atha – now; yogaḥ – of yoga; anuśāsanam – instructions, commands, precepts
And now the (authoritative) instructions of yoga.
The initial word atha in this first śloka, is a word that is commonly used to begin sūtra writing. Among all the possible meanings, the one that is used here is ‘now’. And when we say ‘now’, we are not speaking of a moment in time as it were, but it’s like “having finished all of the preliminary studying or endeavoring in other ways for things; all other previous study and practice, now we take to this path”. The traditional commentators say that this word atha is deemed as somewhat sacred, and thus also functions as an auspicious opening to the text. It’s used in many other sūtras, for instance, the Vedānta Sūtra or the Brahma Sūtra, which is probably the most famous of all the great spiritual sūtras. It begins: “athāto brahma-jijñāsā” – “So now, therefore, we should inquire into Brahman (or the Highest Truth or Ultimate Reality).”
The second word in this sūtra is anu, which denotes a continuation of something – it’s not something that’s newly evolved. So there is reference here to these teachings of yoga being very ancient, and this is a continuation of them. The second part of the word – śāsanam – this word śās is often understood in terms of a command, a command that is not unwillingly received, but something which is deeply authoritative. We often see that in the modern world there is this tendency to want to reject authority because it’s perceived that the authorities are somehow dominating or controlling us, and we’re unwilling to be in that lower position. But my usage of the word, ‘authority’ or ‘authoritative’ here, is in the sense of someone who has a very profound depth of knowledge and is therefore known as a leading authority. And therefore, if you want to know something from someone who has such a fund of knowledge, you approach them in some humility, seeing them as an authority.
One way in which we can perhaps understand the use of this word atha at the beginning of this śloka is akin to: Now, after previous learning, we begin the authoritative study of yoga following the previous saints or rishis – the great yogis.
In recent years in the Western world, it has become fashionable to talk about and interpret the word ‘yoga’. The renowned ‘yoga’ authority Krishnamacharya taught his disciples that there were two sub-roots, if I can use that term. It is not an accurate Sanskrit term, but I am using it to help people understand. The original root of the word ‘yoga’ is yuj.
And if we look at two derivative roots from that, the great ancient grammarian Panini gave two possible ways that this could be understood: one was yujir-yoge, which literally means union and is what many people understand yoga to mean – this union or yoking. The other alternative was yuja samadhau or samādhi. So, one could understand yoga to mean either union or samādhi.
While Vyāsa in his commentary states, “yogaḥ samādhiḥ” – or “yoga means samādhi” one should not assume he meant this as a literal translation, it is far deeper than that. One needs to contemplate upon the word ‘yoga’ in a deeper way, rather than just trying to reduce the word to a singular meaning that would nullify or invalidate other meanings.
While Patañjali’s use of the word samādhi will frequently be in connection with contemplation and the eventual stage of transcendental absorption, samādhi, as the goal of yoga, is experienced as a transcendental union between the ātmā and the paramātmā.
Yoga, as a philosophical school or a spiritual path, is understood to be part of the six orthodox Vedic philosophies or schools known as the ṣaḍ darśana – Nyāya, Vaiśeṣika, Sāṅkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṁsā, and Vedānta. But it must be pointed out that these categorizations were not really found in ancient Vedic texts.
The ancient references to yoga that we find in the Upaniṣads, Purāṇas, or in the Mahābhārata for instance, did not treat ‘Yoga’ as a standalone school. We can see that these six darśans, or six schools of Vedic orthodoxy, became recognized as standalone ‘institutions or philosophical ideas and teachings, from within this Common Era, or much less than 2,000 years ago. At the time of Patañjali there was no school of yoga as such, but he is presenting contemplative yoga and referencing it as being yoga – which is rightly done.
I think there is some need to try to understand this reference to the term samādhi. Samādhi is the final attainment of yoga practice. Unlike the seven other limbs in this ashtanga yoga process, samādhi is not something that you ‘do’ or perform. The yāmas and niyāmas, asana, prāṇāyāma, pratyahara, dhāraṇā, dhyāna – these are things that you ‘do’, or that you practice, but samādhi is the experience (awakening) of myself as a pure spiritual being or entity, free from any material covering or material consciousness. It is a total and complete absorption in transcendence.
Samādhi is, however, sometimes translated as being ‘concentration’ which though valid, can also be misleading for someone not well enough schooled in yoga teaching. Concentration can be understood as being a mental state or a condition involving the mind. But the mind, we must understand, is a material object and enlightenment means transcending that which is material. Vyāsa states that the mind can exist in five possible states, and they all have Sanskrit terms, translated in English as: restless, stupefied, distracted, one-pointed, and arrested. We will speak about this in some detail with the appropriate ślokas.
In his commentary, Vyāsa has stated that in any one of those states, one can momentarily experience a ‘full concentration’ which may be taken to be samādhi. But the moment of concentration that one may experience in those conditions is actually subordinate to (or less frequent than) the moments of unrest of the mind, and as such, that type of concentration cannot be actually regarded as yogic samādhi. Vyāsa says that the type of concentration which leads to samādhi must have specific characteristics, and those characteristics are: being one-pointed; bringing enlightenment about a real entity (meaning the ātmā, the puruṣa, or the seer); must weaken the Kleśas (the obstacles on the path of enlightenment); must loosen the bonds of karma, and pave the way to actual samādhi.
So we can see in his expounding on this, that we should not even think that any momentary absorption and one-pointedness is going to result in samādhi or spiritual advancement if our practice is not having these characteristics.