I received a comment when this article was posted in Elephant Journal asking whether I followed the Yoga Sutras “in a fundamentalist, literal way”. I gave the question some thought and found it more appropriate to write my reply in a new post, as it’s longer than the average comment.
The author of the comment took issue with an interpretation of Yoga Sutras I:14 in which Patanjali says “[practice] becomes consistent only if done for a long time without any interruption and with devotion.” I believe it was the interpretation of long time without interruption to mean everyday that irked my commenter.
To answer, I wouldn’t call myself a Fundamentalist who reads Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras literally. I don’t have an unwavering attachment to the Sutras and do not see them as a set of irreducible beliefs. I think of the Sutras as guidelines outlining conditions that will enable me to experience what Patanjali’s describing. I guess you could say I see the Sutras in a scientific way. It’s ultimately practical.
Where yoga practice is concerned, experience is everything. And experience is derived from practice. It is no coincidence that Guruji most often told students “practice, practice, practice” and “99% practice, 1% theory”. The latter can be paraphrased to 1% discussion or 1% intellectualizing.
If someone wants to define practice in his or her different way from Patanjali, he or she is welcome. The proof however is in the pudding. The results derived from practicing according to one’s own definition remains to be seen and is subject to debate. We can chat about fundamentalist readings of Patanjali, but there’s no hiding once we’re on our mats.
I’ve practiced everyday and I’ve practiced infrequently over the years. I have direct experience of what each was like for me mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually. I have had the most positive results trying to emulate Patanjali’s and my guru’s teachings.
I have also always presumed that human nature is essentially unchanged since Patanjali’s time and have imagined his students asking him whether they really need to practice everyday, need to be celibate, need to eat vegetarian, etc.
Patanjali’s Sutras aren’t meant to be taken literally and on blind faith. In fact, each is a challenge to the student to gain direct experience and personal knowledge (pramana described in I:7). I have found it more productive for me to do my best to follow the Sutras not because I am a fanatic, but because, from direct experience, I have faith and trust that Patanjali knows a lot more about yoga than I do.
Finally, I don’t have the presumption that I am an exception to human nature. It’s not a shortcoming that my chitta behaves in the way Patanjali outlines. In fact, I take comfort and find it useful that I am joined with others in a common goal (the state of yoga, see I:2) with common obstacles that stretches backward and forward through time. I gave up any attachment to being an exception sometime in my twenties. I am no Raskolnikov contemplating and needing to see myself as extraordinary.