A Practical Man Shows Us the Way

Sharon Conroy

In the fall 2009 issue of Yoga Samachar,
I reviewed Edwin Bryant's recently published book, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary with Insights from the Traditional Commentators. It is a wonderful resource with a rich and readable text that I will continue to study for many years. However, as a student and teacher in the Iyengar tradition, it was B.K.S. Iyengar's foreword to the book that immediately caught my attention and truly delighted me.

In the foreword, Guruji very clearly and succinctly states two ways in which he differs from the classical commentators. Although I had sensed for a while that there were differences, I had not been able to put them into words, and I was delighted to see Guruji do so. What he said piqued my interest to know more and gave rise to new questions.

While the idea of being able to sit down with Guruji to explore this topic was enticing, the next time I would be in Pune was for his 90th birthday, and I didn't feel that would be an appropriate time to request such a meeting. Then, it occurred to me that perhaps among the many longtime practitioners gathering from all over the world to honor Guruji would be someone who might be willing to discuss this topic with me.

As fate would have it, Faeq Biria and I happened to be staying at the same hotel in Pune. Although I had met him only once, I knew that he was one of Guruji's oldest students and understood that he was knowledgeable about the Yoga Sutras.

When I told Faeq what I was interested in discussing and asked if he might be willing to meet with me, he graciously agreed to do so. And, once I had given him a copy of Guruji's foreword, he asked me to read a particular article before our meeting.

Here are three paragraphs from that article. It was authored by Faeq and Patxi Lizardi. In the same way that reading the article set the stage for my meeting with Faeq, your reading of these paragraphs will set the stage for the article that follows.

Guruji was preparing Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for publication. We were living in the Institute and had the privilege of being around Guruji when he was finalizing the manuscript. We were noting, entering, and retyping his corrections, trying to follow the unattainable flow of his new ideas and his very fast yet systematic way of reading, correcting, and clarifying his own explanations.

…this new and beautiful explanation was the
fresh fruit of his own practice of Pranayama that very morning!

Some moments were particularly vivid and they can give to the reader an idea of how that book was written. For example, we will never forget the time when Guruji was reediting his manuscript about the sutra III.9 to III.13. His text was very beautiful, and it was ready to go to the final version when, very early one morning, he came to our room and took all his time to expose to us his new ideas on how to explain these sutra. And, the concept of the silent moments between the rising impressions and our attempt to restrain them came to be crystal clear forever. But something else also was clear for both of us: this new and beautiful explanation was the fresh fruit of his own practice of Pranayama that very morning!

And the same happened so many times. It was a marvel to witness that fountain of new explanations when Guruji was confronted by a sutra, and was not very happy about the clarity or fluidity of his own ideas to explain it, and next morning, after his own practice, the sentences were flowing like a mountain stream, so powerful and so clear. We began to understand why he was not using for reference any book except two dictionaries. A few times, when we presented him ideas from traditional commentaries, he refused kindly to see them and told us, with a smile, that he would go through all of them once his own work was over. Indeed, as with all his other writings, deeply anchored in tradition, he was proceeding like a thorough scientist, completely independent, using only his own experiential knowledge to present his invisible guru's text. It is said that a sutra can be explained in a scholarly way or be used as a thread connecting the sutra writer to the commentator, inspiring him to share his experiential knowledge, and we felt often that this was the case.1

The following conversation took place on December 19, 2008, on a bus traveling between Mysore and Bangalore at the end of the south India tour celebrating Guruji's 90th birthday. Faeq reviewed the content for accuracy in the spring of 2010.

SC:I'm pleased that you asked me to read your and Patxi's epilogue in the new Astadala Yogamala. It was quite inspiring to hear how Light on the Yoga Sutras came into being. I was especially moved by the idea of each sutra being a thread connecting Patanjali to the commentator, inspiring him to share what he knows as a result of his own practice. In the article, you reference a great pundit in Benares who had written about the difficulties of understanding the Yoga Sutras and wished for a commentary on the Sutras, as you say, "by an accomplished yogi who himself experienced their intrinsic nature."2 B.K.S. Iyengar is certainly that yogi! Who was the pundit?

FB: It was the late vyakaranacharya, Dr. Ram Shankar Bhattacharya.3 He has a book called Introduction to the Yoga Sutra. In it he complains that most commentators are not practitioners but linguists and philosophers.

SC: How did Guruji's commentary come about? When did he begin to work on it?

