The 5 Best Yoga Sūtra Translations and Commentaries
Yoga Sutra books by Swami Satchitananda and BKS Iyengar honor Patanjali's work.
By VINEET KAUL | Last Updated on August 10, 2022
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Yoga Sutras by Patanjali are an authoritative text on yoga.
Meaningful yoga practice extends beyond the mat.
These top-rated yoga sutra are the key to yoga philosophy.
Also, read our top picks for books to learn pranayama.
The Yoga Sūtra refers to a seminal book compiled between 500BC and 400CE by Sage Patanjali. Patanjali is often called the father of yoga. His treatise is the first known text that codifies and systematically presents the theory and philosophy of Ashtanga Yoga - the eight steps of yoga.
It is the most important text of classical Yoga, which is why every aspirant and yoga teacher is expected to read it. The book contains four parts (or chapters) consisting of 196 verses. The four chapters of the yoga sūtras are -
Samadi pada (What is yoga?)
Sadhana pada (How to achieve it?)
Vibhutti pada (Benefits of yoga)
Kaivyalya pada (Goal of yoga)
Yoga Sutra Commentaries and Why They Matter
It was a common practice in ancient India to write a short and compact treatise. This treatise (read: sutra) was paired with a second book of detailed commentary by the same author. Over time, other scholars would write additional commentaries based on the original text.
In the same vein, Yoga sutra commentaries are explanations and insights on Patanjali sutras by authoritative figures in the world of yoga. They are not the same as yoga sutra translations, although most commentaries have translation and transliteration.
A good commentary explains the context and deeper meaning of the original text. But even the best yoga sutra translation is not an easy read for the modern yogi. The original verses are difficult to unpack without a background in Sanskrit and Vedic literature.
Today, Yoga sutra commentaries fall into two categories - a) an acclaimed yogi's viewpoint of the yoga sutras, and b) a modern biographic book by an academic scholar. The first type (a) is insightful explanation of the terse aphorisms. The academic commentaries are biographical, documenting a historical timeline and analysis of other famous yoga sutra books.
Commentaries are better than yoga sutra translations because books with translations do not explain or break down the meaning of each verse.
Here are the five best commentaries on the Patanjali Sutras that do justice to the original text.
The 5 Best Yoga Sutra Books to Read in 2022
One of the oldest and finest introduction to the theory and philosophy of yoga!
Sri Swami’s commentary on the yoga sutras is a longstanding classic that has enjoyed popularity across the globe. His primary focus in this book is on deciphering the yoga sutras in the context of Raja Yoga.
The book presents precise translations of the yoga sutras with transliterations and easy-to-grasp explanations. The book covers each of the four sections in detail and rounds them up with comprehensive commentary.
Swami Satchidananda’s insights are practical rather than erudite. It treats yoga as the “science of the mind”, helping you determine how yoga works and how we can work with it. The book has a high level of readability without sacrificing the quality of the original content.
Swami does not shy away from anecdotes either. He insists that readers highlight and memorize their favorite sutras to grow spiritually. While the book poses as a commentary, it also contains bags of practical information regarding the daily practice of yoga. As a commentary and a yoga sutra translation, the book excels at what it sets out to achieve. It is an easy-to-follow interpretation of the spiritual values of yoga with a rich history and reverence attached to it.
Simple, relevant, and intelligent - a modern classic!
Raja Yoga is a bona fide account of Swami’s experiential and insightful interpretations of the Yoga Sutras. Even so, the book goes beyond the deciphering of Patanjali’s aphorisms. It puts forth a practical and systematic explanation, fueled by Swami Vivekananda’s tryst with western transcendentalism as he went about Europe and America.
After Yogabhashya, Raja Yoga is arguable the most steadfast text, widely appreciated, and acknowledged as a landmark on the subject. After nearly a century, it withstands the test of time and will continue to do so for decades to come.
Whether you wish to read up on Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, Karma Yoga, or Jnana Yoga, Swami Vivekananda has generously written about these topics in his short but eventful life. Ironically, Swami reiterates that actual practice is more fruitful than amassing knowledge.
