Reading the Yoga Sutra: Can We Cross the Scholar/Practitioner Divide? (Book Review)

Carol Horton book review of David Gordon White, "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography" and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, "The Secret of the Yoga Sutra: Samadhi Pada"


Books reviewed in this essay:

David Gordon White, “The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography” (Princeton University Press, 2014)

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, “The Secret of the Yoga Sutra: Samadhi Pada” (Himalayan Institute, 2014)

Although Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra and David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography could not be more different in terms of core message and approach, both share the same underlying problem. Essentially, this is that each in its own way replicates the dominant paradigm that divides our studies of the Yoga Sutra (YS) between 1) practitioner-oriented studies that are reverentially devoted to explicating it as a timeless truth, and 2) narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners. This split between lived practice and scholarly inquiry is unfortunate in that it narrows the scope of ideas and information in ways that impoverish both.

To be sure, both books make notable contributions to their respective fields. Tigunait, the Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute, writes as a lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition. The Secret of the Yoga Sutra offers a user-friendly entry into the complexities what I found to be an essentially religious approach to the text. White, a chaired Professor of Religious Studies at the UCSB, writes as a “just the facts, ma’am” scholar who’s openly skeptical of contemporary yoga culture. The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography evidences a prodigious amount of archival research, which attempts to trace the most important references to the work made during the past 1,600+ years.

Due to the singular lens each book uses to look at the YS, however, I found them more interesting considered in tandem, rather than independently. It’s ironic that although the Secret and Biography approach their shared subject matter from polar opposite perspectives, they actually inform each other reasonably well. For example, Tigunait explains that he’s part of a tradition that interprets the YS using a combination of yogic, Tantric, and Vedantic philosophies. This would have struck me as strangely arbitrary, except that I knew from reading White that this sort of syncretism has, in fact, represented a well-established tradition in India since at least the 16th century.

That said, there’s no question that White’s Biography is designed to debunk precisely the sort of claims to timeless interpretative authority that Tigunait’s Secret explicitly makes. Consequently, despite the fact that they complement each other in some ways, one might ultimately feel that it’s necessary to choose one approach and reject the other, given that it’s logically impossible to embrace both perspectives at the same time. However, I don’t believe this to be true. Other alternatives can be created. Personally, I’d like to see some sort of new synthesis between them, one which takes the experiences of practitioners seriously, but that also contextualizes them in the broader perspective that a cultural history of the YS provides.



Before going into a more detailed discussion of each book, I’d like to provide a bit of background regarding where I’m coming from in reading them. On the whole, it’s always been true that discussions of the Yoga Sutra in contemporary yoga culture generate a certain sense of inner conflict for me. On the one hand, I’m very much drawn to the project of engaging with this ancient, cryptic, compelling, and mysterious text. On the other hand, I’m really turned off by the all-too-common tendency to want to put it into some neat-and-simple conceptual box.

This reaction is rooted in my dual background as a yoga practitioner and social scientist. Like many practitioners, I’m enthralled by the fact that some parts of the YS feel highly resonant with my personal experience of yoga. Unlike most, however, I’m equally fascinated by the fact that other parts of the text feel utterly foreign, and don’t resonate at all.

I believe that any work that has spoken to so many so deeply across the centuries must have something unusually compelling about it. As a social scientist, hwoever, I also assume that any claim to know its true meaning as universally understood by adepts across the centuries is necessarily wrong. Whether it’s the Yoga Sutra, Bhagavad Gita, Pali Canon, Bible, or even the U.S. Constitution, there are always multiple interpretations of the essential meaning of iconic texts. And, although certain interpretations will emerge as more compelling than others at any given time, such meanings will also always change over the course of history.

Given this perspective, I’m interested in the interplay between the enduring resonance of the YS and the constellation of culturally specific interpretations that have surrounded it historically. I’m looking for insight into what has made it so enduring, as well as how it’s been understood in radically different ways in different places and times.

Yet, our tendency today is to reject such complexity in favor of readings that claim to explain the entire work as a split package deal: either as an unchanging guide to spiritual practice, or as a transient cultural artifact. Hence my frustration with both the Secret and Biography: like most contemporary discussions of the YS, the core questions I have about it are never asked, let alone investigated.


The Biography: 1

Be that as it may, I do appreciate the prodigious research effort that obviously went into White’s “biography.” At 236 pages (not including notes and index), The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography is a sprawling, ambitious work, providing detailed discussions of the various ways in which the YS has been interpreted 1) in ancient, medieval, colonial, and post-colonial India; 2) among influential Western individuals and movements the British Orientialists, German Romantics, and Theosophists; and 3) by key commentators in the Muslim world. On top of this, While provides detailed discussions of the significance of Swami Vivekananda and Sri T. Krishnamacharya in the modern “revival” of the YS, as well as extensive discussions of many other significant Eastern and Western writers, philosophers, and spiritual teachers.

Unfortunately, the high level of detail devoted to sketching out this sweeping history is not tightly organized around a set of simpler thematic points or embedded into a clear narrative structure. This makes it something of a challenge to pick out precisely what the central points of White’s “biographical” story are. By my reading, however, the main point is to prove that the understanding of the YS as a timeless guide to yoga philosophy and practice that’s widely taken-for-granted among practitioners today is factually wrong. The most important reasons for this include:

  • Philosophical inconsistency. White emphasizes that Patanjali’s original understanding of yogic philosophy was eclipsed by very different, Vedanta-based interpretations by at least the 16th century. “In a complete reversal of Patanjali’s and Vyasa’s original position,” he explains, “the Ishvara of the Yoga Sutra had come to be equated with the Krishna of the Bhagavad Gita” (49-50).
  • Historical discontinuity. Although the YS “enjoyed the status of a classic” in India during the 7th-12th centuries, it subsequently fell into obscurity (235). Ironically, this only changed when it was “rediscovered” by British Orientalists in the early 1800s. Subsequently, the YS was widely popularized by Vivekananda – who, in turn, further “severed it from its original cultural and historical context” – beginning in the late 19th century (16, 124).

Weaving various iterations of these claims through many, much more particular historical discussions, the Biography appears dedicated to debunking the “ongoing fetishization of the Yoga Sutra by the current yoga subculture,” which is more than happy to have it be “venerated without being understood” (215).

I believe that White is right that such “fetishization” exists, and to some extent share his impatience with it. That said, I had major problems with the way that he attempted to address this issue in his book. First, White never makes any serious attempt to analyze contemporary yoga culture. As a result, it’s easy for him to set up a straw man argument about it: that is, that there’s widespread belief that the YS has provided an unchanging guide to yoga theory and practice from the 5th-21st centuries that needs to be debunked.

However, it’s questionable to what extent contemporary practitioners are really invested in this as a serious historical narrative. In my experience, most wouldn’t care if it were pointed out that, in fact, the YS has been interpreted in different ways at different times. Because really, what they care about is simply that it’s a meaningful text for them now. Plus, to the extent that they believe in the tradition of Parampara, the “problem” of historical discontinuity is solved by investing interpretative authority in a series of designated lineage holders (which is, again, precisely the position that Tigunait’s Secret takes).

Conversely, from a social science perspective, no cultural historian would ever take the claim that the meaning of some iconic text has held constant across the centuries seriously. It’s simply too self-evidently wrong to be worth debunking. As a result, there’s a profound mismatch between White’s central argument, which is organized around a non-academic debunking project, and his research method, which is basically an enormous amount of fine-grained archival research. The result is that we have neither a nuanced discussion of how the YS figures into yoga culture today, nor a compelling analysis of what to make of all of the historical data White has so assiduously assembled.


The Biography: 2

To make matters worse, the vast array of historical data White presents doesn’t consistently fit his key claims of philosophical inconsistency and historical discontinuity. For example, as noted above, White claims that the Vedantic reading of the YS “completely reversed” Patanjali’s original understanding of Ishvara (50). Later, however, White writes that if “Patanjali was a practitioner of Yoga and a devotee of a personal god like Krishna, he may well have been thinking of ‘devotional to God’ when he employed the term ishvara-pranidhana” (180). Finally, he concludes that “it is unlikely that there will ever be a final word on what Patanjali meant by ishvara-pranidhana” (181).

Needless to say, this is a major problem given that much of the earlier part of the book were devoted to demonstrating that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru beginning with Swami Vivekananda” has “fundamentally misconstrued…the heart of Patanjali’s system.” Again, how did they “fundamentally misconstrue” it? By interpreting Ishvara as “the universal Self of Vedanta,” as opposed “an object of meditation” in service of “the ultimate goal of the isolation of the individual person from universal Matter” in line with the original philosophies of Yoga and Samkhya (47-48). White’s argument undercuts itself: It’s a logical contradiction to state that we can’t know whether Patanjali was “a devotee of a personal God” and that “virtually every modern-day yoga guru…fundamentally misconstrued” his understanding of Ishvara. Both statements can’t be true at the same time. Yet, they are presented as such without qualification or commentary.

