Are you angry that there are one hundred ninety six yoga sutras? You shouldn’t be! Yoga’s bible is a mere fraction in length compared to the Buddhist, Hindu, and Western religions classic books. The Yoga Sutras beauty resides in the spectrum of interpretation. Not its length or stories.
All growth orientated yogis will eventually ask:
What is the best Yoga Sutras translation?
However, the initial questions you should first be asking are
What more I am looking to get out of reading the Sutras?
A deeper question to ask is:
What is the best Yoga Sutras translation for my heart orientated path in yoga?
Yoga Philosophy is not a race. There are no winners or right interpretations. Our purpose should be not for enlightenment, to catch up to everyone who has already read certain books, appear cool on social media or even improve our own personal practice.
Our purpose should be to find more stillness and clarity. That frame of mind however is the opposite of modern yoga. Where we are told enlightenment will come through advanced postures, adhering to a guru’s lineage or asana series and living the lifestyles we see boasted on social media.
I picked up the Yoga Sutras for the first time a decade ago, and my opinion of the best translation has changed many times. In this article I will go the best Yoga Sutras translation for various purposes such as the overall best, best short and introductory translation, most rooted in tradition and my favorite way to read the sutras! Feel free to skip around as this is a long article!
Can Westerners Understand the Yoga Sutras?
Edwin Bryant has written the best overall yoga sutras translation with his mastery of the history and teachings of yoga (Full explanation down below.) Edwin Bryant is from west. With his groundbreaking work, the days of short, mystical translations by authors with no scholastic experience are over. Many yogis laugh when I give them Edwin Bryant’s book. They say such phrases such as
“Yoga is not this complicated.”
“This is too hard to read. Other versions are easier to follow.”
“He is not from India, so he does not understand yoga philosophy.”
“He does not belong to the ______ (fill in the blank) school of thought. So how can he know about yoga?”
Anyone CAN understand the Yoga Sutras. Patanjali had no Yoga Sutras to base his experience of yoga from. Our daily sadhana should already promote the stillness, samadhi and love the sutras promote.
These comments are insults to Patanjali, scholars, students, and the guru’s who brought us this information in the first place. They wanted to spread this message everyone.
A culture of illiteracy, akin to the dark ages is the new norm in yoga. We are subjected to marketing schemes, endless photos and videos of asana, videos and lifestyles that we will never achieve and advertisements for expensive yoga gear. Reading is obsoluete. On top of that, most of the Yoga Sutra translations we are given in our Yoga Teacher Trainings, by friends/teacher or the ones found online do not promote a holistic view of yoga.
Asana and pranayama lead to self-knowledge, but without an understanding of the source of yoga, you receive your wisdom from word of mouth, social media, simple books and blogs.
The Tree of Yoga Philosophy
A historical study of yoga does not promote profit for studio owners and yoga corporations. We give personal responsibility for our health away to studios, gurus, and internet yoga fads. An effective way to manipulate others is to cut away their knowledge of the past. The dark ages were a prime example of the systematic religious control of knowledge. As Krishna told Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita,
“You and I are ancient beings. The difference between us is that you do not know your past, but I do.”
We can never leave the past behind. The efforts of our ancestors need to be acknowledged before we can find real awareness.
I observe that many come to yoga to silence the inner voices of a busy life. However those inner voices will never leave if you do not change your life.
Yoga is an oven that cements our physical and spiritual self solid. The practice alone will not change us, it will make us more of what we are. Why do you think teachers promote intention setting so much before class? One of the most under-promoted aspects of yoga is Sankalpa. Most modern texts make Sankalpa the number one priority.
Sankalpa is an intention formed with the heart and mind. The best decision I ever made in regards to yoga, is doing my Sankalpas before and after every asana, mediation and pranayama practice.
We first need information before the heat in yoga can burn away any impurities we have absorbed. It is an endless cycle until we find a truth which will align with our life purpose
What is the Best Yoga Sutras Translation?
