993, I began to work with it almost exclusively. While I've often told myself that I would benefit from reading the classical commentaries, I have not done so. Now, Edwin Bryant's new translation and commentary, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, makes the perspectives and insights of six commentators readily available to us all.

Edwin Bryant holds a PhD in Indology from Columbia University and has taught at both Columbia and Harvard. Since 2001, he has been a professor of Hindu religion and philosophy at Rutgers University. While Edwin may be known in the academic world primarily for his work on Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita, over the past ten years, he has devoted increasingly more time to Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. He was teaching this text to students at Harvard in 1997 when he first met Patricia Walden and began to work with her community of students.

In the late 1990s, having studied Patanjali's work for many years, Patricia began to search for a scholar who could help deepen her own and her students' understanding. Once she learned that Edwin was teaching at Harvard and they had made one another's acquaintance, Patricia invited him to teach at her center. He began by offering free Friday afternoon discussions on the Bhagavad Gita. Of these first classes she says, "One of the things I valued in Edwin from the start is that he's not only a scholar, but he's also a practitioner. He is deeply committed to his own practices and has been for over 30 years. Also, he lived in India for many years and is steeped in that culture."

The Friday afternoons evolved over time into weekend workshops on the Bhagavad Gita. Then, Edwin began to give workshops on the Yoga Sutras, a text he also highly appreciated. Soon, teachers from other Iyengar communities were traveling to Cambridge to attend these workshops as well as inviting Edwin to work with their own communities around the country.

Before long, Patricia began to ask Edwin to join her in teaching week-long retreats that combined the study of asana and philosophy. She explains why she did so in this way: "One of the primary reasons I chose to work with Edwin is that he is able to talk about difficult philosophical concepts in ways that students understand. And, he's also wonderfully patient with those who don't immediately follow what he's saying." Student interest in the material was encouraging to both Patricia and Edwin. And, it has certainly been to our entire community's benefit that their paths crossed.

Inspired by his teaching of the Yoga Sutras to practitioners, Edwin eventually decided to undertake his own translation and commentary. Regarding this decision, he says, "I recall this inspiration coming out of my interest in the text and my perception that a rigorous commentary faithful to the tradition, but user friendly, was needed on the Western landscape." I have been working with his new commentary since November, and it is a pleasure to recommend it wholeheartedly to the Iyengar community.

Having studied with Edwin on a number of occasions over the past ten years, I know first hand what an extremely skilled teacher he is. He has a very engaging manner and his enthusiasm for the material, whether it's the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras, is contagious.

It's a delight to hear Edwin's clear, engaged teaching voice in this new book. His commentary has received high praise from both academics and practitioners, and, it is certainly significant that B.K.S. Iyengar has written its foreword.

Regarding his new commentary and how it differs from others, Edwin says, "There are dozens of modern translations of the sutras, which have been marketed to the yoga community or nonspecialized reading public interested in esoteric Eastern practices. There are also a number of outstanding scholarly editions marketed to an academic audience, which typically include elaborate and highly specialized translations of one of the traditional Sanskrit commentaries on the text. Much of the traditional intellectual background is understandably often bypassed or watered down, in an effort to make the material accessible to a modern, primarily Western, nonspecialized audience. On the other hand, much of the scholarly translations are not very accessible to the nonspecialized reader with little or no background in ancient Indian philosophical thought. The present translation attempts to bridge these two worlds of discourse. It attempts to ground the text in its traditional intellectual context but to articulate the subject matter in a way that is accessible to the educated nonspecialist as well as to scholars and students of Indic philosophy." (page lix)

The first extant commentary on Patanjali's work was done by Vyasa. As Edwin states,
"It is Vyasa who determined what Patanjali's abstruse sutras meant, and all subsequent commentators elaborated on Vyasa." (page xl)

Edwin's commentary quotes extensively from five classical, meaning precolonial, commentators, Vyasa (fourth or fifth century), Sankara (eighth century), Vacaspati Misra (eighth to ninth centuries), Bhoja Raja (eleventh century), and Vijnanabhiksu (fifteenth century), as well as from one modern commentator, Hariharananda Aranya (nineteenth to twentieth centuries), a Sankhya master who lived a very traditional lifestyle. Regarding this approach, Edwin says, "The goal of this commentary is to present the traditional Yogic worldview not as an imagined monolith but through some of the permutations and configurations it has taken in the hands of the commentators over the centuries." (page lxii)

In the foreword, Guruji, who is himself a master of simple and direct language and understands its power, describes Edwin's commentary as "lucid" and "presented in simple and fluent language." As Patricia has already noted, Edwin has the gift of being able to synthesize and articulate complex concepts without compromising complexity. Thus, we are given access to many other commentaries in an extraordinarily reader-friendly manner.

In addition to the points of view of the commentators, there are quotes from the Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita as well as stories from the Purana texts to elaborate on and illustrate whatever is under discussion. This variety of sources enriches the text and makes reading it an intellectually enlightening adventure.

In addition to the many treasures found in the commentary, Edwin also includes other material in this book that readers will find useful: a Sanskrit pronunciation guide; a thorough and very readable history of yoga; an essay on the subject matter of the yoga sutras including the dualism of yoga, the sankhya metaphysics of the text, the goals of yoga, and the eight limbs of yoga; an overview of this translation and commentary; summaries of each pada organized according to what topics are covered in various groups of sutras; an appendix with all the sutras in devanagari, transliteration, and English translation; an essay of concluding reflections; and extensive footnotes that should not be overlooked.

Finally, at the end of the book, in his acknowledgments, Edwin begins by thanking Patricia and describing how he began to work with her community. Later he says, "This edition is especially dedicated to Patricia and the entire Iyengar community, particularly to Guruji Iyengar himself for his enormous contribution to the well-being of humanity and for his foreword to this volume."

© September, 2009

Sharon Conroy is an Intermediate Junior III teacher who has been practicing since 1986. She founded the Iyengar community in New Orleans 20 years ago and taught there until Katrina. She now has a center in Grayton Beach, Florida. Her email is Sharon@GreatWhiteHeron.Net.