Who Was Patanjali, and Why is He So Important to Yogis?

who was Patanjali

If you’re a student of classical yoga, no doubt you’ve heard of Patanjali and the classic text, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Who was Patanjali? It’s a good question that may not have a simple answer.

When I first learned about the sutras, my yoga teacher described Patanjali as a sage who collected the teachings of yoga and wrote about them in verses. The yoga text we attribute to Patanjali contains 196 of them. The text was written at least 1700 years ago, according to Yoga Journal.

Who Was Patanjali?

Like many revered figures in history, there are many myths about who Patanjali was. Some scholars even dispute that he was a single person. There are myths that claim Patanjali fell from the sky and that he was born of a virgin. To me, such claims underscore his importance as a spiritual figure.

It’s not clear why we know so little about the author of such an important text on yoga. Perhaps it’s because ancient yogis cared more about the practice than taking credit for teaching it. Patanjali, if he was a single person, remained relatively anonymous.

In the West, we might learn from this. We can focus more on the practice and more on sharing wisdom than we do on the business of yoga. That’s not to say we shouldn’t pay our yoga teachers, of course. It’s just interesting to notice how much teaching yoga in the West differs from the way ancient yogis shared the practice.

The Time for Yoga is Now

Regardless of how—or whether—we answer the question, who was Patanjali, there’s no doubt we can deepen our practice if we turn to the yoga sutras. To me, they are living statements. Often when I read them or consider them, I notice or reflect on something new.

If you’re not familiar with the yoga sutras, pick up a translation and dive in. The first thing Patanjali advises is this: Stop what you’re doing right now, and start learning the teachings of yoga!

Of course, I’m paraphrasing. The actual sutra (at least in the translation I have, by Reverend Jaganath Carerra) reads: Now the exposition of yoga. You’ll see other translations, but the basic idea is it’s time. Now. Don’t put it off any longer.

Yoga, as you probably know by now, is more than the hour or so you spend stretching and strengthening your body on the mat. (That part is awesome, by the way. Don’t skip it.)

The first sutra can apply to any aspect of the practice. If you’re putting off rolling out your mat, don’t. Do it now. If you’re putting off learning more about the philosophy of yoga, maybe it’s time for that. Or if you’re neglecting meditation…

You get the idea. The time for yoga is now.

No matter how long you’ve practiced or how much you know about the practice, there’s always more to learn. There’s always more to experience. There are poses yet to master, and there are sages yet to meet.

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Maria Kuzmiak

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