Often, the most interesting lessons come when you look at something familiar from a different angle. That’s why I like to try different translations of favorite texts; sometimes a simple rewording can open up a whole new way of understanding what is being said.
The first time I read Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the first recorded version of the teachings of Yoga), I used three translations, to better understand the often vague aphorisms. While there was some variety between the three versions, the first sutra had the same basic idea: “I’m about to tell you about Yoga.”
Originally written in Sanskrit, the letters of which I am unable to type, the first sutra is transliterated as Atha Yoganusasanam. Here are the three translations:
Sri Swami Satchidananda: “Now the exposition of Yoga is being made.”
Bernard Bouanchaud: “Now is set forth authoritative teaching on yoga.”
Charles Johnston: “Here follows instruction in Union.”
As you see, each translator, in his own words, was interpreting the first sutra as “Check it out, dawg, I’m gonna to tell you about Yoga.” I remember hearing once that the whole essence of Yoga, the complete teaching, was in the first sutra, and that confused me to no end. How could the whole teaching be embedded in someone telling you they were about to teach you?
Then a passage in Michael Stone‘s The Inner Tradition of Yoga caught my eye. “Yoga begins in the present moment, and the present moment begins in silence. From that silence, words are born. In the Yoga-Sutra attributed to Patanjali… we begin with a simple sentence: ‘Atha yoganusasanum.‘ This is translated as ‘in the present moment is the teaching of yoga.'”
And, boom. Suddenly I see the light. Going back to Satchidananda and Bouanchaud, I found that both authors broke down their translation into literal and poetic versions. The literal translation from Satchidananda reads: “Atha = now; Yoga = of Yoga; anusasanam = exposition or instruction.” Bouanchaud’s tranlsation: “Atha: here and now. Yoga: of yoga. Anusanam*: outline, teaching, doctrine.” Both of these literal translations support the different way of looking at that phrase. The way Stone reads it, the sutra does not necessarily say, “Now I will tell you the teaching of Yoga.” It can also say, “Now IS the teaching of Yoga.”
There’s a big difference there. “Now is the teaching of Yoga” does contain what I could see as the entirety of yogic instruction, just as the entirety of meditation instruction could be elucidated as “Sit.” What is the lesson of now? Be present. Be mindful. Be aware of how you feel, of what is going on around you. Don’t spend your time on memories or thoughts of the future. The only time it will ever be is now, and now is the only time you can ever do anything. It will never be tomorrow, it was never yesterday. It is only ever now, so take the opportunity to do something now. Or nothing, if you like. Just be aware. That is the teaching of yoga.
*Satchidananda and Stone both transliterate the second word of the sutra as Anustasanam. It is unclear why Bouanchaud uses Anustanam.