There are similar problems with White’s claim of historical discontinuity. As noted above, White reports that the YS only “enjoyed the status of a classic” during the 7th-12th centuries (235). Earlier, however, he states that its “glory days” lasted up through the 16th century (44). Sixty pages after that, he qualifies this statement by adding that “yoga philosophy had been effectively dropped from the traditional north Indian brahmanic curriculum by no later than the 16th century” (100, emphasis added). Ten pages later, he notes that “there was a Yoga revival” in northwest India during the 17th-18th centuries (111). Yet, the second to last page of the book emphasizes that the YS “improbably, miraculously” recovered “the status of a classic” after “a hiatus of nearly a millennium”! (235). Again, while this claim doesn’t logically correspond to White’s own data, it’s nonetheless stated boldly, without additional clarification.


The Secret

Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra is the first volume in a planned series of commentaries in the YS. It focuses on the first chapter of the YS, the Samadi Pada. Written by a self-described lineage holder in the Sri Vidya tradition, it offers an exceptionally thorough exposition of how to read the YS from this particular, essentially religious perspective. Although not a position that I personally find compelling, Tigunait does an excellent job at systematically building what gradually emerges as a complex doctrinal system with steadily ascending levels of detail and complexity. His clear exposition of a wide array of complex concepts enabled me to apprehend the internal logic of his position reasonably well – a notable feat, given the difficulty of many of the ideas discussed.

The Secret’s method of devoting multiple pages of commentary to each Sutra allows Tigunait to dig deeper into the substratum of beliefs that support his interpretation of text. For example, Sutra 1:26, which is translated as “He is the one who has been the preceptor of all previous teachers for He is not limited by time,” is followed by four pages of commentary (which represents about the average length for each verse). Here, he explains many points that seemingly go far beyond the statement at hand. These include:

  • the human tendency to put spiritual authorities on pedestals rather than “to turn to the One who is eternal and immortal – Ishvara”;
  • what happens after death (“buried in the deep tomb of non-being, we are virtually non-existent”); and
  • the process through which we are “born again” (“The light of the Omniscient Being guides us to the right place and the right time to begin our life”).

And this is only a highly simplified snippet of the full discussion, which also includes explanations of the interplay of Prakriti and Purusha, the multiple dimensions of Ishvara, and the nature of the gradual process of becoming “free from our karmic bonds and the ignorance that sustains them” (128-132).

The deeper I got into the Secret, the more it struck me as an essentially (if non-traditionally) religious work. It should be noted, however, that this interpretation in no way comports with Tigunait’s intent. On the contrary, he emphasizes that “God and liberation as described by Patanjali are quite different from God and liberation as described by most institutional religions”:

Patanjali’s God takes away all our fears, for it is an exalted state of consciousness – pure, pristine, all-pervading, and eternal. God is our inner guide, the source of inspiration. Even the prospect of experiencing this divine presence fills our mind with indescribable peace. The God of religion, on the other hand, evokes fear, and the religious concept of heaven kindles greed. Fear and greed fuel inner unrest; they agitate the mind and can never be the ground for peace . . . The purpose of Yoga sadhana is to cultivate this inwardly flowing, peaceful mind (67).

Uncharitably, one might say that such statements amount to the same “my religion is true and yours isn’t” perspective that anyone who’s been exposed to any sort of exclusivist religious tradition will be familiar with. More generously, one could say that it invokes the difference between spiritual experience that’s rooted in a yogic process of progressively quieting the mind and deepening awareness, as opposed to internalizing slews of pre-determined religious doctrine. However, the Secret itself is brimming with detailed answers to key questions that religions traditionally address: the nature of God, what happens after we die, etc. As such, it is difficult to read it as anything other than an essentially religious work.

While this may (ironically) sound blasphemous to some, I personally don’t have a problem with it. I believe in respecting different religious traditions, provided they are being interpreted and practiced in ways that generate more positivity than negativity in the world. Given that many of the most dedicated, skilled, and service-oriented yoga teachers I know have some affiliation with the Himalayan Institute, it seems that to the extent that the faith that informs the Secret has impacted their practice, it’s been in exceptionally positive ways. Consequently, although characterizing the interpretation of the YS provided by the Secret as “religious” rejects its own self-understanding, it doesn’t carry the same negative connotations that Tigunait’s own use of the term would imply.



Ostensibly, White’s Biography aims to debunk precisely the sort of “timeless” interpretation of the YS that Tigunait’s Secret claims to offer. On closer reading, however, it actually provides evidence that to the extent that there has been a tradition of YS interpretation, it has been one of reading the text through whatever mix of philosophical, religious, and cultural influences conjoin to form a compelling narrative at the time. Of course, to a cultural historian, this isn’t the least surprising: one wouldn’t expect the popular understanding of any such iconic text to stand without change across time and space.

By the same token, however, the Biography illustrates how seemingly arbitrary and erratic this ongoing process of reinterpretation can be. It shows both how much such “timeless” meanings are changed, and how closely these changes track with the dominant patterns of power, culture, and belief of their time. If unsurprising from an historical perspective, having so much such evidence of this collected in one work offers an important corrective to contemporary yoga practitioners accustomed to taking authoritative pronouncements on the “timeless” meaning of the YS at face value.

Ideally, knowing more about the constellation of meanings that has historically surrounded the YS can enable us to see more clearly how our own cultural biases may be informing how we read and interpret it today. For practitioners, having such heightened cultural self-awareness may be helpful in the process of cultural deconditioning that is part of the historic yoga tradition. More immediately, it may also enable us to orient ourselves better in the often confused and confusing context of contemporary yoga culture.

Conversely, yoga scholarship would benefit from taking the experiences of practitioners more seriously. Whether investigated using the framework of neuroscience, mind-body integration, or comparative mysticism, it’s evident that Patanjali’s exploration of yoga as “the stilling of the changing states of the mind” is profoundly important. It’s possible to recognize both that the Yoga Sutra has been interpreted in radically different ways in different times and places, and that it’s an exceptionally compelling and important work. Although the core of what makes it so can’t be definitively answered by scholarship (or, for that matter, by anything else), investigating the question nonetheless remains a powerful means of deepening human knowledge.



  1. [I’m writing this reply in “devil’s advocate” mode]. I think one might be compelled to ask the “Does the fruit fall far from the tree?” question in relation to Tigunait and the Himalayan Institute.

    As you point out “Given that many of the most dedicated, skilled, and service-oriented yoga teachers I know have some affiliation with the Himalayan Institute, it seems that to the extent that the faith that informs the Secret has impacted their practice, it’s been in exceptionally positive ways”. I would add to that the Himalayan Institute is the publisher of David Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga”, a most excellent reference book.

    And at the same time, I would point out that the Himalayan Institute’s original founder Swami Rama was embroiled in (sit down and act surprised)…sex scandals in the 1990s.

    So the “does the fruit fall far from the tree?” question in this case is “did the Himalayan Institute make a clean break from its sordid past, institutionally reform itself and now is running in the right itself in the right direction under the leadership of Tigunait? I’m sure I don’t know the answer to this question – I’m just the guy with horns asking the question.

    Swami Rama was certainly one of many pioneers in popularizing yoga in the west in the 1970s. He hooked up with Elmer and Alyce Green of the Menninger Institute in Topeka Kansas and subjected himself to all sorts of scientific testing and biofeedback research which were published back then.

    The San Francisco Zen Center seemed to have survived the scandals of David Baker pretty well.

    The Kripalu Yoga Center seems similarly to have survived Amrit Desai.

    Anusara and John Friend didn’t do too well, however.

    Vajradhatu/Shambhala (Chogyam Trungpa’s lineage) underwent an uncertain and controversial transition after Trungpa’s death with the Osel Tzendin (Thomas Rich) situation in the early ’90s. Though Shambhala seems to be thriving under Triungpa’s son (Sakyong Mipham), though his rightful succession is called into question by some.

    Anyway, my 3 cents.

    Also, what is your opinion of how the YS is taught in many of the 200-hour teacher training courses? Did you undergo a YS section in your teacher training?

  2. chorton

    I trained with Ana Forrest. She is not the least bit devoted to the “yoga tradition” per se. So, we had a copy of the Yoga Sutra in our teacher manual, but spent literally no time discussing it. Everything I know about it comes from reading books on my own, as well as extensive online discussions and debates on the subject, which I’ve followed with interest for years now.