Guruji kept notebooks of his own translation based on his practice and experience of the sutras.

FB: It was started in the late 50s or early 60s. And it was completed in December 1991. At one point, Guruji told me, "I must understand this text." He said that Krishnamacharya, his teacher, when requested to teach him the Sutras had told him, "Don't even use the name of Patanjali." But, Guruji's primary motive in editing his personal notes into book form was seeing a very erroneous translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutras.

SC: Did Guruji read other commentaries before or during the writing of his own?

FB: Vyasa, as the first commentator, is taken as inseparable from Patanjali. Guruji looked through Vyasa and also went through Hariharananda.4 But, mainly, he read the Sutras and delved into their meanings on his own. Guruji kept notebooks of his own translation based on his practice and experience of the Sutras. He wanted to remain independent from commentators. These notebooks became the basis for the first version of his commentary on the Yoga Sutras.5

Over almost 30 years, Guruji wrote and rewrote his commentary, 16 times. This
is his way of working. He did this with Light on Pranayama and then with Light on the Yoga Sutras.

SC: In the same way that we refine our asanas, he refined his commentary.

FB: Yes, it's exactly the same.

SC: If I'm practicing in an open and aware manner, then the understanding I bring to Utthita Trikonasana is different each time I practice. In a similar way, each time I return to a particular sutra, my understanding has ripened a bit by virtue of my practice of Asana and Pranayama. While my reading of other commentaries may inform and inspire, my evolving understanding is driven by my practice, not by
my reading.

FB: Yes. And, we understand some poses more quickly than others. It takes much longer for Utthita Parsvakonasana than Utthita Trikonasana. In the same way, some sutras take much longer to understand. Guruji had always said, "I don't want to write anything I didn't experience myself." He wanted to experience all the Sutras before he came out with his own commentary. He hadn't yet experienced all the siddhis, and he didn't feel right coming out with his commentary until he did. Then, one day in Pune after a practice, Guruji came into the library with very bright eyes. He said that Patanjali doesn't say a yogi needs to experience all the siddhis. He had realized that the siddhis are not a "target" but a "sign." If you can get a few, that is enough to know you are on the right track.

Once Light on Pranayama came out in 1981, Guruji increased his work on the Yoga Sutras. When he visited Faeq in Paris in the early 1980s, he brought three volumes of the commentary with him. This was the second time Faeq had seen the manuscript.

FB: I worked with Guruji on the last three versions of Light on the Yoga Sutras—helping him to make the edits he wanted to make. Geetaji was reading the text very carefully. Patxi was typing, and many other students were helping to prepare the book so that it could be published as soon as possible. But, of course, the true author was Guruji himself. He worked more than everyone and was the source, the fountain, from which all ideas flowed.

SC:As practitioners and teachers in the Iyengar tradition, should we be familiar with the classical commentators? Is there a value in this?

FB:As we've said, Vyasa's commentary is taken as inseparable from Patanjali's text, and all should be familiar with it. It can also be helpful to see how commentators, especially those acquainted with Vedanta, at different periods of history, interpreted different sutras. But, many of the commentators copied over each other. They didn't write from their own experience. It was the same with asanas. For example, when one wrote that an asana was good for the liver, all others copied him. They might all say over and over again that a certain pose is good for the liver. Guruji is the only one who put each and every asana under the lab experience of his tapas. It was the same with his understanding of the sutras. He approached them in the same way.

SC: Guruji has always worked from his own experience.

FB: Yes. Once, Swami Satchidananda of Virginia complimented Guruji on his commentary of the Yoga Sutras and then asked him from what commentators he got his ideas. Guruji said, "I get my ideas from the library of my body."

SC: That's a wonderful and inspiring response! And, it clearly illustrates what you say in the article, "that nowhere could we find a study on Patanjali's sutras where the interpretation was so deeply rooted in the personal experience of the author, and nowhere would be found an author with the unquestionable authority of a true yogi of the calibre of our Guruji."6

In March 2010, I had an opportunity to discuss Light on the Yoga Sutras with Shirley Daventry French, another one of Guruji's oldest students. She, too, had helped him in an important way. At Guruji's request, over the course of just one month in Pune, she went through the entire manuscript, "tidying up the English and grammar," as she put it. She says, "All along, Guruji said his commentary was for the practical man. And, he would talk at times about the division between the scholarly men and the practical men."

