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Yoga History 101
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November 9, 2013 - 10:03 pm
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Who Was Patanjali?

The Yoga Sutra is an essential text for those who embrace the practice of yoga as a large part of their lives. But who was the person who wrote it? Yoga instructors may make references to Patanjali when they speak about the Yoga Sutra, as this work is often ascribed to that name. Many people also believe that the Mahabhasya, a commentary on Sanskrit grammar, can be attributed to Patanjali as well. He has become something of a legend in the Yoga tradition, and can be considered to a sort of "founding father" for the practice of yoga as we now know it.

There are many myths surrounding Patanjali, and very little historial evidence of his life. It is commonly believed that he lived in the 2nd century BCE. Patanjali is a Sanskrit compound term that has two explanations. The first, anjalau patan iti patanjali, or "Patanjali is the person who is falling into folded hands", refers to a legend surrounding his birth. In this legend, he was brought into the world as the reincarnation of the serpent Ananta. He then fell into the folded palms of a Brahmin who was resting in the Anjali Mudra pose. The second explanation for the name of Patanjali is patanto namaskaryatvena jananamanjalayo yasmin visaye sa, meaning "Patanjali is the one for whom the folded hands of people are falling".

Some contemporary scholars have argued that there is no sufficient evidence that the same Patanjali wrote both the Yoga Sutra and the Mahabhasya. However, new comprehensive research has emerged from Germany with claims that there was indeed a singular author named Patanjali who wrote both the Yoga Sutra and its commentary.

Sadly, we know very little about the real Patanjali who wrote the Yoga Sutra and its commentaries. Aspects of his life, death are unknown to us, but his philosophy is carried on through his works. Regardless of his relative anonymity, this is perhaps a reflection of how the practice of yoga was and is more important than developing a cult of personality around a specific teacher or sage. He is revered for bringing yoga into the world, not for his personhood alone.

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