Very little is known about Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras. Scholars assume that this text was written between the second and fourth centuries BCE because of their form, which is associated with authors of this period. Given todayís celebrity culture, this seems surprising, but keep in mind that the culture of the period was one in which authors demonstrated their erudition by linking themselves to others, or even to Divine beings. Itís not surprising, then, that many more myths than facts surround Patanjaliís life. We donít know exactly where he was born, or his parentage, or whether he had two or four hands! Adding to the confusion, history tells of another man named Patanjali who was a great dancer, and a third who was an esteemed scholar of grammar and linguistics. Were these three gentlemen one and the same? Did the yogi Patanjali actually compose the Yoga Sutras, or merely collate the writings of others? At this point, there is no way to answer these or other questions about the man hidden from us by the dearth of historical information.
What we do know, however, is that the Yoga Sutras are a collection of maxims, similar in organization to the Biblical book of Proverbs. In the nineteenth century, the Romantic and Transcendental movements brought attention to the wisdom of the East, and luminaries such as Helena Blavatsky and Swami Vivekananda helped to popularize this work. Beat Poets of the 1950ís and rock musicians of the 1960ís furthered the Western interest in Eastern philosophies, furthering the public attention to yoga and to its sacred texts. Today, most yogi/nis believe that knowledge of the Yoga Sutras are central to a true understanding of yoga.
The Sutras are divided into four different books. The first, Samadhi Pada , discusses the ways in which we become connected to the Divine. The second, Sadhana Pada , delineates the ways in which we develop the discipline needed to attain Samadhi, namely through the eight-fold path associated with Patanjaliís name. The third, Vibhuti Pada , discourses on meditative techniques. The final book, Kailvalya Pada , focuses on the transcendence of our imagined isolation from the rest of the world.
What is particularly noteworthy about the Yoga Sutras is its almost complete lack of focus on asana! In Sadhana Pada , the second book of the treatise, a proverb states: sukha-sthira-asanam . This translates to the idea that postures to strengthen the body should be held in a way that satisfies and that is steady and focused. There you have it Ė the entirety of Patanjaliís discussion of what Westerners consider to be the most important aspect of yoga.
So then why do we study the Sutras? Those interested in yoga primarily as a system of exercise generally donít. These writings are important for those interested in the history of yoga, in the philosophy behind the practice, and in the spiritual component that makes yoga different from Pilates or other dance-related forms of movement. Read and revered by many over the years, this tome remains one of the central components of the yogic tradition.