Episode 39: Richard Rosen on Patanjali in Modern Yoga Practice

Richard Rosen is a yoga scholar and teacher who has written five yoga books that are well worth reading. In this episode, we talk about his most recent, “Yoga FAQ, Almost Everything You Need to Know about Yoga — from Asanas to Yamas.” This book is rich with historical info and yet, Richard is refreshingly honest about how traditions change and evolve. We focus mostly on his Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra — who was Patanjali? Who was Vyasa? And why is this text a seminal part of modern Western yoga?

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Yoga FAQ, Almost Everything You Need to Know about Yoga — from Asanas to Yamas, by Richard Rosen
The Shiva Sutras Mark Dyczkowski (SUNY 1992)
Vijnana Bhairava Jaideva Singh (SUNY 1991)
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (translation by Chip Hartranft)
The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (translation by Georg Feuerstein)
Yoga Body: Origins of Modern Posture Practice, by Mark Singleton
The Roots of Yoga, by Sir James Mallinson & Mark Singleton
The Yoga of Breath, by Richard Rosen
Original Yoga: Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga, by Richard Rosen
Pranayama Beyond the Fundamentals, by Richard Rosen

David Szesztay – Traveller
David Szesztay –Ladybirds Theme

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  1. I found this to be kind of a bummer. I’m new to yoga and listening to Richard made me want to give up and say why bother? We are all doing it wrong anyway. I felt really down after listening to him. I thought yoga was helping me and I always was so interested in it…..now I feel….. I don’t know..:: foolish, like a foolish dumb American.

    • Hi Bonnie! Oh gosh, I’m sorry it made you feel that way! My sense of what Richard was trying to convey was quite different: He’s someone who has studied all of the traditional texts and he feels that it’s important for us to carve our own way. He feels that it’s OK for the practice to change according to our modern lives and needs. He is not a teacher who relates to the Yoga Sutra, but many teachers do. My goal for the podcast is not to tell people there is one way to study and practice and live and teach. My goal is to present an array of different viewpoints so that we have the information and can decide for ourselves. I personally love the Yoga Sutra in terms of the way that it’s written and in terms of the powerful messages contained in small verses. But I understand from him that it’s not a means to an end — it’s not the answer to ALL. But, I am also not a dogmatic person and I’m not looking for one text or person or way to be the answer. I hope that helps. Thanks for writing, Bonnie. I’m really happy to hear feedback from people and keep the dialogue open. Andrea

      • Thanks for the reply! I do love your podcast, especially Stephanie Snyder. I LOVE HER!!! Thanks for all that you do and share with us. xo

  2. And most likely I totally misunderstood Richard Rosen. Yoga has been huge to me as I get sober and to come to the realization that I may not know much about yoga at all and practicing all wrong really stung. Thank you for clarifying.

    • Your comment was helpful — it made me realize that it’s worth clarifying and having another teacher on who views the Yoga Sutra differently. And it made me realize that it could really rock people’s worlds. I forgot that when I first started talking to yoga teachers as part of my job that my world was rocked daily 🙂 And then, at a certain point, I was able to accept and appreciate that several people can look at the same data and interpret it totally differently. So, the best I could do was to try to understand the differing viewpoints and then take what worked and…quite honestly, leave the rest. Again, this is just my approach. I wish you so much love on your path! Trust your instincts in terms of which teachers you resonate with. You are doing great.

  3. I totally understand where Bonnie is coming from because at first I too felt that feeling of “oh no, I’m doing it all wrong,” but I often feel that way when I practice with teachers who have been doing this for a while – it feels like they know so much and I know so little. It’s true what they say the more you practice, the more you realize how much you don’t know. It is often overwhelming and scary to be a teacher when you keep practicing and keep realizing you only have more to learn. Richard does such a good job of balancing the knowledge he has to share and the humility that he doesn’t know everything, I love hearing teachers say “I don’t know” without hesitation. Thank you for sharing!! Also, I’ve listen to the Sally Kempton episode on anger 4 or 5 times and have shared it with so many friends; such a valuable resource for trying times.

    • Great attitude! Always more to learn!