Edwin Bryant’s Sutra translation remains authentic to Patanjali and finds a middle ground where the critical dexterity of his intellectual skills mix with poetic simplicity. Short translations by Gurus with minimal commentary are hard to judge. These short translations are great for passionate beginners or to re-kindle a fading practice. However, to make yoga a life practice requires deep motivation. Bryant’s translation brings more value to my progression in yoga than any translation I’ve read. He has let the sutras outlive Patanjali, and offers more than one interpretation to apply to our modern yoga practice.
Ashtanga Yoga needed this, and that’s why teachers such as Kino MacGregor and Tim Feldman use this text in their teacher training. Profound books should enable transformation, the depth of Bryant’s translation will send you down philosophical wormholes for years. I’ve improved my Sanskrit vocabulary at a phenomenal rate with this translation. I can browse the thirteen-page glossary and identify most words now.
My Ashtanga practice has also deepened my understanding how different schools of thought view Patanjali’s Sutras. A few of at least ten schools of thought tread on the fine line of atheism and solipsism in the book. Other schools frame pure devotion to Hindu deities or your personal God as the goal of yoga. This information is a necessary component to becoming a well-rounded yogi, and this book will be one primary reference for this blog.
Edwin Bryant’s Evolution of Critique
A belief system evolves when authors such as Edwin Bryant break the mindset that small texts should not be immune to thorough analysis. Our search should not just be towards finding the authors original intent, but also to reveal hidden concepts, and to illuminate the relevance of the text to the philosophical questions of today. In the West, the deep, progressive systems of literary criticism are just starting to touch yoga.
Literary critique from a philosophy of deconstructionism and structuralism have been unheard of in yoga until the last decade. Jacques Derrida, Paul De Man, Ferdinand De Saussure, Guy Debord, and Michel Foucault never touched on eastern religions.
University programs in eastern religion, philosophy, language, history, and anthropological linguistics enable literary theorists to resurrect the magnitude of these shorter texts. Some of the most talented English-speaking scholars in the world are now working on eastern religions. The whole territory is uncharted waters where you can mine intellectual treasure and be the first to apply elaborate criticism.
Scholarship in eastern religions can be a mess, many texts have been corrupted, changed, and are philosophically inaccurate with the school of thought. Bryant does an excellent job of tying up loose ends and addressing each school of thoughts shortcomings. Bryant is not just an academic, he explains in this quote he will not shy away from modern problems.
“A commendable point is the author’s own philosophical outlook, surfacing throughout the book in snippets of criticism of the consumerist conception of yoga in the West—which is indeed an utter distortion and travesty. But a book of academic significance must be held against higher standards of scholarship, and the author’s acknowledgment that it mostly targets the general reader is irrelevant when the flaws can be misleading and lead to an essential misinterpretation of the subject matter.”
Yoga Sutras Breakdown
The four chapters of Edwin Bryant’s book are as follows
- Meditative Absorption
- Mystic Power
- Absolute Independence
The first two chapters are around 150 pages each, chapter three 100 pages, and chapter four 75 pages. I was begging for more by the end of this book. Bryant hammers down the last two chapters with a tenacity I have never seen in eastern scholarship. The vague and few sutras in the last two chapters are expanded down into every rabbit hole. These were my favorite, and the sutras differ from the other main religious texts because Patanjali speaks of performing miracles yourself and finding enlightenment.
Bryant stays grounded in this section and explores all possibilities. Not once does he discredit mystical powers defying the law of physics. However at no part does he endorse, advocate or give any indication that you should try to do it. All commentators I have read agreed that these powers are a result of the path and can not be attained by specific fundamentals.
When I got to this section I assumed Bryant being an academic, would destroy Patanjali and any schools of thought who promoted mysticism. It was exactly the opposite which was a pleasant surprise. A holistic view which accepts all sides is why this text is the cardinal sutra translation and commentary. A conscious, intelligent, and compassionate yogi, will read this over and over again.
What is the Best Short and Beginner Yoga Sutra Translation?
Most Yoga Sutra translations are under 150 pages and take an afternoon to read. That length is perfect for most beginners and to get a general feel of the authors opinions. The two other works in this article are over 400 pages each, and I am the first to admit that can be excessive. My favorite short/beginner translation is How To Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Ishwerwood.
