The Yoga Sutra Is Incompatible With Modern Postural Yoga, and Science

By S.K. Arun Murthi

Yoga, as is generally understood and practised today, has only a denotative or referential sense to certain postural and breathing exercises known as asanas as against a connotative sense that can be found in the classical texts like Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. It is in this referential sense that most people typically understand yoga, this representation that is being exported to the West, and this understanding that is being showcased as India’s gift to the world. This has also been the foundation of claims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his coterie of yoga ambassadors that we Indians should be proud of our great heritage.

As part of International Yoga Day on June 21, the Ministry of AYUSH has launched a torrent of public campaigns at fever pitch. The government intends to showcase a spectacle of 60,000 people striking a variety of poses executed with grace. But in all the hoopla surrounding this public relations exercise – to promote yoga – most seems to have failed to assimilate the connotative sense of yoga as rooted in the yoga sutra.

We typically associate yoga with a set of breathing and stretching exercises called asanas. In today’s understanding, all of yoga is presented as if it were limited to asanas — what Mark Singleton calls ‘postural yoga’. This brand of yoga has been commoditised, institutionalised, is being internationalized as a product of the Indian heritage and, most of all, is being labelled as ‘scientific’ in its methods.

The Narendra Modi government, in its bid to popularise yoga, has been piggybacking on this label. Given that ‘science’ as a subject, an institution and cultural practice is held in high regard, it is tempting for any study, activity, practice or body of work to appropriate such allegiance.

Instead of being carried away by the tide of such a portrayal of yoga, whatever its purpose, it would be appropriate to have a more analytical understanding of the yoga sutra, if only to gain a more clear, and more useful, perspective. The study of Patanjali’s yoga sutra reveals how inappropriate this text is as a source of modern postural yoga. And the appropriateness needs to be questioned because postural yoga is presented as being associated with Patanjali’s yoga sutra. The yoga sutra also does not seem to be compatible with the spirit of the scientific method. In short, the two questions that emerge here are:

a) How much of modern postural yoga rests on Patanjali’s yoga sutra?

b) To what extent is Patanjali’s yoga sutra compatible with the methods of science?

The yoga sutra is a philosophical text and primarily delves into the metaphysical and epistemological aspects of yoga as a philosophical system. It needs to be noted that of the 195 sutras (or aphorisms), only three (46-48 of the second chapter of the four chapters) deal with asanas, and that too in the sense of a posture that is stable and comfortable to acquire concentration. There is no reference to the different gymnastic postures that postural yoga has come to represent.

As Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of this text notes, there is only eight words in the yoga sutra concerning asanas, which means “less than one percent of the text occupies itself with asanas”. Bryant also remarks that “it is this aspect of yoga that has been most visibly exported to the West but too often stripped from its context as one ingredient in a more ambitious and far-reaching sequence.” This is quite pertinent in the context of the internationalisation of yoga. This being the case, it seems far-fetched to claim that the different asanas of postural yoga draw upon the yoga sutra. They don’t.

For the second question, it is interesting to consider the second sutra of the text: yogah-citta-vritti-nirodha. It means yoga is the cessation of sense experiences. To elaborate, the sutra says that the objective of yoga is to stop the flow of thoughts or sense experiences. In this case, the very foundation of what science is all about is destroyed, if only because science and its methods rest on empirical experiences. The important place that experiments occupy in science is well established. They are a means by which one accesses certain aspects of the world, termed results. The ability to generate these results rests on the empirical experience that a human has of the world, mediated by experiments. So yoga sutra starts by advocating a frame of mind that is the very opposite of that required for the practice of science.

Given this incompatibility, it is very difficult to reconcile Patanjali’s yoga sutra with modern postural yoga, even though the practitioners of postural yoga take it as a foundational text. Further, the sutra text is also at variance with the scientific method. The present government and its clique of yoga gurus vigorously promote a narrative of a rich cultural past but fail to relate the contents of the classical text to postural yoga. The only link is the incongruous presence of the word ‘yoga’ here, which, perhaps, led the US judge John. S. Meyer to pronounce the paradoxical ruling that ‘yoga is both religious and also not religious simultaneously’.

S.K. Arun Murthi teaches philosophy of science. His areas of research include epistemology and metaphysics of science, Indian philosophy and political philosophy.

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