The Yoga Philosophy Study Group at IYCD is nearing its completion of first chapter of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra. There are 51 sūtras in this single chapter and each is very demanding to unpack. The terse aphoristic nature of sūtra literature in general requires this process of explanation or “unpacking”. Individual sūtras are often impossible to decipher without recognition of their relationship to other sūtras as well as looming philosophical ideas. The minimal and cryptic presentation of the sūtras indicates that they were designed for memorization and not immediate comprehension, as the latter would assumedly be cultivated under the guidance of one’s own teacher.
Memorization as a pedagogical device may not be in fashion these days, but it certainly was in ancient India. Most of the ‘texts’ of ancient India existed solely in oral form for centuries if not millennia. The written form was considered inferior to recitation, since if one needed to write something down it meant (s)he could simply not remember it. Furthermore, palm and banana leaf manuscripts took considerable time to prepare and lacked substantial shelf-life. Lines of oral transmission also contained various built-in mechanisms by which ‘textual’ accretion, reduction, and corruption could be avoided. Thus memorization and recitation existed not only as an appealing option for the integrity of a ‘text’, but also for the mental fitness of the student.
For this reason our study group spends a significant amount of time reciting the Yogasūtra. This is a tall task but just like āsana practice it becomes easier over time. What is recommended is both a practice of reciting the individual words of a sūtra and then, perhaps more importantly, repetition of the entire sūtra as a unified whole. The latter can be practiced even without comprehension of its meaning. This is extremely effective in hardwiring the information into the student’s mind. As such, memorization without comprehension is only intended for the short-run. It is akin to filling a child’s head with a vast amount of information knowing full well that s(he) will not comprehend the meaning. The purpose is not to cultivate a mind that merely stores and ejects information, but to build a storehouse of raw material from which knowledge can be extracted in the future. (See the first two minutes of the video below)
Yogasūtra I.28 illustrates the situation well. The sūtra reads “tajjapastadarthabhavanam”, meaning “The repetition of it and the contemplation of its meaning”. The “it” in question is the “auṃ” mantra, also referred to as the praṇava. This sūtra explicitly states that is not enough to simply parrot the mantra without regard for its significance. But it is equally unacceptable to attempt comprehension of the mantra without also imprinting the sounds/words on one’s mind. Thus it can be said that mental imprinting serves a key role in the full disclosure of meaning. In the case of auṃ, memorization is not a very arduous task (meaning, on the other hand…). But if we carry this logic over to the 196 aphorisms of the Yogasūtra or the 700 four-line verses of the Bhagavad Gītā, brute memorization is not so simple. The information needs to be hard-wired little by little, accompanied by a wide-eyed inquiry into meaning that eventually forges the connection between sound and significance. Eventually when one mentally or verbally repeats the sūtra, the meaning (acquired through explanation, discussion, and contemplation) is disclosed almost automatically. One acquires the ability to recall the contents, structure, flow, and meaning of a ‘text’ through the repetition of its individual sounds.
For these reasons, recitation, explanation, and discussion go hand-in-hand in this study group. One student may have a gift for memory but not contemplation, while another is skilled in thought but has trouble retaining information. This natural diversity in ability necessitates the maintenance of a mutually-supportive learning environment. Fortunately this is what the study group embodies. Offering a space in which everyone is free to make mistakes and attempt the unknown, students join together for a joyful exploration of the history, philosophy, and practice of Classical Yoga.
Jonathan Dickstein teaches at the Iyengar Yoga Center of Denver and at Yoga Shala in Boulder.
Yoga Sutra Class meets every Sunday at noon at Iyengar Yoga Center of Denver