The authors in this translation are not here to convert us or fill their ego. In the forward the authors tell us
“in general, we have wished to present this book as a practical aid to the SPIRITUAL life; an aid that can be used by the devotees of any religion- Hindu, christian, or other. We have therefore avoided dwelling much on its metaphysical and occult aspects. the study of these may fascinate some types of mind, but it is ultimately sterile and may even be dangerous if carried to excess.”
Those lines are the start of a firestorm of power within a translation. Swami Prabhavananda was a monk, philosopher and helped bring Hinduism and Yoga to the west. Christopher Ishwerwood was a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda and a famous playwright, novelist and progressive thinker. The combination of tradition and beautiful prose make this translation unparalleled. Both men were very good friends with Aldous Huxley who was also a disciple of Swami Prabhavananda. Huxley, Alan Watts and Jiddu Krishnamurti all read and reviewed this translation. That is a superstar lineup! (Photo of Huxley, Isherwood and Swami Prabhavananda below)
If I had to hand someone who had never heard of the yoga sutras this would be the one! There are quotes and comparisons from a ton of different authors (such as Kant, Erwin Schrodinger, Heidiggier.) The scope is beyond yoga and this translation is about making us more aware and better individuals.
That should be the goal of all yogis and all humans in general. I am grateful these men paved the way for us 70 years ago to help popularize yoga to the level it’s at now.
What is Best Traditional Yoga Sutras Translation?
What is The Best Creative Yoga Sutras Translation?
Those who read the Yoga Sutras chose not to produce as much creative offshoot work, and progress the literary criticism of that field. Where is the Paradise Lost, Divine Comedy or Faust of yoga? To Christianity, they are masterpieces celebrating intellectual and creative freedom.
The reason is that these yogis mastering body, breath, and mind did not have a literary deconstruction of the sutras high on their priority list. Yes, war, famine, dictators, and poor distribution of the sutras didn’t help; however, some writers who ascend into the higher elements of a lunar religion lose tenacity to progress the material. Creative work from monks, scholars, and geniuses in Asia the last two thousand years did not make to the west. Many yogis, aesthetics, and Buddhists never got their teachings down on paper.
Matthew Remski has the sole creative works in the yoga community. His book, The Threads of Yoga is a “remix” as he calls it of the Yoga Sutras. He employs prose and poetic techniques while incorporating post-modernism, evolutionary psychology, neo-marxism and what Remski eposues as inter-subjectivity.
There is a divide on peoples opinion of the Threads of Yoga. Some view it as dis-respectful and not well researched, and others love the post-modern spin on such a serious text. Now matter how you feel, it is a stepping stone for more creative works in yoga.
Regarding academic translations, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson started popularizing Eastern Philosophy in their nineteenth-century works. Until the 1900’s in America when the university system found its footing, most texts beyond the staple classics were not available all in one area. The creation of transcendentalism by Ralph Waldo Emerson pushed America into the scene of eastern philosophy.
Ezra Pound’s translations gave global exposure to Sanskrit poets like Kalidasa. Yoga was not attractive with academics at the time, and Pound said this of them,
“All this damn Freud due to ignorance of yoga. No sense of magnetic body inside of the meat.”
The Freudian nature of yoga is now present. Popularity through half naked social media photos and an emphasis on the subconscious have made a comeback. We will move past this phase and as Kalidasa said in his famous poem,
“Yesterday is but a dream,
Tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.”
Who is a True Scholar of Yoga Philosophy?
Edwin Bryant’s intellectual prowess strikes thunder into the yoga world with his Translation and Commentary of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Doctoral dissertations have been written on the sutras for one hundred years in America. However, these academic texts lack immersion in the culture, non-fiction creative writing skills, and the beautiful style of prose that comes from these skills. Bryant is a practitioner of all the limbs of yoga and spent almost a decade in India studying Sanskrit, Yoga, and Hinduism. A few yogis I know have refused to read this translation under the guise that
“they Don’t trust westerners with Eastern religion and philosophy.”
