The Passage to Patanjali


For many in the west who consider themselves devoted yogis, the Yoga Sutras are not necessarily a big part of that commitment. Not so for Lisa Dawn Angerame. A teacher with over 1,500 training hours and 12 years’ teaching experience, the study of the words of Patanjali has been a daily practice for the last 16 years and the guiding force of her approach to life – just as they were intended so many thousands of years ago.

“When I first got into yoga, I heard about the Yoga Sutras, and picked up the Swami Satchitanananda book,” Lisa Dawn says. “This was in 1999.” By the time she started teacher training with Baron Baptiste five years later, she had read the book hundreds of times. “I was very intrigued by Swamiji’s interpretations, and it just became something I was always thinking about.” However, she realized the book was incomplete.

“Many sutras were skipped and for the ones that did have commentary, some were elaborate and some were too short to really explain anything.”

Determined to delve deeper, Lisa amassed a collection of over 40 versions of the ancient text, including some of the original English translations from the late 1800’s. But, it was at retreat in 2010 that shed the really crucial light.

“My good friend and fellow yoga teacher, Tamar Samir, and I went to Omega Institute to study with another Jivamukti teacher, Jeffrey Cohen. He was going through a particular section in the first book and it was something about the way he presented that group of sutras. A light bulb went off in my head – the sutras are truly continuous. They represent one long thought.”

For Lisa, this revelation kick-started a journey of complete immersion. “I took all of my books off the shelves and dove into the sutras like a research project. I wanted to understand every word, in every sutra – from beginning to end. It was then that I realized that I didn’t want to know what anyone thought the sutras meant – I wanted to know what Patanjali said the sutras meant.”

Going deeper, Lisa wrote down each word in each sutra – one at a time – and its definition in the context of that sutra, keeping track of repeated words in a color-coordinated spread sheet. “It was the only way I could think of to organize my thoughts. It helped me see patterns in the repeating words, helped me memorize them, and helped me understand each sutra better by just simply spending time with them.”

Other books reinforced her method and provided further clarity “I discovered that T.K.V. Desikachar’s Reflections on Yoga Sutras of Patanjali did the same thing with an index of each word and which sutras they appear in. I also noticed that the sutras seemed to naturally form groups, or trains of thought, so I grouped them that way. And then I discovered that Barbara Stoller Miller’s book, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom: The Yoga Sutra Attributed to Patanjali, which does exactly that,” she says.

“And of course

Edwin Bryant’s book, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary, gives ancient commentary which really serves to keep the sutras in the context of their day."

Armed with this knowledge and interest, Lisa formed a sutra study group that has run for the last 5 years, and is teaching the sutras in teacher trainings as well.

“It is always a very interesting thing because people come with ideas of what the sutras mean or what yoga means,” she says. “For example, people say yoga means union, which it does, but not in the context of the Yoga Sutras. According to the sutras, the precise definition of yoga is control over the movement of the field of the mind so the yogi stands in their true nature, sutras 1.2 and 1.3. And then the next sutra says what yoga is not, which is when we stand in our thoughts.”

When teaching, Lisa spends a lot of time with these first few sutras driving home what yoga really means and how the rest of the sutras are there to teach how to attain a state this state. She says, “It is my job to launch into a very enthusiastic explanation of the rest of the sutras so that they come alive. I want people to love them the way I do!”

Lisa feels that modern yogis, who cherry-pick sutras out of context, are doing themselves a disservice. “I think the Western world has watered down the sutras by picking and choosing a few that teachers either have found easy to teach or think will resonate with their students. But, it doesn’t do the sutras and the philosophy justice,” she says. “They should be respected as a whole. I teach them literally and by doing so, the teachings become applicable to real life.”

Lisa’s teaching philosophy is rooted in several ideas. “That the Yoga Sutras are a spiritual philosophy with roots in Sāṅkhya. The sutras are a mental and psychological practice, meaning that after it happens in the mind, it happens in life. The sutras are a conceptual framework that should be understood as a whole. Taking them one by one dilutes the meaning and doesn’t explain how to do anything. I have found time and again that when I present them this way, there is a way deeper understanding of how to attain yoga.”

More of Lisa’s thoughts on the Yoga Sutras can be found in her essays at Embodied Philosophy. She will be teaching a workshop on the Yoga Sutras at Earth Yoga on October 30th, cost $25.

--Jim Catapano

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