  4. This is a fascinating albeit troubling thread! Our first ideas of yoga from afar, that it’s a millennia-old asana practice for health, eventually have to confront a very messy reality. And that’s hard, and maybe and perhaps for some too jarring, but it really doesn’t mean we should perpetuate myths and illusions. Rosen is right on about the fact that Patanjali’s sutras are for ascetics; it is a handbook, a laundry list, for those who want to transcend material reality. And yes, not only we Westerners, but many from the other side of the ocean, have distorted it to fit with preconceptions and desires (e.g. the idea of ultimate union with divinity, a central concept of Hinduism and many mystic schools, is rejected by Samkhya but continues to be linked with the book). Like Andrea and Richard, I agree that we must cherry pick in this situation. There is wisdom in the Sutra(s) and the commentary, particularly certain commentators like Vyasa, but it must be winnowed out and adapted, without distorting the original intent. Anyway, I could go on…. I’d just add that I would endorse Rosen’s recommendation of Bryant’s version of YS, noting that’s it’s only for the very serious student, it is a mighty tome, but this is the real shit. Also, an interesting link for someone feeling daunted is Mark Singleton’s article in Yoga Journal, where he discusses his own disillusionment and subsequent rebound. His conclusion is heartening: “Understanding yoga’s history and tangled, ancient roots brings us that much closer to true, clear seeing. It may also help to move us to a more mature phase of yoga practice for the 21st century.” http://www.yogajournal.com/article/philosophy/yoga-s-greater-truth/

  5. Confusion or not, it is very valuable content, so keep it up!
    Thank you

  6. I am just finishing up a 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training program and I found this podcast very interesting and helpful. I have practiced yoga (asanas) for about 15 years, but am just delving into the philosophy now. It was nice to hear there are different perspectives and I will check out some of the books listed.

  7. Hello Andrea, thank you for creating this set of podcasts – I so enjoyed this one with you and Richard, and having browsed the others I’m looking forward to exploring those too. So lucky to have such wonderful resources available, thanks to the motivation and creativity of people like you!

    I had a thought about the why, regards the connection between the sutras and modern hatha yoga. It struck me that perhaps, culturally, it has served as the most palatable bridge between the old christian values and view of humanity and sin, and what we are more open to considering now. That sense of duality, that all manifest creation is a deluding distraction, perhaps helps that idea that enlightenment is only something you find once you’ve done yoga every morning for 2 hours at 5am for 20 years! Which perhaps helped as useful fuel or motivation to get us started in the first place. It is a much more palatable set of ideals (the sutras) for a post christian world than say, the more tantrik texts where there is god in everything. But I think the insights we now have from buddhism, and the parallels being drawn between modern quantum research and the ancient tantric texts are serving to enable a questioning of the duality in the sutras – or an openness to the possibility that there’s another view.

    Ultimately though, all ‘knowledge’ can do is act as a method to glimpse a fragment of the ‘truth’ but none of it is the actual truth. The actual truth can never be fully known, only felt or experienced and re-experienced, through a consistent practice and curiosity. And there as many ways to access that felt sense as there are blades of grass or grains of sand!

    My grandmother introduced me to yoga when I was only 12, and after her death a poem fell out of one of her books on yoga. I think it describes that in such a beautiful way –

    “Our highest truths are but half-truths;
    Think not to settle down for ever in any truth.
    Make use of it as a tent in which to pass a summer’s night,
    But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.
    When you first have an inkling of its insufficiency
    And begin to descry a dim counter-truth looming up beyond,
    Then weep not, but give thanks:
    It is the Lord’s voice whispering,
    “Take up thy bed and walk.”

  8. I found Richard’s last words interesting because for some time now I have feared that within one generation the bridge between classic yoga and modern will be permanently erased.

    For myself, I have a healthy respect for Sanskrit and for the yoga sutras as a historical work – but I don’t pretend Patanjali is a necessary handbook for anyone to enjoy yoga. It’s just not. Lots of people enjoy yoga without ever reading translations of this arcane work.

    But when I meet people who growl about being “forced” to learn “sandscript” or how resent conversations about cultural appropriation – I do worry.

    Tradition, to me, is something that can be “interesting” without being necessary to practice. Therefore I don’t, personally, feel any tension, any need to totally erase tradition/history.

    I was a history major in college. We read old texts literally ALL THE TIME without feeling we needed to practice from them. So in my first 200-hr yoga teacher training I was a little surprised to see my teacher struggle to convey a modern interpretation of Patanjali, a text which stubbornly refused to comply with her sincere gyrations.

    Personally I do not feel any tension, any responsibility to practice (for example) celibacy or withdrawal from the time-space continuum. AND I’m not wiling to pretend the sutra says something other than it does just to make it seem okay to modern inclinations.

    But, gosh, I do meet so many people who are either a) bent on re-writing history, and pretend (or interpret) ancient texts anachronistically. (my personal pet peeve)

    and b) people who are dismissive and angry, resentful of tradition, and feel it has no place in a yoga studio.

    Just this last year I decided to introduce some history into my yoga classes. Not for the students to become wandering mendicants but just because i thought people might find it interesting. I’m happy to report many people did. Sorry to report, some people really strongly did not.

    well. . . as I said, I worry about the knowledge dying with me if none of my students are interested enough to study further. But I guess that’s just the way it goes.


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