I love Patanjali‘s Yoga Sutras; I have almost as many editions as I do fingers and toes.
When I heard there was a new translation and commentary of course I had to grab a copy.
I’ve just finished Threads of Yoga: A Remix of Patanjali’s Sutras with Commentary and Reverie. Original, insightful and beautiful, this is the most modern commentary I’ve read.
Reading its self-published pages, I felt as though Matthew Remski had given Patanjali a shave and haircut—the dusty old monk—and then dressed him in eco-chic loungewear and sat him down to talk with me over coffee.
If you know about the Yoga Sutras, I think you should get your hands on a copy of Remski’s book. Really. It’s the only edition I’ve read that…
- Gets me through the second half of the Sutras without falling asleep.
- Names the secret ingredient I always knew Patanjali left out of his sauce.
- Grabs my ear with language as beautiful as the sounds of Sanskrit.
- Lights sparks for me over and over again by striking Patanjali’s flint with the steel of modern science and philosophy.
- Shows me how to reject and love a spiritual text at the same time.
Here’s what I mean, point-by-point:
1. On staying awake through the end of the movie.
I like the Sutras. A lot. But every time I get close to Pada Three, I feel like I’m catching the flu. Thanks, but I really don’t want to fly, inhabit someone else’s body, or shrink to the size of a pixel.
On goes Netflix; I’d rather watch the latest Avengers sequel. That’s what I like about Remski’s book—unlike most translations I’ve seen, his rendition of Chapter three does not read like a comic book!
Leading up to the Sutra saying yogis can fly, for example, he points out that Patanjali probably never saw anyone do that. (Like, c’mon, Mr. P!) And then, his translation delivers the following beautiful refraction, which I really can believe: “Movement feels like flight when the flesh is wedded to space.”
Unlike the original, this translation radiates a truth I have tasted in my own asana practice; it glows more brightly every time I read the words. Threads of Yoga does this time after time—it tames the hyperboles of Chapter Three, reducing them to honest and beautiful insights. This alone made the read worthwhile for me. It got me to the end of Pada Three without losing my faith.
2. What’s missing from that sauce, anyway?
Besides Pada Three, something else has always bothered me about Patanjali’s Sutras; the word “love” isn’t anywhere in it.
Make no mistake about it, the Sutras put us on an elevated highway to liberation; they’re built to whisk us above the messy landscapes of life.
An honest reading of Patanjali, in my opinion, acknowledges that the yamas are mainly designed as an entry ramp where we come up to cruising speed. And this bugs me to pieces, because as much as I like the Sutras, I relish even more the love affair I’m having with my world (even though we have a quarrelsome relationship.) Say what you will about eternity; my particular soul needs the smell of dirt.
To fix the flat taste, Remski stirs relationships and love into his translations of the Sutras. And he further spices that with a moral imperative for the modern yogi: unless we engage in conscious and loving relationships with the beings around us, we have no hope of healing our our injured planet, not to mention our own psyches.
For example, in the original sutra about sauca (purity) most translations give us something like “Seek that purity which leads to disgust for one’s own body and for contact with others.” Ugh!!!
But Remski steps up with a variant I can get behind: “Ecology allows you to honor your flesh and the flesh of others.” Or on an esoteric sutra describing samadhi (sometimes translated as “integration”), he comments, “The highest form of integration, in my view, would be saturated with feelings of love.”
For this American yogi, it’s a relief to experience such caring and tenderness in a rendition of the Sutras; it shows me a deeper path into Patanjali’s truths.
3. How words can sing from the page.
As Remski brings relationships with people and our planet closer to the center of Patanjali’s sphere, he holds the master with a special kind of respect.
Remski describes his own project with the Sutras as “equal parts homage, adventure, reclamation and pleasure.” It’s a brilliant mission statement, if you ask me.
Following through, he goes on to brightly illuminate the qualities that have made the Sutras endure. He also offers resonant and compassionate explanations of the cultural setting of Patanajali’s time, which for me go a long way toward explaining the parts of the Sutras that stick in my craw.
