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Yoga Sutra 1.1 – In the Beginning…

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Sutra 1.1

Atha yoganusasanam

Now, instruction in yoga begins.

It would be tempting to jump right into the next sutra since this one seems so self explanatory, wouldn’t you say? 

But just for today, let’s sit right here with Yoga Sutra 1:1. 

It’s worth taking the time to appreciate this deceptively simple beginning.

Already familiar? Jump to Sutra 1.2

Table of Contents

Rather watch in video form?

The Power of "Now"

I once had the great pleasure of hosting Princeton-based Sutras scholar Edwin Bryant for a weekend-long deep dive into the Yoga Sutras at the yoga studio I co-owned. 

He was kind enough to bring us along as he took a fine-toothed comb through each and every aphorism (with the exception of those from Book 3 — a tale for another day). 

Bryant spent a good deal of time emphasizing the significance of the word “atha” or “now.” 

He explained it like this…

What's reincarnation got to do with it?

In the yogic manner of thinking, to have arrived at the point of readiness to receive instruction in yoga is not much less than miraculous. 

Think of it this way: 

Of all the incarnations you could have taken in this moment, you haven’t shown up as a dragonfly or a horse or blade of grass, you’ve shown up as a human. 

That’s miracle #1. 

But you didn’t just show up as ANY human. 

Something about your birth and your karma, plus your heredity and habits (and perhaps a sprinkle of synchronicity) have all led you to this very room right now where you are open enough to be receiving instruction in this most pinnacle of paths, raja yoga. 

That’s miracle #2. 

To arrive to this point is in itself auspicious, a fact we should not overlook.

T.K.V. Desikachar also emphasizes the word “atha” in his interpretation from The Heart of Yoga: 

In the convention of ancient Sanskrit literature, the word atha carries the connotation of a prayer, both for an auspicious beginning and a successful conclusion to the work that follows. 

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Something big is beginning

Let it be understood that whoever arrives at this first Sutra is about to receive clear direction in how to achieve the highest goal on Earth. 

This isn’t “how to make a million dollars” or “how to lose the last 20 pounds…” this is something much more fulfilling, and it is appropriate that the Sutra begins with a frame announcing itself. 

Mukunda Stiles appreciated the momentousness of the first Sutra when he penned the interpretation:

With great respect and love, now the blessings of Yoga instruction are offered.

What is "yoga" anyway?

If you’re reading this you have surely come across the translation of “yoga” as “union.” I happen to believe that this is a perfectly adequate description. 

Still, the mind yearns to understand a thing from more than one angle. So since the project of yoga is only just beginning, let us paint it in a few more dimensions — for the mind to ponder and swish around. 

The word “yoga” comes from the root “yuj,” meaning “attach, join, or yoke,” as in a yoke to a chariot.

Christ also used the metaphor of a harness when he said, 

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

The aspirant (or practitioner or student, however you wish to identify) is invited in Sutra 1 to “attach” herself… but to what is not yet outlined. 

(Notably, and as an aside, Columbia University translator Barbara Stoler Miller translates “yoga” as “discipline” — just something to consider.)

To make matters even more complicated, Edwin Bryant points out that the project of yoga is actually a de-coupling. That’s because — as will be elucidated in future sutras — the soul must cease mistaking itself for the body (to simplify things). In that way, it must detach from its association with form.

In the end, though, the result is the same. Whether you think of it as uniting your consciousness with your soul’s or as assisting the soul to recognize that it is not the mind-body capsule… we have a resulting singularity: yoga. 

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Yoking to what?

Presumably, the practitioner understands that she will be uniting with something great and indescribable, unending and divine. 

You might call this “God,” (Bryant uses “soul”), but I’d encourage you to not let the language turn you off if you are someone who doesn’t like this particular word or concept.

If you ARE good with terms like these, then you might skip this section and jump to my favorite translations of Sutra 1.1

You can be atheist, agnostic, or a devotee of any religion and still undertake the project of yoga without compromising who you are. 

Remember always that language, though helpful, is laughably limited when we zoom out to a cosmic scale. 