    I don’t think that anyone can say with certainty precisely how the YS is generally taught in YTTs as they are so variable. My sense, however, is that either the Yamas and Niyamas are emphasized in isolation from the rest of the text, or the whole thing is treated as a sort of quasi-Biblical sacred text by one again focusing more on the ethics, while ignoring the parts that doesn’t resonate well with our culture (e.g., extraordinary powers, intimations of rebirth).

    I am aware of the Swami Rama history you reference but since I decided not to dig into the whole lineage question more deeply, didn’t think it was relevant here. It does trouble me the the Himalayan Institute has never confronted the issue in the way that Kripalu did. But, it is well in the past now. And currently, I really like “Yoga International” and know a lot of incredible teachers who study with Rod Stryker in particular. While I also found his teaching to be very religious (based on, I admit, only attending one class), it seems to work very well for a lot of people I respect. So, in terms of what I see happening in the here and now, the immediate results appear to be quite good.

    • I’ve read some of his work in YI as well, which is informative but can steer toward the religious, as you mention above—which personally turns me off. One of my biggest challenges in general in yoga has been rectifying the split between the bhakti and jnana lineages. While I appreciate kirtan (don’t do it often or really seek it out, but have partaken) and the community it inspires, I often find the philosophies put forward at such events and by these participants without any foundation. I personally do not take that as a badge of honor, as some seem to do: ‘you can never explain it, that’s why it’s a mystery!’ In the search for knowledge, this answer would never suffice, even if it happens to be true in certain regards. I would chalk this up to asking the wrong questions, not taking pride in asking questions that are not that important to begin with.

      To continue the TT conversation, I teach yoga philosophy at three studios now, and offer workshops of the same at others. And I do take the perspective that you express, Carol: I isolate the yamas and niyamas from the rest of the text, which was the focus of my last book. It’s not that I don’t see value in parts of it, but really, being that they are more experiential, I don’t see the need to go too deeply into them as the ethics, and especially their correlation in neuroscience and developmental psychology, is so much more pertinent to our society. I find it completely useless to focus on the so-called higher states of consciousness, and any of the perceived ‘transcendent’ states, if you can’t be a good human being. As a species we are very good at fooling ourselves; it’s a feature and not an aberration of our brains to do so, which is essentially a function of maya in the first place. Aligning what we believe with how we act is going to be more effective in a yoga practice than spouting off parables about god(s) and then being wasteful, hurtful and ignorant in society. I’m not accusing everyone or even any yogi in particular with this statement, but the rift between belief and action is often great, and the yamas and niyamas are great tools for understanding this.

      Thanks for the writing, as always. I’ve wanted to check out White’s version, and will still probably do so. I was on the fence about the Secret and remain so, though it may pop up at some point in the future.

      • chorton

        Hey Derek, thanks for commenting. I used to find it really annoying that there was so much exclusive focus on the Yamas and Niyamas, as I found the package deal so much more fascinating, and wanted to dive straight into it. But, the more time goes on, the more I agree with that approach for exactly the same reasons you state. Plus, there is such a dearth of ethical touchstones in the larger culture: unless you are part of some particular religious subculture, they just don’t really exist as such anymore. And human beings really do need ethics!

        I do hope, however, that the Yamas and Niyamas are increasingly taught in ways that emphasize the connections among individuals, communities, societies, the environment, etc. From my ethical perspective, ethics that are too hyper-individual can’t really be that ethical at all, particularly in the real world context that most yoga teachers and students live in today – i.e., not renuciates, but people with relationships, marriages, jobs, kids, etc. and who are also, at least in some dwindling sense, still citizens in a democratic (if fadingly so) society.

        • Just to provide another perspective, I think the predominance of the Yamas and Niyamas is mostly a powerful religious cultural bias, simply because they are the the closest thing in the Sutras to what most of us learned as kids and similar in kind and scope to the Ten Commandments.

          I think they are great principles, but I don’t personally find them that interesting because I learned all the ethics I need directly from my parents, and, even though I left it decisively when I was 15, from my strict Roman Catholic parochial school upbringing.

          That said, I understand why and how the Yamas and Niyamas have a much greater and wholly legitimate significance for a great many people. And I certainly don’t have any problem with people using them as a basis for social action.

          I also believe that to portray the Yamas and the Niyamas, a tiny portion of the text, as the core teachings of the Yoga Sutra is highly misleading, or at best, seriously incomplete.

          Just my personal point of view, nothing more.


      • Hi Derek. I can relate. The Indian approach is henotheism, as its been called, and the concept of ‘Ishta Devata’ (chosen deity, guru, text) is key. Abhinavagupta writes about both the non-dual and dualistic approaches, as both are part of experience (the former is rare, though). So, he suggests the following approach to a dualistic stance… You/ who appear in the forms given to your worshippers’ imagination/ lead us on the path of awareness/ …/ so that we gain contentment of both kinds/ enjoyment and final realization.

        Because henotheism is not exclusivist like monotheism, I can live with the approach. But it is a stance, an orientation, and does not hold finality, as non-dualism is also there in the Dharmic corpus. In India, its given us lots of different festivals and parties, where all are welcome, because of not being exclusivist. So, henotheism does not impact others negatively, but nor is it the final word.

        In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, there is lots of talk of ‘immanence’, where ‘That’ is considered a cosmic principle, which is also immanent in/as us.

        These differences from monotheism are quite important, so I join the party!!!

  3. As an Indian, I grew up knowing that there are many texts, the YS being one of them, so never gravitated towards making it a singular focus. It seems to be a singular focus, right now in the Western yoga world, and I think that this is temporary as people come to realize that the YS exists within a literary ecosystem, the engagement with which I would recommend.

    But currently, yoga teachers that I have come across do not have enough information to contextualize its place and importance. One thing that bugs me is that the YS taken on its own is all about moksha, so that people tend to think that the entire Indian civilization seeks moksha, rather than understanding that of the 4 aims of life, moksha is only one.

    People might find that texts such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata are better places to begin Yoga study than the YS… because they give a proper and full context about the entire Dharmic system.

    I recommend to people that they watch, over the long Canadian winter where I live, the 78 parts Ramayana and the 100 parts Mahabharata aired on Indian TV. These are available on Youtube… and my prediction is that they will become cult classics for many reasons, not the least of which is that the writing in them is actually quite good, great monologues, dialogues… they are available with english subtitles… they are so good for an overall approach, and then the YS and books like that are more accessible.

    BTW, of the Ramayana series aired on Indian TV, the first one made by Ramanand Sagar is the one to watch. And of the Mahabharata, the one made by the Bollywood direction B. R. Chopra… all on youtube, and with english subtitles… though there are copies there w/o subtitles too, so one should keep that in mind.

    • chorton

      Thanks for the suggestion. I will try to check that out in the reasonably near future.

      • That’s great to hear. I really, really like the Mahabharata, but I LOVE the Ramayana. Here is the first episode…

      • BTW, I love the Ramayana because it begins with an appeal from the Earth, that arrogance of humans has taken over and she is suffering, to which the cosmos as a whole responds. This text is known as a ‘niti shastra’, which is about focusing on ethics. The epic really does sharpen one’s focus on ethics, and it could become useful towards ethical concerns which cover human power relations and ecological destruction. So, that’s my 2 cents on that. 🙂

  4. Thanks very much Carol for this thoughtful and detailed review; it’s a great service to all of us.

    It seems to me that the disconnect you talk about between scholarly and practice-oriented perspectives has everything to do with the way that the leading lights of the Hindu Renaissance and their peers in modern postural yoga put forth the Gita and Yoga Sutras as “the” canonical texts of Hinduism, the yoga tradition and India altogether, when they’re nothing of the sort.

    What does a “practitioner’s” perspective on the Yoga Sutras mean? Pretty obviously it means someone devoted to the practice of sitting meditation, with thousands of hours dedicated to its pursuit and a renunciate lifestyle embracing the yamas and niyamas fully. It has nothing to do with – and nothing to offer in support of – sweating through a nice flowing workout to groovy music in a hot room for an hour. The Bhagavad Gita is even more useless in that regard, but its stories and abundant moral contradictions at least make for fascinating fodder for discussion of off-the-mat/cushion engaged practice, as Matthew Remski has demonstrated so beautifully.

