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?
The True Purpose of the Yoga Sutras
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.
There should be no pressure if you haven’t read the Sutras. The bible of yoga has nothing on the abundance of our own internal experience. The purpose of the Yoga Sutras is to deepen our own internal experience. If we explore the sutras through that lens, questions arise such as “Do we Really Need Yoga Philosophy?”
I love yoga philosophy, however, there should be no sense of entitlement in any area of yoga. Some Bhakti, Raja and Karmic yogis have no reliance on Patanjali’s eight limbs, and end up in the same place as other yogis who dedicate themselves to the eight limb path. The Yoga sutras is a beautiful text though, and in this article I will go into 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! Plus as a bonus at the end I have included my five favorite translations. Feel free to skip around!
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 the west. 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! Yes, the west can dilute the message, however a humble, conscious, approach can reveal many truths.
The Tree of Yoga Philosophy
A historical study of yoga and the study of yoga philosophy does not promote profit for studio owners, yoga corporations and yogis on social media. So it is not put on the same pedestal as yoga that generates emotional expierences (asana, pranayama, meditation.)
An effective way to rewrite classical yoga is to get rid of it completely! That would be fine if modern yoga promoted awareness, however, most modern yoga takes us further away from ourselves. All we need is our mat, breath, awareness and love for each and every moment.
“You and I are ancient beings. The difference between us is that you do not know your past, but I do.”
Sankalpa- What Most Modern Yoga Ignores
We can never leave the past behind. 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. Why not create the best focusing question or statement we can before going into our internal selves.
Here are a few Sankalpas from Gregor Maehle that can really elevate our approach to yoga.
“I deeply accept and love myself and, from that love, I share with others.”
“I communicate and act only from the divine love in my heart.”
“I experience gratitude and appreciation for all I receive and for the miracle of my life.”
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.
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.
The treasure is not in one point of view, but synthesizing the best part of every view into a new view. That is a process that is subjective, however, Bryant does a great job at keeping his translation very down to earth in his combinations.
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?
Classical yoga is very interesting. Edwin Bryant’s translation and How To Know God do not fit under the guise of classical yoga. They do not have a strict one-pointed focus on a goal. The strict focus however is a fun change, and brings about a consistency across the whole text. Most translations are rooted in yoga schools, howevr, my favorite is the Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali.
Swami Aranya Hariharananda was born into royalty, and renounced himself into monk hood much like the Buddha. For the first part of his life he lived in caves and as a hermit in a small village. At the end of his life he had a group of members who listened to him speak out of a window in an artificial cave everyday. He is the founder of the Samkhya-Yoga school which Edwin Bryant sources from many times in his translation.
After his death, his successor assigned P.M. Mukerji to assemble all Hariharananda’s transcripts on the Yoga Sutras and compile them into a book. The result is 400 pages of a beautiful philosophy on not just yoga but life. Don’t be intimidated, the text is large so the text is closer to 275 pages. There are practical applications to the sutras according to the school’s philosophy, and that is an advantage over the other books listed in this article.
What is the Best Way to Read the Yoga Sutras?
A main purpose of mine to write this article was to help others to skip past the not so good translations that I read. Also, it was to share what I call the “trilogy of the Yoga Sutras.” The three books listed above make up that trilogy. Last year over the course of six months, I read seven translation sutra by sutra. So read all seven 1.1’s and then 1.2’s. This helped me identify the strengths, weaknesses and how certain translations complemented each other.
My conclusion is that Edwin Bryants translation, How to Know God and the Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali when read side by side yield incredible benefits. First of all, Bryant references both of the texts throughout his book and includes extra knowledge on their philosophy. That is very helpful and helps you dive into for instance, why the Samkhya school looks at samadhi a certain way.
How to Know God is the balance, it creates beauty and a more grounded/refreshing approach to the Sutras. My favorite order for each sutra is Bryant, How to Know God and The Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali. You get a break after Bryant’s academic espousal, then get to have a fun short section. The classical yoga interpretation at the end seals the deal with understanding what the sutra means in each context.
After that, it is up to your own personal contemplation and how to apply each sutra to your life! I hope you enjoy this system, try it out and let me know what you think!
Beyond Truth in The Yoga Sutras
“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 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 inner journey in yoga and study of yoga philosophy, 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, our personal yoga 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, and to seek long term friendships with those who are goal orientated and have high accountability toward making our world a better place.
Without a community who lives their practice off the mat, reads ambitious 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.
Best Yoga Sutras: Top Five List
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary By Edwin Bryant PHD
How to Know God: The Yoga Aprphoisms of Patanjali, by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood
Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali by Swami Hariharananda Aranya and P. N. Mukherji
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Sri Swami Satchidananda
Translation in back of Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy by Gregor Maehle