Om. Vande Gurunam Caranaravinde Sandarsita Svatma Sukhava….
If you practice Ashtanga Yoga, the school of postural yoga founded by Pattabhi Jois, you’ve probably chanted the opening mantras dedicated to Patañjali at the start of each class. This dedication is a beautiful way to center the heart before hitting the mat. The vibrations of the Sanskrit words, beyond their meaning, purify the mind. Chanting to Patañjali offers a connection to a tradition and a lineage. And chanting Om is a divine yoga in and of itself.
Yet, despite the positive benefits, you might be chanting to the wrong Guru. Despite the beauty and good intentions of this daily ritual, it’s important to understand the proper historical record. In truth, there is no textual evidence that Patañjali ever taught any of the asanas (postures) known to Western hatha yoga practitioners. In his Yoga Sutra, there is barely a mention of asanas at all. Patañjali offers us a single direct line: sthira sukham asanam, meaning asana should be stable and comfortable. This asana was not meant to benefit the body, but offer a firm basis for meditation.
I am not suggesting that Patañjali was not aware of some forms of asana, although if he was they were certainly not practiced in a vinyasa or flow of movement which is a 20th-century invention by Krishnamacharya, the real father of modern postural yoga. In reality, the tradition of physical asanas is firmly rooted in the Nath Yogins, who developed a focus on physical postures as a simplification of the rich mantra and subtle body energy practices developed by the Tantric tradition that flourished in medieval India.
In this light, the proper invocation in honor of hatha yoga asanas should be a Sanskrit prayer directed to Gorakshanath (13th Century), who wrote the Siddha Siddhanta Paddhati and other texts that established the Nath tradition. But in terms of actual postures, prayers and salutations should also be added to Svatmarama, the author of Hatha Yoga Pradipika, the most well-known text (15th Century) that systematizes yoga asanas.
None of the subtle physiology, including the chakra systems, nadis, and knowledge of kundalini is discussed by Patañjali. Mantras, with the exception of the sacred Om mentioned in sutra 27, chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutra, are also not addressed by Patañjali. The only practice that finds greater expression and is important to both traditions is the practice of pranayama, or the slowing down and equalization of the breath.
The scholar-practitioner Christopher Wallis sums it up as follows: “To put it as simply as possible, then, there is no direct connection between Patañjali’s pre-Tantrik yoga and the discipline of hatha yoga, whose respective periods of ascendancy are separated by well over a thousand years.”
As Christopher also points out, if we accept Gorakshanath as the father of Hatha Yoga, we have to accept modern postural yoga as a direct off-shoot of the Shaiva Tantric tradition, since Gorakshanath’s own Guru was Matsyendranath, a Shaivite Tantric Guru.
For a brilliant history of the Tantric tradition, its philosophies and practices, I highly recommend Tantra Illuminated.
Coming back to modern postural yoga, only about eighty postures can be traced back to original sources.
It goes without saying that Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra is a monumental work of genius that compiles and organizes many of the yoga practices of his time (around 4th Century). The eight-limbed system he sets down as well as the insights into progressive stages of samadhi (meditative absorption) deserve our continued attention and devotion. The point here is not to diminish the Yoga Sutra in any way, but to correct the erroneous notion that Patañjali is the father of any form of postural yoga.
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