    My experience with the use of these texts in YTT’s is that they’re used to provide a veneer of spiritual authenticity and linkage to that mythical thousands-of-years-old practice that Mark Singleton and David Gordon White have done us the great service of revealing as pure fiction. In the case of the Yoga Sutras, the aphorisms are so terse that they lend themselves to almost any interpretation while providing less useful instruction in the actual practice of meditation (or “yoga” as it used to be known) than a couple of paragraphs of the Sattipatthana Sutra. Perhaps we’ll have made real progress in modern postural yoga when these texts are replaced with “Netter’s Anatomy “and perhaps a copy of Gunaratana’s “Mindfulness in Plain English” for those few asana practitioners interested in meditation. I realize this sounds cynical but I mean it to be realistic.

    • chorton

      Kevin, I think you are way too dismissive of contemporary asana practice. There is an arrogance to assuming that one can write off the experiences of so many people who have found it to be much more than “a nice flowing workout to groovy music in a hot room for an hour.” Of course, it can be that, and just that. But in my mind, that’s part of the beauty of it in the context of today’s society and culture.

      Contemporary asana practice offers an incredible spectrum of experience, including not only workouts, but also healing trauma, processing difficult emotions, developing intuitive awareness, and exploring meditative consciousness. Do you really think that everyone who claims to have gotten something important out of it is just a deluded idiot? Or that if you’re not sitting in a cave living a renunciate life nothing meaningful could possibly happen in terms of yoga?

      I think that the mind has certain capacities that can be tapped into via the repeated process of linking attention, movement, and breath. Contemporary asana is just one way in – humans have devised many other sorts of ritualized embodied practices that also shift consciousness. Rather than being dismissive of the fact that we’ve come up with something that can be accessed by so many people today, I think that we should celebrate and make the most of that. But then I hold to (small “d”) democratic values very strongly and see yoga today in that context.

      I also think that the YS is a fascinating document and that it’s thrilling to realize that such obviously deep and systematic explorations of human consciousness (and attempts to interpret those experiences and given them meaning) can be traced back to 400 CE. I also think that you are wrong to characterize Mark’s views as that it’s “pure fiction” that there’s any sort of meaningful linkage between premodern and modern yoga. I can say with certainty that that is not in fact his view. In fact, here’s a quote from an interview that I did with him and Jim Mallinson back in 2012:

      Carol: How will Roots of Yoga build on Yoga Body?

      Mark: While it’s sometimes misinterpreted, the thesis of Yoga Body is not that yoga as we know it is only 100 years old. Rather, it’s a cultural history of the modern period. But there’s always a history prior to the one in question.

      I don’t think that we should make a hard distinction between traditional and modern yoga. While it’s true that enormous new influences came in during the modern age – the Theosophical Society, yoga being exported from India, and so on – those boundaries are not hard and fast.

      As soon as I finished Yoga Body, I wanted to extend my research back to the immediate pre-colonial period. This project will allow me to do that and more besides. I think it will complement Yoga Body well.

      • Hi Carol. Do you think that any activity, if given the name ‘yoga’ could do as much as the form in popularity today? Is it the case that the association of therapeutic benefit etc. that comes with the word ‘yoga’ in culture gives the activity this bonus? Or is there something specific about the form itself, so that if it was done in a high school gym, without all the airs of profundity about Yoga brought in… would that be just as effective in the ways you mention? is is the attitude or the activity/asana? Maybe its not that binary, I realize, but still, I wonder what you or anyone else thinks about this.

        • An interesting question Pankaj. My sense from my own experience is that it’s a mix – as much about how as what or why.

          In Hermann Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, the former tells his friend, whose faith has lapsed:

          “You must say your Paternoster and your Hail Mary and concentrate on their words, become suffused with them, just as you do when you are singing or playing the lute, for instance, you do not chase after some clever notions or speculations but perform one sound or one fingering after another as purely and perfectly as possible. While one is singing one does not think about whether or not the singing is useful. One simply sings. You must pray like that too.”

          What happened?

          “It worked. Again his wrought-up and insatiable ego was blotted out in the overarching order; again the venerable words passed over and through him like stars.”

          David White makes scathing comments about YS chanting in the Desikachar tradition (basically saying this was an invention turned into a pseudo-timeless route to deep connection), but if one chants in the way Hesse describes…

          I guess we each have to figure out what works for us, which kind of does away with canonical texts by definition. But is that still Yoga (as in the darśana)? It seems to me yoga is bigger than Yoga, and sometimes at odds with it, especially redefined in C21st Western situations.

          • chorton

            Now we’re getting somewhere. Thanks for these excellent questions and comments.

            I would answer Panjak’s question from several angles:

            1. There’s nothing inherent about putting one’s body into certain poses that will do anything automatically, that’s the same for everyone, on its own. This would be true even on the gross physical level – e.g., the Triangle pose that’s really healthy for one body might injure someone else.

            2. Culturally, the term “yoga” does continue to carry with it at least some sort of diffuse expectation that this practice will not be the same as what we think of as simple “exercise.” For sure, some people approach it that way deliberately nonetheless. But for the average American, at least, there’s some sense that “yoga” is different from aerobics, Pilates, etc. Precisely why and how they won’t know until they get into it (and even then, as we know, there can be a lot of wildly different opinions). But there is an open space of knowing that this may be different that is important.

            3. However, it is not the cultural expectation that generates the experiences that people identify as “yoga.” That just helps to open the door.

            That said, if you go through it, your cultural matrix will play a huge role in interpreting what is experienced as a result. This is true for everyone, in all times and places, I believe.

            4. What makes “yoga” as we think of it today different in practice is that it includes time for conscious relaxation (savasana) at a minimum. Better classes will also include a lot of instruction in focusing attention, setting intention, conscious breathing, and syncing mind, movement, and breath.

            I think that it’s simply true that given the human mind and physiology, if you spend 90 minutes (or whatever) practicing asana while also paying attention to where your mind is, directing it away from random thinking over and over again, and back to a specific mode of focused attention (on how your being is feeling in the moment, on your dristi, on your breath exclusively), while doing Ujjayi breathing and perhaps additional pranayama, it WILL have an effect. And often a very profound one.

            5. So, to Daniel’s point, is this “Yoga” is the classical sense? If “Yoga” requires understanding a complex spiritual philosophy and experiencing your own experience within that framework of meaning, then no, definitely not.

            If “Yoga” means practicing to burn off Karma in order to attain liberation from rebirth, then no, in the vast majority of cases, definitely not.

            6. But is there a meaningful relationship between “yoga” and “Yoga”? (however the latter may be more precisely defined)? That is the question I was getting at in this article. I would say, yes. And that, for me, is the valuable ground to explore.

            • Carol, I am going to tag you in a comment, where I have advanced the idea of debate to inquire into and hopefully settle issues that lie at the root of what we otherwise seem to skirt around… namely, testing the veracity of three positions… monotheism, reductive materialism and the primacy of the subject as enunciated in the Dharmic corpus. I have suggested that we limit ourselves to evidence as found in the scientific literature, and which is generally thought to be close to consensus.

              I basically agree with your comment above.

              • chorton

                Hi Pankaj – Well, if we agree on that much, we may not have so much to debate . . . I frankly get bored with too much high level philosophical abstraction pretty quickly. Not to say that I don’t respect and value it, but basically, as an ex-academic, one thing I like about yoga is that it offers an alternative to my naturally hyper-intellectualizing nature.

                At any rate, having read much of that particular FB thread, that is not the crowd that I’m interested in engaging with – too much vitriol for my tastes. I’ll be happy to read what ya’ll come up with as a lurker, however 🙂

                • Ok, I am all for diverse roles and views, but I do feel the issue is the worldview which is carried implicitly and explicitly. My point is that the Dharmas only make sense if materialism is false. And seen through the lens of reductive materialism, they seen almost crazy. So, that is why I think the debate is a bullseye.

          • Thank you for that, Daniel. I LOVE Narcissus and Goldmund!!!

          • Thanks for reminding me of Hesse, Daniel. I used to think I came to yoga philosophy late in life, about ten years ago at the age of 55. But then I remembered that Hesse was my favorite author when I studied literature in college, and realized that my interest in yoga or yoga related philosophy goes back to very early in my life. As for Carol, it’s a way for me to expand beyond my sometimes overly intellectual orientation.

      • Thanks Carol and sorry that in an effort to be concise I wasn’t clearer in my comments. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the benefits of asana practice when done in the way you describe, and of course see that approach as a newly-minted relation to Qi Gong, Tai Chi, Tibetan Tsa Lung practices and other old forms of meditative movement. Those things are great – but they’re a relatively small slice of the modern yoga pie, which is dominated by the kind of workout yoga I described so dismissively.

        What I did a really poor job of saying about Whyte and Singleton’s work – and I appreciate you calling me on it – was that they thoroughly torpedo the idea that popular asana forms of MPY such as Iyengar and Astanga, represent pratices that are thousands of years old – something that is still said routinely in many TT’s and books. Actually, what I was trying to say you already said more eloquently in an earlier blog post:

        I apologize for not honoring your wonderful writing with more precision and care in my own comments. Thanks again for your brilliance and wise perspectives.

        • chorton

          Hi Kevin – Thanks much. Just to quibble further, I think that Iyengar was pretty upfront about the fact that he made up his own system. Ashtanga is a different story, of course. But the question of whether there was some sort of continuity in the Krishnamacharya school with earlier forms of yoga is I think much more complex than “did people practice precisely this same asana series?” My reading of that period is that there was a deliberate move to change yoga to make it relevant to the modern world (which, of course, proved very – perhaps too? – successful), but that there was also some real grounding in a deeper tradition that seeped into the practice and the culture that was built around it in various ways. So, that is to say that I do see some continuity, but not a very obvious one.

          In terms of how small a slice of the contemporary yoga pie the sort of classes I’m thinking of are versus pure and simple “workout yoga” – it’s hard to say. Certainly the sort of class that I went to this morning – a 2 hour Iyengar class with Gabriel Halpern, who’s been teaching 40 years – are pretty rare. But, in Chicago, I would say that most of the scene is rooted in teachers who, while nowhere near that accomplished, are sincere about practicing in a way that’s much more than exercise, and in transmitting that to their students.

          And, while Core Power Yoga is mushrooming, I’ve actually met some great people who trained there and then went on to other things – it is a doorway in for at least some. And many others get forced to other studios anyway due to injuries – a friend of mine who’s a local studio owner says they have a steady stream coming in that way.

  5. Hi, Carol. I love this brilliant and cogent essay of yours. As you know, I’m on sabbatical from the yoga world, but there are few writers, you among them, whose work I would never miss no matter where I am. And it’s good to see you writing about pure yoga philosophy again, just because its my personal passion, even though I also appreciate your other more social action oriented writing, too.

    My own personal approach to all the issues you raise in this essay is to read widely and take a genuine interest in all approaches to the ancient texts, and embrace the variety itself.

    But then I also decide if and how a text can be helpful in my own personal life, and go with whatever I find most compelling and useful.

    My intellectual interest in everything leads to great unresolved complexity and nuance of thought, and I enjoy this.

    But my personal use of a text is always a cohesive powerful synthesis of what I consider to be the compelling ideas to help me live my life with more joy and depth.

    This way I can have my cake and eat it, too–intellectual fascination and challenge combined with the “words to live by” simplicity of the most useful philosophical and spiritual advice.

    I would love to hear your comments, here or in another essay, on a third major strain of Yoga Sutra analysis–the one that pays homage to neither White’s academic approach nor Tigunait’s religious approach, but rather explicitly radically reinterprets the Yoga Sutra for modern times, the most striking example of which, of course, is Matthew Remski’s provocative “Threads of Yoga”

    Thanks for writing this essay. I enjoyed it immensely.


    • chorton

      Thanks, Bob. Always great to reconnect with you. As you know, I’m a big fan of Matthew’s writing. I’d like to see the sort of engagement with the YS that he pursues in “Threads” replicated widely.

  6. Thanks Carol – I enjoyed that. Particularly liked your social scientist’s perspective on non-academic debunking. By way of random musings in response, it was put to me this week that the YS has no significant relevance to ascetic lineages in India today – sadhus might quote the odd sutra, but (in this academic’s view) the YS was a text that pandits got excited by, since they could riff on its terse abstractions ad nauseam… The yogis just got on with sitting / smoking / coming / going / seeing etc.

    On studying academically from a practitioner perspective (especially in the modern postural terms of bending and breathing in a room), it’s hard to see how to evaluate experience – other than subjectively, or by the various measuring means you allude to, which don’t really get to the core of the experience, except in terms of mind-body functions and their observable effects. I made a half-baked attempt to make sense of this in an essay and got quite confused – it’s hard to see through both sets of lenses at the same time.

    Whether the YS really codifies practice as anyone pursued it remains unclear to me – I don’t even know if there’s any way of knowing, across such gulfs in time and space. The context in which it got written / compiled / redacted / whatever is also hard to factor in – how much of it was the same old story of repackaging bits of other stuff that once seemed at odds with Brahminical tradition? I’m not really competent to say.

    I thought White did a reasonable job of summing up the confusion in his conclusion – everything we might think we know can be spun another way. Does kaivalya mean death to the world or re-embracing it? And how far does a meaningful answer to that depend on what might have been meant by the ancient seers / scribes / copy-paste artists? And in any case who’s seeking kaivalya (and what might that mean)? Any of us been there already? If so, seems a far smaller deal than the YS implies – and less terminal. If not, well then what? And why?

    In other words, how relevant is the YS to a modern practitioner’s perspective (apart from the YTT reading lists, quotes on websites and in classes and the like)? More questions than answers from me I’m afraid. Thanks for the lucid and thought-provoking read!

    • chorton

      Hi Daniel – I love having the benefit of your SOAS studies from afar. Can you explain precisely how scholars are able to make a determination regarding to what extent the YS ever had any connection to ascetic practices? This seems like it would be very tricky, as there would most likely be no direct textual references (that is, writings by said ascetics describing how they used it, etc.) And, there was a long tradition of commentary by a certain priestly/scholarly class, yes? And, there is the whole question of cultural patterning and diffusion – to have the YS be relevant to practice, what is the bar required? Does it mean that people had to be using it like a textbook? Or could it simply be that many or most of the aphorisms are in fact reasonably exact encapsulations of a true practice tradition?

      In terms of evaluating experience, I agree that it’s challenging ground. My personal preference (since I’m not a hard scientist) is the tradition of pragmatism, which does take reports of experience as real data – not necessarily to be taken at face value, but certainly worth thinking into seriously and trying to interpret and theorize. Wiliam James’s “The Varieties of Religious Experience” is the seminal text in this vein.

      Gotta run (off to my Iyengar yoga class!) – more later! Thanks again. C.

      • Thanks again to you too!

        I’ll be brief as I also have to dash, but this is an interesting read on William James (specifically focused on Eastern thought):

        I’ll email you the essay I referred to – the assignment was framed in response to this (which is basically a diatribe against academic use of experiential evidence – and gets into the difficult question of whether texts are descriptive or prescriptive – i.e. whether they tell us what people experienced, or define what people “copy” for themselves):,%20Buddhist%20Modernism.pdf

        Regarding the YS and ascetics, the lecturer was referring to contemporaries – i.e. the sadhus he’d spent time with didn’t reference the YS, or take much interest in texts whatsoever, for the most part. Of course this is anecdotal evidence (and Bob will recall a discussion with an American who’s spent lots of time with the Juna Akhara, which turned in part on the latter’s insistence that Patanjali was part of the ever-unfolding oral tradition –

        You’re right though that it’s tricky to say much about the past. We don’t have a lot to go on but texts until relatively recently. That said, the lecturer made his point with reference to a Mughal miniature depicting a teacher holding a book alongside some ascetics – he said this was unique in the thousands of paintings he’d looked at… i.e. texts and practice weren’t so connected in his view (though of course there were teachings being shared, primarily orally) – at least not until the medieval boom that yielded lots of hatha yoga texts, presumably because these traditions were being opened up to householders… But how one would prove even that, I’m still unsure.

        Given the scarcity of historical evidence, I don’t really know how we’d assess the relevance of Patanjali’s sutras to specific practices, except in terms of how relevant they seem to our own tastes of various states… which can vary enormously. Iyengar once said there was no such thing as Iyengar yoga – he was just channeling Patanjali, which seemed like a mixture of heartfelt belief, covert rebranding and a form of humblebrag.

        Suffice to say I’m baffled! But happily so… 🙂

        • chorton

          Wow, thanks for the wealth of info! All that will take some time to go through. But I look forward to it, as well as more conversation. Really appreciate your generosity in sharing your studies! Makes me want to go back to grad school again 🙂

        • Hi, Daniel. Thanks for reminding me of very interesting and unusual encounter with Baba Rampuri and how relevant it is to this discussion.

          I actually republished this whole discussion with a personal introduction on elephant journal in early 2012:

          “Bob Meets Baba: Entrepreneur Meets Sadhu”

          The introduction read, in part

          “In one of those strange juxtapositions that sometimes happens in the Yoga blogging world, I found myself in a passionate debate with Baba Rampuri, who moved to India in his teens and is one of the few Westerners to become a full-fledged Indian Sadhu, or Holy Man. He wrote a book about his experience called Autobiography of a Sadhu: a Journey into Mystic India .

          So now we have a thirty-year veteran software entrepreneur turned Yoga writer debating weighty matters of Yoga history and Western historical methodology with an American who has spent those same thirty years living in India immersed in the most profound and authentic Yoga spirituality. Does that sound like fun to you?”


