Most yoga practitioners follow a predictable path when studying yoga. Practitioners often begin with a need for change - a new exercise routine, a change of environment, or a new way to look at things. Many of us begin with yoga classes or DVDs, learning the movements and breathing with a little bit of wisdom tied in. Growth comes when we reach a stage where we want to know more. It is at this stage that we are ready to dive deeper into the study of yoga. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It actually follows a path that was described by the sage Patanjali over two thousand years ago. Drawing from the wisdom of scholars and practitioners before him, he wrote down a philosophy that is at the core of modern yoga wisdom. In this work, Patanjali describes an eight-step path that begins with shifting world views and changing behavior. Then comes movement and breathing, then meditation. It is only when we are ready that we can pursue deeper wisdom.
Patanjali's philosophy is known as The Yoga Sutra. Though it is a paring down of hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years of wisdom that came before Patanjali, it can be intimidating for someone new to yogic philosophy. It is for this reason that I recommend reading a translation with commentary the first time you dive into this philosophy. One of my favorite commentaries on The Yoga Sutra was written by Nischala Joy Devi. Her translation and commentary is written specifically for women. Its complete title is The Secret Power of Yoga - A Woman's Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras.
Written from a caring and compassionate viewpoint, this translation focuses on the awakening and exploration of the heart. From the beginning, Devi approaches her study of the sutras with reverence and compassion. Some translations of the sutras can be rather dry, reading like a how-to manual for a machine, using lots of verbs like "control" and "direct." Devi takes a softer approach. The very first verse, often simply translated as "Now begins the study of yoga." Devi's translation reads, "With humility (an open heart and mind), we embrace the sacred study of yoga." Her intention with the book, as stated in her introduction, is to present a study of this ancient text in a way that is not only relatable, but can become a meditation. In this way, Devi hopes that the reader will be able to not only learn the wisdom, but also be able to integrate it into daily life.
The format of the book works beautifully for this goal. Devi slowly takes us through the sutras, providing history, knowledge from other philosophies, and insight from her own experience. Her graceful translations of the sutras are woven throughout her commentary, allowing the reader to listen and reflect while integrating the knowledge presented. The gentle repetition brings your mind back again and again to the core principles and encourages memorization. Devi also offers journaling exercises, meditations, and other exercises that allow the reader to experience the wisdom she is presenting. Devi presents these exercises gracefully as well, providing for a variety of viewpoints. For example, she directs the reader to use things that are meaningful to them for meditation - prayers, poems, or scriptures - without discriminating. This openness ties prior experience in to what she is teaching, making it easy to understand the concepts she describes.
Learning the sutras from Devi feels refreshing and soothing. You are able to learn from her wisdom without pressure, and are given space to have your own thoughts and experience. It may take longer to study the sutras in this format than it would to read straight through them, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The sutras were written to be concise - a collection of wisdom boiled down to be remembered and shared easily. It is impossible to glean their full meaning with nothing but a direct translation. Learning the wisdom from a teacher such as Devi changes the whole experience. Whether you are new to studying yoga philosophy, or are already started on that path, I encourage you to add The Secret Power of Yoga to your reading list and learn how to approach yoga practice and philosophy with an open heart.