This statement is a tyrannical excuse, and you should laugh at the close minded person who says it. A lifetime of research in solitude and sacrificing a normal life by living in monasteries in India is not a joke. One of my professors received his degree from Columbia in Eastern religions (Bryant’s alma mater) and described the horrific journey he had in India. To speak Sanskrit, he had to live in mountains which were a ten-hour donkey ride to a phone. A few days every month he’d have food poisoning with no modern medicine around. These armchair quarterbacks are so fast to put down a yogi who sacrificed more for yoga than 99% of yogis even in India.
Beyond Truth in Ashtanga Yoga
“There are two ways to slide easily through life; to believe everything or doubt everything. Both ways save us from thinking.”
― Alfred Korzybski
Korzybski, in the 1920’s, started modern criticism beyond the realm of “True or False” in his work on Semiotics and Semantics. Yoga till this period was subject to passed down word of mouth knowledge. Or trying to piece together information from whatever texts were available in your area. You were stuck with your school of thought and knowledge. Just out of Krishnamacharya school we have three opposing styles with Pattabhi Jois, Iyengar, and Desikachar. Jois received a degree in Sanskrit which in modern times is like getting a degree in Latin. BKS Iyengar wrote many philosophical books that had nothing to do with actual yoga techniques. No one ever mentions this dedication to the philosophical nature of yoga. The language barrier of English made it hard for them to convey to us how important this was. Thus the emphasis on the physical and breath to the western world of yoga which is easy to teach.
The Infinite Nature of Yoga
Adaptations to the asana, pranayama, and meditation practice have free reign now. No sequence, guru, school of thought, government, pecking order or lack of distribution can prevent improvisation in 2017. My yoga articles and videos are a pursuit of creating a system for optimized physical, spiritual, and creative energy.
Bryant’s text shed light on the fact that my asana isn’t defined by my youth. Fitness is a commitment to a lifestyle, an approach to longevity, health, and performance over a lifetime. One of my biggest fears is back bends. Since I sit so much, I need time away from what I find comfortable and recondition the unhealthy habit of sitting. My current ashtanga practice acts as a catalyst to a blockade in yoga I intend to break through. No posture is safe from my discernment, the shapes paint light in our motion through life and need to be chosen with precision. We have moved beyond black and white and into the world where yoga is infinite.
The Extinction of the Yoga Book Club
There are no yoga book clubs in Las Vegas (or in any city), trust me, I invited everyone I know to try and start one. Three other people would show up, while over a thousand people would practice asana every day in town. As you progress in your intellectual studies, you’ll have to leave your old ideas about yoga behind forever.
Once you see or read about the homeless children, dogs, and elderly in India can you view yoga the same?
If you attain mystical powers will you stay in your old mindset and not use them for ultimate good?
Will you even be able to resonate with your old friends who just want a workout and social group?
The beautiful emotions in yoga will show you the potential of yourself. Are you ready to leave anybody, thing, or organization holding you back?
A New Educated Yoga Community
If we ascend into higher consciousness with knowledge, practice, and love, all these questions will come up. Thinking about these things isn’t happy, and it encapsulates the darker side of yoga. I look for books to make me more conscious, even if I’ll never be able to look at yoga the same again. Yoga has taught me to strive for high-quality interactions, lots of goal-oriented action by the community, high accountability, high longevity and long-term friendships in the community. Without a community who reads demanding books, and facilitates personal growth, we will fail. This blog is a reminder that young, broke, and intellectual yogis do exist and are trying to reverse the paradigm of yoga.
I feel the weight of my shortcomings to create an accountable, powerful community. Every night I see what we could do if just an attempt was made. All of our first jump throughs sucked, some of us will have to wait a decade to get it. Forgive yourself. Crash into your legs, dislocate your toe, or fall flat on your face. Yoga can change the world if we persist.
It’s just like doing your first sun salutation every morning.
Top Ten List of the Best Yoga Sutras
- The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary. By Edwin Bryant PHD
- Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by B.K.S. Iyengar
- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Charles Johnston
- The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Sri Swami Satchidananda
- Translation in back of Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy by Gregor Maehle
- The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali by Chip Hartranft
- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Mukunda Stiles
- ‘Yoga: Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali’ by Patanjali and Barbara Stoler Miller
- The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali Georg Feuerstein Ph.D.
- The Essential Yoga Sutra: Ancient Wisdom for Your Yoga by Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally