Finding another yoga sutra commentary…

Kylie at the Santa Cruz pier.

On Monday, my husband and I took a day trip to Santa Cruz, California. During the first part of the trip through the valley, the road stretched out before us—flat and flanked by crops. I took advantage of the repeating scenery to pull out my computer and write my reflections on sutra 1.3, and also that I wished for a library and more yoga commentaries.

While exploring the hippie downtown of Santa Cruz, we found a bookstore. A two-story, mostly used bookstore, complete with old copies of random yoga books. There I found a translation and commentary of the sutras by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood called How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali.


The book sits neatly in my hand, being about the size of the Book of Common Prayer. (This comparison amuses me).

Several years ago, Elizabeth Kadetsky recommended this translation to me because Isherwood was western and therefore coming from what was essentially a Christian worldview. At the time, I was recovering from an Evangelical Christian worldview that was skeptical of anything other than a conservative Christian theology. I knew Isherwood hadn’t been a conservative Christian, if he even identified as a Christian. So I didn’t touch the commentary.

During a traffic jam on the way out of Santa Cruz, I began reading it. P&I have a pattern of introducing a sutra and then discussing it. Following 1.2 (“Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.”), P&I write pages of commentary, including a paragraph that makes me both laugh aloud and think:

When Patanjali speaks of ‘control of thought-waves,’ he does not refer to a momentary or superficial control. Many people believe that the practice of yoga is concerned with ‘making your mind a blank’—a condition which could, if it were really desirable, be much more easily achieved by asking a friend to hit you over the head with a hammer. [Ha!]

No spiritual advantage is ever gained by self-violence. We are not trying to check the thought-waves by smashing the organs which record them. We have to do something much more difficult—to unlearn the false identification of the thought-waves with the ego-sense. This process of unlearning involves a complete transformation of character, a ‘renewal of the mind,’ as St. Paul puts it.

Boom! St. Paul. P&I drop him in casually, as if they have coffee with St. Paul every day. This tells me that they and their audience are familiar enough with his ideas that they just reference him like something everyone knows.

The commentary does not refer to a direct text, but I assume I&P intend for the reader to recall Romans 12:2: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (NASB) This verse comes just a couple of chapters after Paul’s discussion of putting off the old man and putting on the new man, and chapter 12 is about this new man’s life. Verse 1, in fact, is the famous “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” verse that some yogis offer as a reason for practicing yoga as Christians.

I am intrigued by this allusion in P&I’s commentary. I infer P&I to be saying that yoga is a vehicle through which God can work to help us renew our minds, putting off the old self and putting on the new self. Detaching from “thought-waves” and attaching to God.

It is by God’s grace this occurs.

It is also by grace we learn these methods, regardless of the traditions that codified them.

I’m excited about continuing to find Biblical allusions in P&I’s translation of the sutras.

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