I find it helpful to think of language as a tool for pointing, much in the way that a telescope is a tool for observing Jupiter. 

You wouldn’t mistake the telescope lens for Jupiter.

In the same way, we shouldn’t mistake the word “God” for the thing we are pointing to, and we should see that our tool is limited.  

It is useful to look at the many tools for pointing (that is, words) — in order that the mind might begin to grasp the object of the yoga aspirant’s quest. 

Pointing Imperfectly: The Many Names of God

Many students will hear the word “God,” and they will shut a part of themselves down or walk away before taking an earnest look at the true path of yoga. 

If that describes you, then know that I hear you! I am a person who rejected the word “God” from a young age because I had been raised in a household that tried to hammer me over the head with religious ideas that just felt too contradictory to my analytical brain. 

(In one humorous example, at age 7 I was told I had to choose between the belief in Adam & Eve or the dinosaurs. I chose the dinosaurs.)

I maintained my secular approach for a very long time. In my twenties, teaching college literature, it was from an academic lens that I first dove into the Sutras and the Gita. 

Even though I knew the texts well and practiced asana devotedly, it was as if I was keeping yoga’s pointings at an arm’s length. 

My discomfort with the word “God” created a hefty obstacle on the path to freedom. 

I’m grateful for that experience of course because I can now completely understand how and why a student might reject the whole project of yoga before it even begins. 

How a Rational Mind Can Become a Spiritual Mind:

All it takes is a smattering of spirituality OR a passing interest in physics.

On my own path — and maybe this will resonate with some of you — I had enough of what you might call spirituality to open me up to the idea that I could yoke to something greater than myself. 

  1. I readily admitted that there are things about the universe that I don’t understand.
  2. I recognized and appreciated the interconnectedness of all things.
  3. I accepted the scientific observation that material existence is essentially and primarily energy when you’re examining at the subatomic level. 

Once I got over the hurdle of the word and saw that yoga wasn’t trying to make me believe in anything I didn’t already perceive to be true, I could dive more fully into the expedition.

A few favorite translations:

T.K.V. Desikachar: Here begins the authoritative instruction on Yoga.

Mukunda Stiles: With great respect and love, now the blessings of Yoga instruction are offered.

Christopher Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda: This is the beginning of instruction in yoga. 

Sri Swami Satchidananda: Now the exposition of Yoga is being made.

To recap: Sutra 1.1

Now instruction in yoga is beginning.

It is implied that the student is now preparing to embark on the journey of yogic union. The student understands this to mean that they are able in this earthly plane to tap into the plane that some would call divine. 

The student expects and trusts that the instructions that follow are being offered by those farther down the path than they are. 

They also understand that, though the path and even the goal are somewhat unclear at the moment, the whole of Yoga will be illuminated as each step is taken. 

By virtue of being exposed to the first Sutra, they should assume that they are fit to receive the teachings — and they should proceed in earnest with focus and delight — as this path promises to deliver them to freedom. 

homework for the seeker

2 Assignments for You

1. A Contemplation:

What is my own concept of the infinite or “God”? 

I suggest holding the question in your heart this week.

Journal if that feels good but it is not required.

It is enough to hold the inquiry lightly. You will find that your insights come in restful moments. 

This list might help you discover a name that feels true:

  • Source
  • Divine
  • All That Is
  • Source Energy
  • Consciousness
  • Purusha
  • Atman
  • Soul
  • The Real
  • The Seer
  • The Knower
  • The Enjoyer
  • The Infinite
  • The Mystery
  • The Light
  • God
  • One
  • Alla
  • The Sacred
  • The Creator
  • Infinite Consciousness
  • Unending
  • Limitless
  • Absolute
  • The Universe
  • The Multiverse
  • The Cosmos
  • The Beyond
  • The Great Spirit
  • Spirit
  • Om

2. Meditation Prompt:

Is it possible to see from the eyes of All That Is

(Insert the term that is truest to you.)

Examples: 

Is it possible to see from the eyes of God? 

Is it possible to see from the eyes of The Universe? 

Want to know my 8 favorite sutras?

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