4 Basic Assumptions of the Yoga Sutras

Written by Clayton Aynesworth

When I first came across the philosophy of yoga, it was a good two years into my practice of the physical aspects of it. I had read books by Joseph Campbell, Hermann Hesse and Paramahansa Yogananda, listened to lectures and dialogues by Krishnamurti and David Bohm, and watched videos of saddhus at the Kumbh Mela, as well as B.K.S. Iyengar practicing asana outside with his guru Krishnamacharya. But, I had yet to venture into examining its backbone, the Yoga Sutras. All of those encounters with this foreign Indus Valley tradition had piqued my curiosity. I had forever been drawn to the unusual; and so it was at 20, being from a small rural town in North East Texas that these books, lectures and videos were very unusual, and quite engaging.

In conscious as well as unconscious life we wander across difficult thresholds of transformation. Being young and idealistic, I imagined I was a hero, and I was ready for a rebirth. The crossing of these thresholds, though, demands a change. Sometimes this change is pleasant and seems only natural, and sometimes we run kicking and screaming from it and its imagined consequences. If an individual goes through a traumatic experience, the mind can abruptly be radically cut away from the attitudes, attachments and life-patterns of the stage being left behind. That was what had indeed happened for me when my friend passed away.

Luckily, I had enrolled in the previous semester in a “Psychology of Religion” class at the University of Texas at Austin. We were reading The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) by the pioneering American psychologist William James. As he noted in his Gifford Lectures- for many of us it is our birthright as conscious beings to encounter dangerous crises of self-development. During these crises we rely on a sort of default system to catch us. James referred to this default system as consisting and relying on something he referred to as our “over-beliefs.”

Over-beliefs come about as the product of our cultural upbringing. They are inherited and passed down through our families and schools. We hardly ever think about them. We never talk about them. Instead, our teachers, parents and ministers try to foster them so that they may arise in our lives. They arise so that we may usefully interpret the realm of our common and not so common shared experiences in our individual histories. Even though they cannot be proven on the basis of experience, they help us to live fuller lives. An over-belief is simply a belief that is adopted and is justified on an emotional need, rather than on evidence. According to the classical yoga compendium, four assumptions provide the cosmological framework for the nature of the universe. These are not over-beliefs, according to the followers of yoga, but rather behave somewhat as over-beliefs would.

As my world had taken quite a turn, I began to question my own psychological inheritance. Pesky questions arose that, in the words of David Whyte, seemed to “have no right to go away.” That is, they had to do with the person I was becoming, not the person I had been. I needed to make sense of what I had experienced, but my program for making sense was broken. I needed a new operating system.

So, since I was walking the walk, I started reading as many of the Yoga Sutra commentaries as I could find in the UT library system to find out what all of the fuss was about. Through time, I started to see a pattern in how the commentators framed up our existence. It was based on a set of assumptions.

Briefly, the first assumption was that the physical reality, which engenders and maintains the cycle of phenomenal existence, -- i.e., all mutations of matter, space and time in the universe, were in fact products of the phenomenal world, Maya. This physical reality was called Prakriti. The second assumption was that absolute reality was "situated" somewhere beyond the reaches of the phenomenal world. This absolute reality was called Purusha. The third assumption was that Ishvara, God, existed. Ishvara was the first realized soul. And so, Ishvara was also the first yogi, the first Self to realize his (traditionally considered to be male) own transcendent nature. He became aware of his own ability to have awareness, somewhat like Gautama the Buddha would later, and thereby liberated his Purusha from the bonds of Prakriti. Thus, the fourth assumption followed -- that one could liberate one’s Purusha from the illusory bonds of the phenomenal world. This sort of ultimate liberation was called Kaivalya and was the yogi’s ultimate goal. In other words, if Ishvara could do it, so could we.

Now, the question that loomed for me was “How on earth do we do this?” A proposed answer was right before me, so I thought I would at least give it a shot. In less than 200 aphorisms, less than 2000 words in all, the Yoga Sutras was written by Patanjali around 200 A.D. to demonstrate exactly that.

The labyrinth of today’s journey towards adulthood seems to require a strong mind with rigorously honed abilities to deal with its elaborate structure. As in the ancient story, one’s success would depend on whether one was provided with a skein of thread, a “clue” that would allow one to find one’s way out again. The labyrinth of today’s culture, for heroes of all ages, is psychological in nature and fraught with many dead ends. An infinite amount of distraction is ever present, ready to help us feel disinclined in taking the necessary passages towards our adulthood.

Sutra refers to just that, a thread or a line, that holds things together. It is a form of literary composition. Concision is its measuring stick, but that is not all. Originally, for it to be considered a Sutra worth writing down, it had to be of minimal syllables. It was said that in India in ancient times, when a Sutra was shortened by even one syllable there would be dancing in the street. In addition, it had also to be comprehensive, and carry through its many garlands of aphorisms, one train of thought continuously and without flaw. Through time, I realized that I had become, as in the words of Joseph Campbell “fixated to the unexorcised images of (my) infancy; and hence, disinclined to the necessary passages to (my) adulthood.” I needed medicine for my ailment.

Hopefully, whenever times get tough or our situations become dire, we can find an experienced initiate, some kind of modern master of the mythological realm who can help us find the purpose in and effect of just such a dangerous crisis. For me, this modern master wasn’t very modern at all. Patanjali lived over a thousand years ago in a culture that arose half way around the world. But, he was offering a set of rituals, in a way, that his adherents had passed down and elaborated on through the centuries. And, I had subscribed and found them useful and helpful in working out my very modern “issues,” which were now seemingly, flagrantly displayed in the equivalent of neon colors on the front pages of my mind.

My teacher, Bekir Algan, had earned a Ph.D in structural engineering. His specific focus concerned the effects of earthquakes on concrete. That it what had happened to me. I was in need of some repair. There had been a psychological earthquake and my foundation had crumbled. He had let his engineering career go in pursuit of the benefits of yoga. His need for precision and accuracy had drawn him towards Iyengar style yoga, but his upbringing in Turkey had given him a flavor for the mystical traditions of Sufi lore. This combination turned out to be just what the doctor ordered.

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