          • Thanks Bob – that brings back memories! I remember Rampuri was planning a big event in NYC, but it didn’t come off. Hope it gets revived some day. Would be fun to see sadhu encampments in Central Park!

  7. Carol,

    By definition the YS is a religious text because by definition yoga is a religion. How or who interprets that in which way is somewhat arbitrary beyond the context of its broader history in my opinion as it’s more the pursuit of a scholar’s pastime than one particular to a historian’s. However the history is significant as it is an element of the text itself and if we are to refer to it at all, we need that context primarily for relevance and to a lesser note, authenticity: When was it written,what might it refer to, why was it written, how does that make sense in relation to what we know now? I declare authenticity a lesser note as no one knows who wrote the thing anyway. In that case it makes the uncovering of the text a tempting mystery to chase.

    Whoever is undaunted to piece together history in the quest for enlightenment does a great service and I’ve reaped the benefits so I am not ungrateful. But as a reader, I am aware that analysis is skewed by perspective. Even the choice of research material is a result of perspective.And when it comes to a book as unclear as the YS, it’s less of a definitive thing than a koan.

    I have my own perspective when it comes to yoga teachings and I can liken it to water. I drink the water and it has a certain quality for me. It flows from a rock wall. The rock wall imparted some quality to the water. It came from the earth. The earth imparted some quality to the water. It came from the ocean.The ocean imparted some quality to the water. It came from a cloud. The cloud imparted some quality to the water.

    I have to know what it is I am drinking to know it is drinkable. I want to know where it comes from. But by the time it has been changed on its journey, my experience is ultimately subjective. I can compare it to other drinks. I can determine if it makes me feel good or sick. I will know if it is useful.

    So again, I’m grateful for all analysis of man’s spiritual quests. I have read Tigunait’s interpretations in Yoga International over the years. I have not read White’s book and I can understand your frustration with a book of this nature that does not deliver as logically and neatly as one would hope for.

    I also appreciate your academic view on these significant works as it adds value to the wisdom. I am someone who spends her days trying to make sense of what is, based more on impressions and memory but I would have little motivation regarding yoga if not for the impressions, memories, and pursuits of those that inspire me.

    • chorton

      I love your imagery of the journey of the water and the experience of drinking it. Ultimately I think I’m right there with you.

  8. Carol,

    Sorry for the hasty response as I just realized I hadn’t addressed Isvara and yoga as religion. I say that yoga is a religion using the dictionary definition of religion as you know I’ve done before to make a point. I don’t much care what it’s called as I have an experience of it that makes my life better, takes nothing from anyone else, and makes me a better citizen of the world in my opinion. 🙂

    In any case, what I had meant to say is that I don’t know that it matters how Isvara is interpreted, whether Indians were devoted to God as a separate entity or believed that they were one with a maker or if they were agnostics or anything else.

    It seems to me that laid out was a moral compass based on some now outdated values and concepts and also some timeless wisdom. There is also confusion about what was really being said. This is the relevance for modern yogis. I don’t know anyone who accepts the Sutras with fundamentalist fervor though I’m sure they exist. I think the confusion keeps the teachings alive in a healthy way.

    What I see is that people believe in something that makes sense to them, period. And if yogis are not fundamentalists (and I see that as a contradiction if they are as yoga is currently an open minded pursuit) then it doesn’t really matter how one interprets the concept of a universal being and Tigunait’s opinion is simply his take based on his heart. Hopefully readers are astute.

    • chorton

      Well, I didn’t get into it in this article, but the deeper issue with Tignuit’s approach is that it makes a Truth claim based on lineage, and we know where that’s gotten us in the yoga world (and many other similar spheres).

      I don’t agree that yoga is a religion, though. I also don’t think that’s how the tradition has traditionally understood itself, whether in modern or premodern times. Just in my class today, Gabriel Halpern was talking about how “yoga is about being, not meaning.” Yoga is a technique (or really, diverse set of techniques) for changing consciousness. At the baby stages, we call it “stress relief.” But I think that in practice, it’s pretty easy to guide people toward a taste of what it feels like to “stop the turnings of the mind” and even if it just happens for a second, there’s a sense that something significant happened.

      Then, the idea that it’s possible to train your mind as well as your body, and that important experiences can and do come out of that, is a revelation to most people.

      But it’s not a religion. The religion comes in when you explain what that experience means, why it happens, what the deeper stages are, etc. etc., in terms that include answers to questions like the nature of God.

      It gets tricky, I know, but that’s how I was thinking about it, and I believe that this is in line with the fact that historically, it’s been possible to have Buddhist Yoga, various sorts of Hindu Yoga, etc. – the frame of meaning shifted but the commitment to technique and practice remained constant.

  9. Rather than religion, I see it this way…

    The word ‘science’ has been hijacked by a very limited approach to knowledge. If we take ‘science’ to mean ‘knowledge’, then in the Indian approach there are seen to be two kinds of knowledge called gyana and vigyana, which are cognate with gnosis and diagnosis.

    Knowledge via thought, analysis, measurement is called Vigyana. Knowledge of what is beyond measure is called Gyana.

    Three things are beyond measure, say the Upanishads… Self, Awareness and the Totality. These are all beyond measure because they are not external objects. They are all self. One cannot step outside of oneself, nor awareness nor the totality.

    The knowledge of what is beyond measure therefore is found as a self-knowledge called ‘Liberation/Moksha/Vimutti), and is the goal of the Vedas, Upanishads, Buddha, Yoga.

    Liberation itself is one of the four aims of life. There others are Dharma/Virtue, Artha/Prosperity and Kama/Enjoyment.

    • chorton

      Unfortunately, I don’t have the requisite knowledge base to respond properly to this. Perhaps suffice to say that while I’m very interested in learning from Indian spiritual traditions, I’m not interested in trying to adopt any one of them as the basis for my own personal world view at all. So, my knowledge (and commitment) may run a bit shallow from your perspective.

      • I do think that this is becoming a matter of truth claims, rather than Indian vs Western ideology based on preferences or habits. Evan Thompson’s recent book is bringing this forward, as are other books, like Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel.

        Either mind is reducible to neuronal activities or its not. The latter view is what is gaining momentum, so I think it will eventually be unavoidable to take this on, because there are implications which cannot be avoided if mind is not reducible to brain.

        Scientific Materialism is not tenable any more. That is one reason people gravitate to Yoga and the Dharmas in general. I don’t think it need be seen as adopting Indian views, but instead accepting what is being found in research which people respect and accept based upon it being science.

        Here is a book review on Thompson’s book… note his background too…

        And on Nagel’s book…

        • chorton

          Yes good references, thanks! I have been following Thompson’s work a bit and was considering buying his most recent book. I posted something on it on my FB Page and remember that Frank Jude Boccio was very critical of that. Haven’t taken the time to really think into all that fully – it’s complex terrain, for sure.

      • The other issue which could become problematic is that when people move into pranayama and meditation, but even asana is sufficient sometimes, they can have self-experiences which are enigmatic or even confusing and perhaps frightening. If the basis to understand these remain sci/mat then they will be dismissed as psychotic episodes, and the person will be stigmatized.

        Also, when the word ‘Yoga’ is being applied to practises, but the worldview and epistemology in the worlview is not looked at seriously, then it is a case of distorting Yoga. I don’t think applying ‘Indian’ or ‘Western’ as labels to the search for how things are does not bring humanity together, and that is a missed opportunity. That is why I think the umbrella of ‘Science’ is a good one, as it is acceptable to most in the modern world.

        The future promises to be interesting. That’s for sure. 🙂

        Thanks a lot for the work that you do in the Yoga world.

        • chorton

          Thank you. I agree with your point that these practices can be dangerous to some, but that’s where (in my view) better integration with Western psychology is warranted. Again, lots of good work has been done in Buddhist circles on this front, but not so much in yoga.

          I think that the umbrella of “science” is fine enough insofar that it’s understood pretty broadly. But there are still huge holes that science can’t address, i.e., ethics and values. So, we need the Humanities, or something equivalent, as well.

          Also agree that moving past over-generalized categories of “Indian” and “Western” would be great. Particularly in today’s world – no such hard and fast boundaries exist, and to continue to valorize them quickly puts us into politically reactionary territory.

          • Agreed. The Humanities will become freed up if sic/mat is dismantled. Otherwise, every thing gets reduced to ‘hard sciences’. Even ethics is harmed when reality become reduced to meaningless atoms and purposeless mechanical forces. And of course Western psychological methods are a great complement. No doubt about that.

            The mathematician Paul Davies said that while Physicists themselves have let go of sci/mat, other disciplines, biology, psychology, ecology is still enmeshed in that.

      • Lastly (I promise – 🙂 ), to complete the Dharmic epistemic approach here is some important info on what Buddha called the most difficult thing he tried to teach…

        Paticcasamupada… specifically that nama-rupa depends on vijnana, but also that vijnana depends on nama-rupa.

        Nama-rupa: Form, but which depends on a distinction made (naming), and which requires ‘mind’, which makes distinctions.

        Vijnana: vi-jnana, or divided-knowing, or knowing in the subject-object form.

        So, form depends on vijnana. But vijnana depends upon sensory organs, but which themselves are perceived forms… a circle, not a linear causal chain ending up at the big bang or God.

        When neuroscientists and cognitive scientists look into this, and agree (if they do), then we will have a new scientific understanding of ourselves, of what the bodily form is, how it comes into perception… and more, which is what is helped by studying the Buddha, and/or the Veda/Upanishad. This would be an earthquake level of change, which I see coming, and I am interested in doing something to make that a soft landing.

        Its a very exciting time!

  10. If I say its spirituality, then I see it this way…

    What is Spirituality? Historically, spirituality derives from the latin ‘spiritus’ meaning breathing, inspiring air, which is the sign of life. Every living thing breathes, and this breath is the immanent aspect of the transcendent cosmic principle of life.

    Spiritus goes back to the greek ‘pneuma’ (pneumatic, as in air), and which is cognate with the sanskrit prana. Here, things become very practical. The practice of pranayama is the entering of silent spaces within the ebbs and flows in awareness. At some point, the silence entered is so great that there is something like a state change of consciousness. Previously, there had been 3 aspects… perceiver-perception-perceived. This applied to self-awareness as well as to the awareness of the world. In this state change, this triple structure collapses and knower and known are the same. Roughly speaking, If this happens on the object side, this is shamanistic, and if on the subject side, its yogic/buddhistic. And all of this, of course, exists within a worldview where life and mind are seen as irreducible, and are transcendent cosmic principles, which are also immanent in us.

  11. The issue you are dealing with in assessing these two books is the difference between scholarship and theology. The former looks at the evidence at hand (in this case, textual) and formulates a thesis and various remarks based on the evidence. The latter formulates a viewpoint or argument for any number of different reasons, and the uses the textual evidence to support it. Both have their legitimate uses. Problems occur when one is mistaken for the other.

    I don’t think good scholarship is “narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners.” From the perspective of scholarship, the concerns and experiences of practitioners is valuable primary evidence. It’s the main evidence for historians and anthropologists who write about modern yoga, such as Elizabeth de Michelis, Mark Singleton, Sarah Strauss, Joseph Alter, Beatrix Hauer, etc.

    In the context of scholarship on the Yogasūtra, if the issue at hand is trying to assess what Patañjali’s intended meaning of a sūtra was, a practitioner’s insight into that sūtra can be assessed respectfully (according to the available textual evidence) just as any scholar’s interpretation or thesis.

    It becomes difficult to answer the same questions about the two books you have chosen. David White’s book invites the question: ‘Does he assess all of the relevant evidence and does the evidence support his thesis?’ One might ask whether Pandit Rajmani Tigunait answers the concerns of his congregation (i.e., those interested in practising the theology of his lineage) in a clear and consistent way?

    As to the value of scholarship for the wider yoga community, I thought you knocked the nail on the head; “Ideally, knowing more about the constellation of meanings that has historically surrounded the YS can enable us to see more clearly how our own cultural biases may be informing how we read and interpret it today.”

    I enjoyed the article. Thank you.

    • chorton

      Hi Jason – Thanks for reading and commenting. I must apologize for suggesting that all existing yoga scholarship doesn’t take practice seriously. You are right, that is not true. Really, that comment came in part out of my irritation with White’s book, and in part out of trying to simplify issues in a way that would be accessible to a non-scholarly audience. But it is misleading and overstated.

      I don’t think that the only way to approach studying the YS in a way that integrates practitioner experience is to match it up against Patanjali’s intended meaning, though. It seems pretty clear that this would be difficult to discern in any event. But, I think it would be much more interesting to consider the scheme of the YS in terms of questions like, to what extent does this map of human consciousness seem to jive with other attempt to map it, with the experiences of serious practitioners today, with what we are learning about the brain via neuroscience, etc. There is some interesting work going on along those lines in contemporary Buddhist circles. But none that I’m aware of in the yoga world.

      I will see if I can quickly find a citation that exemplifies what I was thinking of and post it below.

      • Yes, I agree that scholarship should not confine itself to comparing practitioner’s insights to Patanjali’s intended meanings. That was a just an example which came to mind. I look forward to the citations.

        • chorton

          I think that what people like Willoughby Britton and Shinzen Young are doing is really intriguing. Here is a link to the Britton Lab “news and events” page:

          While I couldn’t do this sort of research myself, it would be cool if similar studies were happening with yoga.

          I know that Willoughby’s colleague, Cathy Kerr, is working on getting this sort of research going with yoga. She is also really interested in Tai Chi and Qigong:

          On the more social sciences/humanities side of things, I really like the work of Jack Kornfeld very much, particularly “A Path With Heart.” Of course, this is for practitioners, not scholars. But, I think it is a much more sophisticated integration of contemporary experience and Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques than anything that exists in the yoga world. (I’m more than happy to be corrected on this if I’m wrong.)

          I also found Jay Michelson’s “Evolving Dharma” really interesting and well done: Although language like “brainhacking” is a turnoff for me, the book is much smarter than that would imply.

          In general, I have long found the discussion in Buddhist circles to be way ahead of yoga ones.

          • And, of course, there is the well respected recent translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutra that asserts it was really more of a Buddhist text in disguise from the start: Chip Hartranft


          • Shinzen Young has a unique approach to Vipassana meditation – I’ve been to a few of his talks/sits and have listened to him on the radio for a long, long time. Unlike the mindfulness of MBSR and Kabat-Zinn, his focus is not on “stress reduction” or trauma so much, but rather in providing a methodical “toolkit” with which to deconstruct the different aspects of experience that can arise during meditation. The idea is to disentangle the modalities of consciousness (physical sensation, thinking, visual imagery, both inner and outer) instead of centering on breath, as is more typical. He has jokingly referred to his method sometimes as “meditation for nerds”. Anyway that’s my poor man’s explanation – here’s his:

            Also, I second your observation that you found “the discussion in Buddhist circles to be way ahead of the yoga ones”. Possibly because the Buddhists have no tradition to perpetuate in extensive asana practice? And yet the Buddhists are more flexible in their offerings as well – I’ve been to both a local Zen and a Shambhala center here in LA and they both offer a smattering of yoga asana classes, obviously because it’s useful to be comfortable when you sit. But never have I seen a yoga studio that offers regular meditation sits let alone philosophy discussions! At best, meditation workshops are given separate from the regular studio schedule.

            • Hey Matt,

              Not sure if you know about this studio, but it recently opened in LA and only offers meditation. I’m not a big fan of the approach from a marketing perspective—for example, the idea that you’re ‘going to go back into your body’ after a session implies dualism, which I am not a believer of—and the classes are $22 for 30/45 minutes, but I’ll leave my judgments there as I have not yet experienced it and I’m sure there are some wonderful teachers. FYI, there are some studios in NY that offer regular mediation, and I have seen it pop up here and there in LA, though not regularly. I live a few blocks from the most recent Shambhala Center, but unfortunately I’m teaching yoga during the open sits there and have not been able to make it yet…


              • Derek –

                Thanks for the tip!

                My reaction: hmmm…interesting, but after quickly perusing the website, I’m not a big fan of their marketing approach either. I’m just looking for a place to sit in public – these are all “classes” with “teachers” who run guided meditations…and their prices are high, it’s more like the yoga studio model.

                I recently discovered the Shambhala public sittings (I too live nearby) on Sundays and have been to a few of them. If you need meditation instruction, they have instructors available who will spend 10 minutes with you, not in a class setting, but one-on-one. If you don’t need instruction, then you just go in and sit (and walk – the format is 20 minutes sitting followed by 10 minutes walking, lather-rinse-repeat). People come and go all the time during their open hours.

                I have had a few minor “glitches” in my experiences there so far in that on Sunday afternoons, they have a discussion group at 4 p.m and depending on who’s leading it, you might get a bit of a “soft sell” about signing up for Shambhala courses, which do cost money. And at 4:45, they do closing chants, which ain’t my thing. Also on full moon Sundays, they do a full “Sadhana of Mahamudra” 45-minute chanting ceremony at 11:00 a.m. But beyond that, everything is on a voluntary donation basis – instead of $22 for 45 minutes of guided meditation from a semi-name-brand teacher…

  12. Late to the game here but the topic speaks to me so I will chime in all the same.

    Years ago, I happened to end up in a hotel room with a man named UG Krishnamurti. The experience profoundly changed my understanding of yoga and the historical texts. I will never forget at one point when someone asked him a question about a particular sutra, he exclaimed: “Patanjali was just an academic, he never did any of the things he wrote about!” At that time, the statement sounded like blasphemy to me. But it definitely got me thinking. I had several professors in college who lectured eloquently on topics such as mindfulness but when I had dinner with them did not show themselves to be an example of what they taught.

    I am not an academic myself. But I do have six different translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on my bookshelf. And depending on which one I pick up, I will get a completely different idea about yoga. There are many occasions when someone asserts an idea about a sutra that seems like a marker for my experiences. Steady practice without attachment to results, self-study and discernment as a means to reduce suffering, these are concepts that feel true to me in my experience.

    However, I think an overly simplified treatment of yamas and niyamas is problematic. It’s too easy for it to seem that these principles are something that needs to be followed like a ten commandments, rather than the sign posts of practice coming to fruition. Also, as a teacher, I never teach from the sutras. I have found that, given the average student attending my class, citing the texts often takes what I consider to be practical and mundane into a high art that feels beyond grasp.

    What I have observed is that some folks place the value in the actual texts, while some are more interested in what the texts might be saying. And given that the latter is open to translation and interpretation, the impact of the texts is largely determined by the integrity and example of the teacher who presents them.

    • Hi J. Brown. I think U G Krishnamurti had no way of knowing if what he said was correct, so there is no reason to believe what he said. His one statement certainly should not erase what the entire Yoga tradition has kept as its own narrative. While that narrative has room for interpretation, what is never open to interpretation is that Patanjali argued for ‘awareness/subjectivity’ as primary. I have discussed this with Matthew Remski recently, and he too could not say that anyone had ever suggested otherwise, even taking into account all the different interpretations from Shankar to Ramanujan. While some things are open to interpretation, that one point is not, no one has ever said otherwise, never mind trying to back it up, somehow, beyond some off the cuff comment, like UG’s, who was one of the most disagreeable persons I have ever known (from afar only, by watching some videos of him). I wonder how you found him as a person to relate to.

      You wrote: “I am not an academic myself. But I do have six different translations of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras on my bookshelf. And depending on which one I pick up, I will get a completely different idea about yoga.” — I don’t think in what you meant by “completely different idea about Yoga” could extend as far as Patanjali arguing for materialism, or monotheism for example… it always remains as ‘awareness/’subjectivity’ as primary.

      I think brining up the deeper features of the YS is not tenable to do in any casual fashion… its a deep conversation, which most people do not have the ability to judge, never mind people who are just getting into MPY. All the best.

      • Panjek- My apologies. I missed this reply to my comment from weeks ago. I want to add that I did not take UG’s comment to be truth per se, only that it caused me to question a previously held idea about Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras. An idea that was relevant to me about Carol’s inquiry regarding the difference between scholarship of yoga texts and an experiential understanding of their meanings.

        I think it would be very hard to get the value of UG from those youtube videos because the context and subtlety is lost. He was quite radical and abrasive on first impression but their was a nuance that is easily missed, especially on video. What I got from him was am unabashed stance on destroying the edifices that so much suffering and misunderstanding is based on, particularly with what he would call “spiritual gymnastics.”

        It has been my experience that YS is open to interpretation. One starts with: “Here begins a consideration of yoga” and another says “Now, I will reveal to you how we become whole.” There is an inherent dilemma in translating Sanskrit into English, as there is like 20 words you can choose from for any one Sanskrit term. Certainly, the meanings that readers derive are shaped by the viewpoint of the translator. Some people think Patanjai is telling them that they need to stop their mind from thinking. Others think he is saying that we simply need to direct the mind toward and object and sustain it. You are right, he is not arguing for materialism for sure. But within the “awareness/subjectivity” frame there is certainly a lot of variance.

        I agree that the deeper features are untenable in casual fashion. We can only do so much in a comment thread. But I am of the firm opinion that yogic philosophy and concepts can only really be understood through ones own observed experiences. Of course, reading YS will play into those experiences. But the source of understanding would be more from an observation of experience than from an intellectual reasoning.

        Best back. Cheers.

    • Sorry, but I forgot to link to where Matthew and I had this conversation, a couple of days ago actually…

      Its in the comments of course, the very last ones at the bottom of the page.

  13. chorton

    Reposting message from Inga, writing from Berlin, Germany, who couldn’t get the comment function to work properly (don’t know why):

    Dear Carol.

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts about White’s and Tigunait’s book in your blog.

    The text’s comment-function is not working so I’m sending directly to your contact.

    You’re looking for productive connections between practitioner’s experiences and scientific view points. That’s so exciting because you’re posing similar questions, like the ones we’re currently discussing at the “Berliner Yoga Zentrum” (BYZ) suggested by Dr. Imogen Dalmann and Martin Soder.

    Reading your essay for the first time I was vexed that you equalize a religious reading with a practitioner-oriented approach. For more clarity of thought I’m thankful to Jason’s comment: Practical experience does play a role in Tigunait’s remarks, but only with hindsight, in order to support a dogma that was formulated beforehand. On the contrary I see the potential of experience if it goes the same path than the scientific approach (and in dialogue with it): The individual experiences of practitioners can be evidence and basis on whose foundation theses can be formulated or challenged. Exactly this critical vigor that unfolds if you take lived experience as a starting point (instead of beginning with a concept to explain experience) elates me about your text. For example when you write: “I’m enthralled by the fact that some parts of the YS feel highly resonant with my personal experience of yoga. […] however, I’m equally fascinated by the fact that other parts of the text feel utterly foreign, and don’t resonate at all.”

    I’m confident that taking experiences as a starting point can be helpful to get closer to the interest you formulate in your text: “I’m looking for insight into what has made it [the YS] so enduring”. Which parts of the YS are still compelling for us today? Simultaneous: Which propositions don’t work for us anymore? (The importance of these questions gets evident facing William J. Broad’s “The Science of Yoga” or Matthew Remski’s WAWADIA research project.)

    As a criterion to decide whether ideas, concepts or practical propositions still sustain the BYZ suggests (in the tradition of T. Krishnamacharya and T.K.V. Desikachar) a privileged position for the sutra 2.16: What does help to reduce suffering? Such an approach is first of all only possible thanks to works like the ones of David Gordon White (de Michelis, Singleton, Maas, Birch, …). Knowledge about the historically and culturally manufactured character of yoga can endow a piece of freedom for a critical understanding of yoga today. This benefit of science is evident (you point it out clearly) and it can invite us to take our practice-experiences seriously and as a matter of communicative exchange. Talking about our experiences under the “heyam duhkhamanagatam-perspective” (How free or narrow do I feel in my yoga practice and in my everyday life?) the ideas the YS offers about the mind’s functions and structure are a tremendously useful model.

    I guess to understand something adequately beside well-founded knowledge it’s important to search for the meaning a topic has for one’s personal experience. (Probably sutra 1.17 is interesting here too.) Experience is a tool that helps to search for authenticity and a touchstone facing guru’s truths and mental ivory towers. Challenging is the fact that at the latest talking about experience makes the power of knowledge and the need of dialogue evident: the words, meanings, pictures, categories we use are historically and culturally conditioned. (For the yoga context the compulsory need to use this knowledge in a reflected way was recently shown by Dr. Meera Nanda’s excellent lecture on resemblance thinking and pseudoscience in modern yoga at the “Yoga in transformation”-conference in Vienna in September 2013.)

    I’m looking forward to following your writings! Thank you very much and best regards from Berlin, Inga

  14. Hello Carol,

    I read your fascinating essay and was inspired by it to read David Gordon Whites’ book myself (his earlier books are equally interesting, I think.) Anyway, I got so taken up with the questions you raise in your essay that I decided to write about it on my own blog. The first post is a bit on the critical side; subsequent posts will focus on areas where we are more likely to agree.

    Thanks so much for writing this piece and for the work you do in general to promote a sober appreciation of yoga.

    Peace and Good,


  1. What to Make of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali? Part I | Ashtanga Sakshin - […] post is inspired by Horton’s recent blog essay: Reading the Yoga Sutra: Can We Cross the Scholar/Practitioner Divide? The…
  2. Whose Sutras? Bridging the Divide between Scholar and Practitioner - Embodied Philosophy - […] This piece originally appeared on Carol Horton’s blog at […]

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