The approach prescribed by tradition to read the yoga sutras

In the 21st century, in the times of ubiquitous communication and social media, many people find the yoga sutras through deep asana practice. After the initial exhilaration of being able to twist their bodies into shapes that few can do, much to the admiration of thousands of people on social media, they experience some semblance of a steadiness of mind and ponder the next big question. This is usually when they want to learn more about the ancient practice of yoga and are attracted to the yoga sutras.

While it is a great thing, indeed, for one to discover the yoga sutras, the one problem with trying to study the yoga sutras directly without previous exposure to yogic concepts, is for example, akin to doing the third series of ashtanga yoga without knowing the fundamentals of Hatha Yoga from the first series - namely the bandhas, the ujjayi breathing, the Dhrishti and body awareness.

That is why learned Indian scholars start off people who are new to the scriptures with the study of the great Ithihasas (epics) - Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Once these gripping stories are imbibed, especially the core concepts like rebirth, atma and karma, they are taught the Bhagavad Gita, which is in the form of poetry and easy to understand. The Bhagavad Gita is aptly suited for lay people like us because Krishna repeats the concepts, not once, but sometimes a dozen times, from various angles so that the message reaches the readers.

The Yoga Sutras on the other hand is a scientific treatise (See the definition of a sutra here). It is so dense a mnemonic that parts of it are difficult to understand even for Sanskrit scholars. Such ambiguity in interpretation and difficulty in understanding does not arise with the Bhagavad Gita. Given a choice between a story and a scientific journal - which one would you pick ? The answer is unanimously the story, at least when we are beginners. The sutras are 196 dense aphorisms that need a commentary, written by intellectual giants like Vyasa and Adi Shankara (700 CE), and very often a commentary to a commentary, to understand. Once the fundamental concepts of yoga are understood through the study of other easier to read texts, the wisdom in the yoga sutras can make a profound impact.

In India, some people grow up imbibing these concepts either through their parents and relatives, through the Mahabharatha, the Ramayana and other epics on TV, or through the Amar Chitra Katha comics. Therefore the concepts of atma, rebirth, moksha etc. are less foreign to them than it is to people who are not exposed to these. Unfortuntely, these days, many people have started creating a so-called "scientific" version of yoga philosophy, stripping it of the concepts of rebirth, atma etc. trying to fit it into the confines of modern day science much the same way as trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It is worth remembering these eight guidelines when reading the sutras and other ancient yogic texts.

Below are some references for the aforementioned texts without verbose language, in a elegant writing that is easy to understand for teens and adults alike.

1) Ramayana by Dr. Kamala Subramanian

2) Mahabharatha by Dr. Kamala Subramanian

3) The Bhagavad Gita by Swami Sivananda

4) Amar Chitra Katha comics for children (and teens and adults alike)