Yoga-Based Birth Skill #1- Movement (Asana) - A Brief History of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

Article Index

The premise behind The Whole Way (Yoga-Based Pain Management Tools for your Labor & Birth) is that when Yoga Philosophy and Practice is combined with Human Physiology a path toward a calm positive birth experience is begun.

Millions of Americans practice asana (the physical aspect of yoga), the teaching and practice of Yoga at least in the aspect of poses and stretches is thoroughly mainstream.

However, American people are more used to practices that teach yoga as a flow-based aerobic exercise and these instructors share little, if any, knowledge of the philosophy behind the practice.

The reality is that Yoga is way more than a form of exercise and having a deeper understanding of where Yoga came from and what it actually is will give more depth of meaning to your practice of The Whole Way.

The language of Yoga is Sanskrit (an ancient Hindu dialect). This dialect is known for its rich resonant sounds—sounds that have a demonstrable effect on body and mind.

The sanskrit word yoga literally means “to yoke”. The ultimate goal of Yoga is to create a union with the Divine. The flavor of “Divine” is left up to the individual Yogi. The word Yoga by itself without any qualifications refers to the path of meditation particularly as outlined in the Yoga Sutras.

Yoga is a process of stilling and inward focus, in which utter physical and mental calm is brought to every aspect of your being and experience and may in fact refer to a number of different ancient spiritual systems.

Specifically— dhyana-yoga (the path of silent meditation) is the subject of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

Yoga was developed more than 5000 years ago and is mentioned in all ancient Hindu texts and scriptures, including the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita and according to all of these texts the system of Yoga has been available to all of mankind since time immemorial.

The earliest evidence of Yoga was found in the ancient Indus Valley cave drawings. The system of Yoga emerged well prior to the development of mainstream Hinduism and since the very beginning of this religion— Yoga has exerted immense influence over Hindu philosophical discussion and Hindu religious practices.

Nearly 2000 years ago, an Indian sage named Patanjali, recorded the Sutras into written form. He was not the originator, he was the compiler of the Yoga Sutras—the Aphorisms of Yoga. Patanjali masterfully compiled and reformatted the doctrines that had previously been handed down from pre-historic times, as an oral tradition, passed along by word of mouth.

Patanjali put stylus to banana leaf and recorded the Sutras into written form for his contemporaries in a time before books, writing, and even reading were commonplace, the whole thing still needed to be memorized. The resultant short pithy aphorisms are intended as a practical aid to quiet the mind and end suffering.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the most important classical Hindu text and is a classic in Eastern thought, along with the Bhagavad Gita it is the text that has received the most attention outside of India.

Patanjali condensed Yoga into just 196 sutras (literally meaning thread), and in these sutras the entire system of Yoga is clearly laid out: its aim, the necessary practices, the obstacles you may meet along the way, their removal, and precise descriptions of the results that will be obtained from such practices.

The sutras cut straight to the heart of the human dilemma, as they analyze how we know what we know and why we suffer. Then Yoga provides a meditative system to help each of us fulfill the primary purposes of consciousness—to see things as they are and to achieve freedom from suffering.

It is true that Yoga is thought to have originated in India and its philosophy is certainly fundamental to the Hindu religion. These facts do not make Yoga a religion or for that matter even necessarily Indian.

Yoga principles are universal.

So while Yoga is an inseparable part of Hindu theology, Yoga is its own separate system, a system that pre-dates the Hindu religion.

In fact, Yoga is not even particularly sectarian, it does not prioritize a specific deity nor does it promote a particular form of worship.

Therefore Yoga can be used as a template, a system that can be and has been appropriated by followers of different schools and traditions. Such appropriations have been done throughout Indian religious history, the format of the sutras certainly lend themselves to different approaches. This is most recently seen in non-religious contexts in the West.

In its own way, The Whole Way uses these universal yogic aphorisms as a template to a calm positive pregnancy and a strong resilient birth.

The practice of Yoga gradually expanded out of India and moved West. Yoga is mentioned in classical Greek texts and Alexander the Great was fascinated by the practice. It was practiced in the 1960’s in the West as a meditative technique for enlightenment.

Most of Yoga taught in the West today comes from the work of three big names, K. Pattabhi Jois, T.K.V. Desikachar, and perhaps most importantly B.K.S. Iyengar.  Almost all serious teachers can trace their practice through the lineage of these Masters. Most will also have a valued copy of  Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

I began my practice with the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga, which was founded by K. Pattabhi Jois, but my practice and my teaching also owe a great deal to the teachings of B. K. S. Iyengar. 

I have many valued copies of the sutras. This history and the one that follows are deeply indebted to two of them:

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali—A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary; Edwin F. Bryant; 2009; North Point Press; New York

Yoga—The Science of the Soul; Osho; 2002; St. Martin’s Griffin Press; New York