Reading the Yoga Sutras

“Today in yoga the instructor mentioned the Bible,” Mom said over the phone. “She said it’s one of her four most important books, along with the Yoga Sutras. I wrote down the other two. Just a second.”

Mom and I started practicing yoga together in January, 2007. This conversation happened months later, after I moved to Pittsburgh and all of our yoga discoveries were discussed over the phone.

“Okay,” she said. “The Upa…  upan…”


“Yes. And the Gita. I just wrote down Gita.”

“The Bhagavad Gita,” I said. “Those are the Hindu holy books. I just bought the sutras and the Gita at the used bookstore. I haven’t read them yet.”

“Well, let me know when you do,” she said.

Several things struck me about this conversation:

  • that my mother didn’t know the names of the Hindu holy books, which says more about evangelical Christian culture than about my mother.
  • that she wrote down the names of books that her yoga teacher esteemed (go, Mom!).
  • that I owned the books and hadn’t read them yet.

It would be months before I did read them. Months – at least a year of months. Each time I picked one of them up, I felt that the book might jump out of my hand. Or that I should drop it like a hot potato. Or that God might strike me dead with lightning if I opened it. Or…  well, you get it. I felt fear.

I’m not sure what I feared, exactly. Maybe being changed by the ideas. But changed how? My ideas about God? Life? I know that my fear was related to salvation: that if I opened these books, I might go to hell.

My fear, I’m pretty sure, came from the high emphasis my evangelical upbringing placed on the Scripture of the Holy Bible, and if the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras and the Upanishads are the Hindu holy books, were they then in competition with the Bible? If I read them, would I be changed by them? Would God be mad?

It would take a lot of theology and literary theory than one blog post can hold to unpack these questions, so I shall leave the questions as my excuse for my months and years of fear (and I’ve started writing about them and they’re deeply rooted and complicated–so they’ll take a bit to sort out). I eventually decided that God could love me even if I read books sacred to other religions. It feels weird to admit this in writing, weird that I had to consciously have this realization. But I did have to have at least that realization before I could be free to read. These ideas will pop up in further blog posts, I promise.

Eventually I had to read the Bhagavad Gita for a graduate class, and then read it again in the form of a larger book called Blue God, which juxtaposes the Krishna in the Gita with the Krishna of the legends. It didn’t change my life, alter my worldview, or cause God to become Zeus and strike me with lightning. It was really interesting, and even more interesting to realize that the Gita is just a conversation lifted from a larger book called the Mahabharata…  and my studies were only beginning.

So I’ve read the Gita twice. I’ve read the Sutras once, and in that reading I noticed that they read a lot like four chapters of the book of Proverbs in the Bible – esoteric, vague, specific, open to interpretation. Since then, I’ve always wanted to study them more, to get to know this yoga thing that saved my faith in the Christian God.

But I’ve still hesitated. I’m getting annoyed at my fears.

I know enough about yoga to know that the Sutras are not THE text, that yoga–both physical and mental–is more about the experience than the intellect. I know that the Sutras were compiled by Patanjali, date unknown–sometime before Christ.

Two years ago, I checked out ten commentaries on the Sutras from Pitt’s library in order to study the Sutras. I had high hopes of reading Christopher Isherwood’s Christianized commentaries alongside Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras alongside Annie Besant’s commentary. But to do that much work all at once is intimidating and paralyzing, so I just didn’t do it at all.

Perhaps checking out ten commentaries at a time is too many. Perhaps I should just study them on my own first and then read the commentaries one-by-one. (“How do you eat an elephant?” my dad asks. Answer: “One bite at a time.”)

So I’m going to read them and begin a small blogging series reflecting on the Sutras. It won’t be a commentary, just a reflection. I’ll try to read them one-by-one, but I might end up grouping some of the sutras together. And it won’t be every post – just a continuing series. I’ll post stories as well.

I invite you to come on a Yoga Sutra inquiry with me.

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