In a nutshell, the book does a commendable job in semantically documenting yoga’s rich legacy and spirit – something that can serve as a much-needed balm in current times. It is a must-read for students, serious practitioners, and scholars. If you do not wish to buy the book, you can also read Swami Vivekananda's transliteration and commentary on the Yoga sutras online.
A much-needed critical approach to the origins and evolution of the yoga sutras.
In the true fashion of a critical scholar, Gordon White explores the theories and controversies around the interpretation of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra and its strange revival lead by 19th and 20th-century Hindu reformers, Theosophists, and New Age spiritualists.
His take on the subject is critical (and therefore controversial). He vehemently insists that we know nothing about the original text other than what we know through Ved Vyasa's Yoga Bhasya, the first commentary on the Patanjali sutras.
With that preface, White ventures into the theory and origin of Patanjali's sutras. He also chronicles the insights of other scholars such as Hegel, Krishnamacharya, Vivekananda, and others in an overarching biography of the book itself.
He holds up the original yoga sutra translations against modern fanfare with great scrutiny. There are some interesting sections about how modern yoga may have romanticized the sutras to a level of importance that is hard to justify.
There is a chance, he feels, that the original text may have been co-opted by commentators to serve their own agenda. Yet, he also focuses on the depth of the literature and concludes with his thoughts on what the future might hold for all these ideas and interpretations.
The book might come across as provocative to anyone who passionately defends and believes in the lore that engulfs the subject. But that's the book's greatest strength and weakness, a fact that makes it a hit-or-miss selection. It's a worthy (and grounding) read nonetheless.
Unique insights of an eminent yogi on the theory and practice of yoga
Iyengar’s approach is to our liking. In 'Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali', he takes the time to highlight how prana and breathing are axiomatic practices in yoga. The chapters flow like poetry, much as you find in the Sanskrit texts. However, his writing will appeal to sincere practitioners and scholars rather than those who are merely curious.
Iyengar codifies the sutras in terms of context rather than a periodically correct order. The book is meticulously indexed and offers unmatched insights on the subject. Each sutra is followed with translations of all the Sanskrit terms. The "Interconnection of the sutras" section is a helpful reference for those new to yoga.
This book is for those who have committed to a life-long journey of yoga and are eager to figure out the origins rather than basic instructions. You can also supplement this book by reading Core of the Yoga Sutras: The Definitive Guide to the Philosophy of Yoga. You will get intimately familiar with the theory, jargon, and Sanskrit words used in yoga philosophy by the end of it. That said, we recommend the book to those who enjoy close reading rather than a book that can be read cover to cover.
A highly readable compilation of the diverse commentaries on the Patanjali sutras
Edwin Bryant is a yoga scholar and professor of the Hindu religion in America. His take on the Patanjali sutras is relatively different from the other commentators. For one, it is not unique or representative of his individual understanding of the philosophy of yoga.
Instead, Bryant chooses some of the perplexing and abstruse ideas in the existing commentaries and presents them in a more readable or palatable manner. He does not sacrifice authenticity or seriousness on the altar of readability. The commentaries weave the ideas of other commentators that are referenced and explained.
It is a thought-provoking (and lengthy) introduction to the history of yoga - not a book to ingest in one session, or even a dozen for that matter. You have to sip the writing slowly, contemplate it, and return for the next dose when you are ready.
Barre the occasional foray into his own thinking, Edwin Bryant prefers to present an academic view of the subject. What Bryant lacks in terms of uniqueness, he makes up with his ability to relay esoteric ideas to the non-specialist reader.
The book never misses the challenge of communicating ideas thoroughly even as it from the classical commentaries of Vyasa, Bhoja, Shankara, and others. Overall, Bryant’s commentary is thorough, respectful, and flows beautifully. We recommend it to the general reader, especially those who enjoy a modern and well-referenced take on the subject.
If you don't want to spend money or aren't inclined to order a paperback, you can listen to the audiobooks of some of our selections using Amazon Audible's free trial. It is also a great resource to find guided meditations, spiritual books, and podcasts.
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