Above all (and perhaps explaining it), Remski has an ear for the beauty of the language in the Sutras. I haven’t found any other translator whose own language rivets and mesmerizes my ear like the original Sanskrit does.
In a beautiful reflection on the sutra about “om,” for example, Remski rhapsodizes “I am nostalgic for the intimacy of an oral culture in which sounds were felt to be creative; perhaps as I am nostalgic for the joy I felt when learning to speak.” Or later, “Words about god can throw us, as they break, into a love for wisdom.”
Wow—thanks for putting it that way.
4. Polishing old doorknobs with a new cloth.
Most of the commentaries I have read do a pretty good job of explaining Patanjali and his commentators into contemporary English. Threads of Yoga does that too, but then it goes further, investigating how modern thinkers echo the old guys, or more interestingly, how they contradict them.
To read Remski’s commentary is to enter a friendly conversation between the old master and number of the esteemed psychologists, philosophers and neurologists of our own age. (To drop some of the names: the philosophers Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jacques Derrida, novelist Jorge Luis Borges, psychoneurologist Julian Jaynes…)
These modern luminaries create a particularly beautiful and insightful light in which to re-consider Patanjali’s long-archived perspective. It’s one I plan to revisit, through the nice bibliography at the back of the book.
5. “I’m arguing with you because I love you.”
Every once in awhile, a family event compels me to go to church. Once I get in, my experience follows a familiar pattern. Initially, it’s delightful—the service returns me to feelings and early memories that I love; I feel calm and uplifted.
Inevitably we’ll get to those places in the ceremony where I’m thinking, “I can’t believe I’m sitting here nodding my head to words that I know are not true. And there’s no way I’m going to say them with my own lips!!!” These places in the liturgy make me want jump up and bolt out of the building; I left the faith as soon in my life as I realized I had a choice.
I recently asked my sister how she reconciled her faith, which has grown stronger over the years, with the impossible statements in the texts and services we grew up with.
She’s wicked smart, and a minister—and she had a good answer. She told me that faith is a verb for her; it’s an action in which an essential element is struggling with the parts of the doctrine she can’t believe. The struggle defines her; she couldn’t have faith without it.
It would be, I suppose, like trying to build muscle without having a weight set.
This kind of struggle seems to lie at the heart of Threads of Yoga. Remski often argues with Patanjali—compellingly and eloquently. He rejects the stubborn asceticism in the Sutras, for example, labeling it a “subtractive suicide of the flesh.”
Where Patanjali famously says that future pain can be avoided, Remski counters “I cannot imagine any part of life that is not growing and learning, stimulated by dissatisfaction and impeded by struggle.” He blasts the Sutras’ most central claim that truth lies within us: “Nobody has the truth. Truth is the product of sharing what seems to be true.”
Remski’s wrestling matches with Patanjali remind me of my sister’s struggles with the liturgy of our church. Although he’s arguing with Patanjali, the author’s deeper purpose seems to be to define himself. He seems to grow in the process, drawing himself closer to Patanjali even as he asserts their differences.
We participate vicariously in this individuation, the hatching of a modern yogi from Patanjali’s beautiful egg.
To re-spin the delightful turn of phrase I quoted earlier, Remski’s words about Patanjali throw us, as they break, into a deeper love for the Sutras. And this, if you ask me, is a wonderful model for any long-term love affair…with a text, a tradition or a person.
6. The fine print.
I’m averse to raving on about anything for very long without pointing out its negatives. But I have to say that for me, Remski’s book didn’t have any negatives.
In case your brain doesn’t have the same peculiar wrinkles as mine, I’ll give you a few caveats—please note that this is here because it’s a mandatory paragraph and the words are in fine print.
My own ear, voice and heart, love the sound of words. If yours doesn’t, you may not enjoy the book as much as I did—to me, one of Remski’s most distinctive qualities is his lyrical voice.
Also science, philosophy and psychotherapy tickle my interest. If they’re a turnoff for you, then some of the book may leave you flat.
And finally, I am someone who has read the Sutras before. If you haven’t read them yourself you might not want to start with this version—you won’t appreciate how wonderful Threads of Yoga is.
Go and try one of the alternatives, then come back to this one—I think you’ll be glad you did.