7 Great Strategies for Reading Yoga Wisdom Texts

You’ve probably had students ask you which translation of the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita you think they should read. It’s great when our students want to explore yoga’s philosophical foundations. But it’s disheartening if we hear later that they stopped reading because they couldn’t get past the first chapter without feeling lost.

Reading translations of ancient Sanskrit texts requires some guidance, determination, and persistence, especially when the translations are accompanied by lengthy commentaries, as is the case in so many authoritative editions.

Here are seven helpful reading strategies you can share with your students that will help to make the texts accessible and fuel their enthusiasm for yoga philosophy:

1. Just read the translations first, then go back and read the commentary

Assuming a student has an edition that includes the Sanskrit and elaborate commentaries, suggest that they start by ignoring the Sanskrit and the commentaries and just read the translation from start to finish. This will allow them to get a general sense of the complete text. Then they can go back and dive into the details of each verse by reading the commentary. It’s easy to feel lost and overwhelmed by reading all of the commentaries along with each text on the first pass, and that can be very discouraging.

2. Try to understand the message of the author.

This may sound obvious but actually it’s very tempting to interpret a yoga wisdom text in ways that validate our own ‘personal truths’. We assume that there’s no such thing as an objective or ‘Absolute’ truth, so we privilege our own perspective.

But communication requires both the articulation of the message by the sender and the comprehension of the message by the recipient. Anytime you try to communicate with another person you have an intention; you want to be understood by the person you’re communicating with.

The authors of traditional yoga wisdom texts want their message to be understood. If we interpret the text with the intention of validating our own opinions or lifestyle, then our egos will sabotage the reception of the message. So encourage students to read with a receptive attitude. That will increase their chances of understanding the message of the author. Then they can decide if the message resonates with them or not.

3. Keep it in context

Taking verses out of context is another way that we can miss the message of the author. Sutras and verses are generally grouped together around a particular topic. For example, early in the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita we read that one should not lament for the living nor for the dead. Taken in isolation we could entertain numerous speculations about what this means and why it may or may not be true.

But if we read the subsequent verses we find the reasoning for the proposition; grieving for someone in any condition, living or dead, means that one has mistaken the temporary body for the eternal self. If we interpret a verse in isolation we may never understand its connection to previous or subsequent verses and miss the point that the text is trying to make about that topic.

4. Defer to the authority of the author

Sometimes we come across passages that fly in the face of our modern sensibilities. It’s tempting to accept the parts of the text that we like and reject the parts we don’t by dismissing them as cultural anachronisms or by turning them into metaphors or by inventing a more favorable interpretation.

The problem with cherry picking the verses we like and casting the ones we dislike aside is that, by doing so, we elevate our own attachments and aversions – the very things yoga wisdom texts encourage us to transcend – above the authority of the author and, in the process, we make ourselves the ultimate authority on yoga. Students who do this effectively disconnect themselves from the lineage of teachers, from the line of transmission through which we receive yoga wisdom.

A better strategy is to encourage students to use their power of critical thinking to try to understand how a disconcerting passage or concept may be true rather than dismissing it, allegorizing it, or re-interpreting it according to their own prejudices.

5. Contemplative reading

The goal of contemplative reading is to allow the text to affect us rather than to absorb information. It’s about associating with the author, listening carefully to the author’s message, and letting the author’s words penetrate deeply into the core of our consciousness.

Encourage students to take their time and and hang out with what their reading. Taking a moment to set an intention of reading with an attitude of humility and gratitude is a great way to slow the process down right from the start. Then they can read through the verses and commentaries with rapt attention until a word, a phrase, or an idea captures their attention. Repeating the significant phrase to themselves a few times will also help them assimilate an idea. Ask them to stay with that point until it releases them, and then continue to read until another point captures their attention.

6. Act on what you read

Yoga philosophy is not armchair philosophy. A unique attribute of yoga wisdom texts is that they give the reader the means by which to re-create the revelatory experience of the author. Realization is applied knowledge: the knowledge contained in the texts comes alive for us when we actively apply the principles that such texts describe. This is the difference between book knowledge and realized knowledge. And the realizations that come from applied knowledge inspire us to dive even deeper into the texts that stimulate such transformative experiences.

So follow up with your students; ask them not just about what they’ve read or what they understood from their reading, but also about how they’re applying their realizations in their life, both on and off the mat.

7. Re-visit the text 6 months later

Once your students have read it, assimilated it, and lived it for a while, encourage them to go back and read it again and repeat the process. This phenomenon never ceases to amaze me: I can read something that I’ve read a dozen times before and each time I find something that feels like I’m seeing it for the first time. Or something will jump out of the text and inspire a thought that hadn’t occurred to me before. I also come up with new questions that had never before occurred to me.

The joy of teaching

In all cases, the value of a qualified teacher to help students understand a text on a deeper level than they might get to on their own can’t be overstated. A good teacher can also help students to apply the teachings to in their own lives. Of course, it’s hard for a novice to identify the credentials of a qualified teacher. If you feel that you have a handle on the teachings of a text that one of your students is interested in and you have the bandwidth to extend yourself, offer to talk with your students about what they read and share your personal realizations with them. Odds are your own depth of understanding will increase simply by having to articulate your understanding. That’s always been the case for me: deepening my own understanding of yoga wisdom texts is one of the reasons why I teach in the first place.

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What are your favorite reading strategies?

How do you approach reading yoga wisdom texts? How do you encourage your students to read for realization rather than just information? Please contribute to the conversation by leaving a comment or suggestion about your favorite reading and realization strategy.