Having finished our discussion on how Light on the Yoga Sutras came into being,
Faeq and I turned our attention to the two ways that Guruji says he differs from the classical commentators. One could say that the first difference addresses the following question: For the realized yogi, what is the ultimate relationship between purusa and prakrti?

Guruji is the only one who put each and every asana under the lab experience of his tapas.

According to the classical commentators, the aim of yoga is to uncouple purusa from prakrti. Edwin Bryant summarizes that position repeatedly and states that "the goal of yoga is not to join, but the opposite: to unjoin, that is, to disconnect purusa from prakrti."7

On the other hand, Guruji states the following: "The entire text speaks of the intelligence of nature and the intelligence of the self. I understand that the perfection of asana brings unity between the various sheaths of the body and the self (purusa) which Lord Krishna calls ksetra-ksetrajna yoga in the Bhagavad Gita (XIII.1ff). Hence, perfection in asana means a divine union of prakrti with purusa.

"The practice of asanas develops sattva guna, sublimating the gunas of rajas and tamas. The aim of asanas is to make the prana (cosmic universal force) move concurrently with the prajna (insight) of the self on its frontier. This means to make the awareness of the self (sasmita) move and cover the entire body (II.19) so that the mechanisms of nature are sublimated and the intelligence (prajna) of the self engulfs the body with its sakti."8

SC: In Light on the Yoga Sutras, Guruji references the ultimate merging or union, or divine marriage, of purusa and prakrti, over and over again beginning with I.2 and continuing through IV.34, the very last Sutra. How do you understand what Guruji is saying about this divine marriage?

FB: In the Bhagavad Gita, a yogi is defined as someone who can maintain equanimity in all situations and who practices skill in action. When you achieve these two qualities, then your mind is united with God and you become enlightened. Patanjali's approach is different. He's like neti, neti: "not this, not this." This is why someone once said that Patanjali's yoga practice is a type of surgery. This is why an honest approach to the practice of yoga may be very painful! Guruji is saying that only when you reach the level where you can isolate the self, only then can you experience the divine marriage of prakrti and purusa.

SC: Can you say more?

FB: Through our practice, a ray of light occasionally reaches each of us, a flash of insight. But it goes away. We cannot hold it, but we feel its effects. We are not enlightened, but we become sure that the light does exist. Through his honest tapas and pure will, Guruji has reached a place of pure surrender. Guruji is aware and conscious and in full surrender to God. He is the one who thoroughly brings Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita together. He's a bhaktan of yoga in the most noble sense of the term.

The second way that Guruji says he differs from the traditional commentators involves the virama pratyaya of Sutra I.18. Faeq and I did not discuss this second difference. Rather, our conversation focused on the manner in which Guruji states his differences.

SC: How do you understand the second way Guruji says he differs from the classic commentators?

FB: All commentators are refuting or agreeing with each other. Guruji is graciously saying, "I see things differently." He's not saying the others are wrong. That is his greatness!

SC: There is definitely a graceful elegance to the manner in which he presents his differences.

FB: Yes. He understands that proving something doesn't refute what else can be. This must become a lesson for all yogis.

SC: Yes. We are all too often attached to our own point of view. And, perhaps, we'll only be able to see the truth in diversity when we become, as Gandhi says, a "zero," when we have surgically dismantled the ego through yoga. As you pointed out, only when the self is isolated can there be a divine union of prakrti and purusa. Just as the isolation allows for the union, perhaps the union allows for the pure surrender you now see in Guruji. Thank you very much for finding the time to meet with me. I really enjoyed our conversation, and I learned a lot.

If you are interested in reading Guruji's foreword in its entirety, you may do so by going to www.IYNAUS.org.

Sharon Conroy is an Intermediate Junior III teacher who has been practicing since 1986.
She founded the Iyengar community in New Orleans, where she once more resides and teaches. Her email is sharon@greatwhiteheron.net.


  1. Astadala Yogamala, 8 (2008): 304.
  2. Astadala Yogamala, 8 (2008): 305.
  3. A vyakaranacharya is a master of Sanskrit grammar. Dr. Bhattacharya was one of India's great Sanskrit scholars.
  4. There is no way to know whether Vyasa (4th or 5th century) was a practitioner. Hariharananda Aranya (19th to 20th centuries) was a practitioner.
  5. Published in Pune in 1985 on the 10th anniversary of R.I.M.Y.I.
  6. Astadala Yogamala, 8 (2008): 305.
  7. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2009: 5.
  8. Foreword to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2009: x.