November 24, 2010

Yoga Sutras: If Patanjali Had Been a Woman…

…He would have sounded a lot like Nischala Joy Devi. An internationally renowned yoga teacher, she is also the author of The Secret Power of Yoga, a book in which she uncovers the “heart and spirit” of the Yoga Sutras.

Devi’s translation of Patanjali’s most famous sutra—Yogah Citta Vritti Nirodahah— is so sweet, Tantric and heart-centered that it makes all previous translations of these Sanskrit words look as if written by male, academic experts hell-bent on mind-control.

Why? Because, it looks to me that Patanjali himself was hell-bent on mind control.

Let me explain. Devi’s warm, simple, and deeply personal translations are different from any I have read before. Ironically, they remind me of the liberal way Robert Bly—a very sweet but also a very manly man—translates Rumi, Kabir and Mirabai. There’s a personal directness, liberty, and freshness of spirit in each line which other translations lack.

She writes that the above sutra, in which Patanjali explains the meaning of yoga, should be interpreted as follows:

Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.

Compare this to her male counterpart, prolific yoga expert Georg Feuerstein’s translation:

Yoga is the restrictions of the fluctuation of consciousness.

Devi’s translation gives us a feeling of warmth, unity, and hope; that yoga is about opening ourselves into a state of being that is already known to our hearts. Feuerstein’s translation gives us a sense that yoga is a discipline to chastise the mind into submission. And that’s not Feuerstein’s fault. It’s Patanjali’s.

Feuerstein’s translation is indeed a lot closer to the literal meaning of Patanjali’s words than Devi’s.

Citta means mind, or consciousness. Vritti means tendency or fluctuation. Nirodha means restriction or suspension.

There is really nothing about the heart or about unity in Patanjali’s original sutra. In the words of my guru, Anandamurti, who interprets this sutra much like Feuerstein, Patanjali meant that a yogi must suspend his or her “mental tendencies” (vrittis) in order to find peace, and thus to experience the goal of yoga.

In fact, Anandamurti reminds us that the idea that yoga means unity, that yoga is a devotional concept, that yoga is the path of the heart–that this profound idea comes from Tantra, not from Patanjali.

In Tantra it is said that yoga means the unity between the individual soul and the cosmic soul, the unity between your heart and the cosmic heart, the unity between you and the Beloved. The Sanskrit transliteration for that is: Samyoga yoga ityukto jivatma paramatmanah.

In other words, Nischala Joy Devi’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 1.2 reads a lot like the way yoga is explained in Tantra; that yoga is the path of the heart; that our consciousness abides in the heart; that yoga means union.

But for Patanjali yoga meant something else, something manly, something dreary, something uninspired. For him yoga meant the “suspension of our mental tendencies” or “the restrictions of the fluctuations of consciousness.”

Here’s another angle. The word Citta, which is integral to understanding this sutra, is often translated as “consciousness,” but it also means “mind.” Our vrittis, our desires, our wants, our endless mental tendencies, they reside in our mind, in our citta. And Patanjali wants us to control those vrittis in the citta, in the mind, in order to experience yoga.

But in Tantra the way toward yoga is not through control but through the way of union. In Tantra the path of yoga is the path of alchemical transmutation rather than through control.  And the way of transmutation goes through the heart, not the mind, through consciousness, not the intellect.

Resembling this heartfelt spirit of Tantra, Nischala Joy Devi writes: “When this sutra is referencing only the mind, the emphasis is on control, restraint, or some form of restriction. It encourages students to be harsh with consciousness.”

Because of this harshness of language, of interpretation, of philosophy—for Patanjali was first and foremost a philosopher—the Yoga Sutras never became popular in India, writes Feuerstein. Why? Because the Indian people, as Gregory David Robert writes in his bestselling book Shantaram, they are all about the heart. They live first and foremost in the heart.

And so do women. And so do the Tantrics. And that is why I prefer the Tantric interpretation of yoga: that yoga is about uniting consciousness through the way of the heart, through the way of love for the Divine.

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