Atha Yogunasanam is the opening sutra, or aphorism, of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. It is, at its most basic level, a call to action and presence. Even within this simple Sanskrit phrase, the whole of yoga can be unpacked: yoga is the direct experience and practice of yourself solely in this moment. Yoga requires us to take direct responsibility and action in our personal development and ultimately, our growth into action without friction.
But first, let’s take a step back. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a collection of 196 aphorisms or teaching phrases. Yoga is, at its core an oral tradition; if you were to learn yoga you would find a teacher, a guru, and take your seat as a student at their feet and begin to hear repetitions of texts and mantra and this is how you began your practice. The form of a sutra is very important – it’s a phrase deeply imbued with meaning and depth but is a line that is intended to be given, reflected on, taken to heart and memorized. This structure is reflective of yoga as an oral tradition but is also a time-honored way that humans learn across cultures. Phrases and proverbs have long been ways that many cultures teach values and ethics through digestible and memorable phrases shared through generations. Patanjali didn’t write the sutras in the simplest sense – the yoga sutras in spirit existed long before Patanjali – but it was Patanjali who wrote them down in this concise form around 400 CE. (It may be important to note here that Patanjali, much like the authors of the Bible may not have been one person, but rather a collective. We really don’t know.) The Yoga Sutras were then handed down through lines of yogis through centuries until we get to modern postural yoga where these sutras guided the practice that eventually made it to the west. These sutras don’t represent the totality of yogic thought but are the backbone currently guiding most introductions to western/modern postural yoga.
So what does Atha Yogunasanam mean today? It is the idea that to begin anything, you must start. To change your life or start a new habit or build a new practice there must be a moment of open-hearted acknowledgment that one is taking on this work. Better yet, you realize you must find the teacher like Patanjali consciously taking the seat of wisdom and is proclaiming they are ready to impart hard-won years of wisdom. Atha Yogunasanam is saying “I am here, no matter who I have been and without attachment to the outcome, my work begins now. I am consciously choosing the seat of the student in front of the person choosing the seat of the teacher.” To fully be a student of anything means you set your past self and knowledge to the side to open up to the possibility of the path you are beginning to walk. It is also the moment to realize that growth requires diligent and focused attention. Bring your mind and attention fully to the now so that you can experience what is being taught. As Ekhart Tolle says: “realize that the present moment is all you ever have.” Release old stories and patterns to create space for new knowledge and discernment and they will begin to take root in your life. Atha Yogunasanam is the mantra your heart whispers when you realize your deepest desire to grow no matter what. It is the intention you must bring to every seated practice, every asana, every time you draw a breath. In times of conflict and bliss and confusion – now begins the practice of yoga.
And so it is now – atha yogunasanam – that you, in your infinitely complex human form, choose in this moment, and in this moment alone, to begin the greatest work of your life.