Some Common Questions

Who are you guys?

We met in the late 1980s at a yoga retreat with Paul Harvey in the UK when we were both in our mid 20s. Since then, Ranju went on to work as an art and family therapist and Dave worked as a software engineer. But we both continued our yoga studies and developed our teaching. In 2004 we began working together under the name of Sādhana Mālā, running yoga teacher training courses, retreats, workshops and study courses. We have both studied extensively in the tradition of TKV Desikachar of Chennai, India and have worked closely with many teachers including Paul Harvey, Peter Hersnack and Desikachar himself.

What is the Yoga Sūtra and who was Patañjali?

Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtra is perhaps one of the most famous books on yoga. In 195 short verses (‘sūtra’), Patañjali outlines a vision of the yoga path – including how to practice, likely obstacles, the results and a lot of details about the nature of the mind. It’s a rich and complex work composed in Sanskrit (an ancient language of India) around 2,000 years ago.  It is crisp and direct, but also sometimes quite impenetrable. It is not a text to simply read, but rather one to ponder, meditate upon, work with and discuss. Over the past 30 years we have been doing just this and our understandings have grown as we have made new connections and developed new insights.

Little is known about Patañjali himself, although there are many myths and legends surrounding him. What can be said is that whoever composed the Yoga Sūtra was obviously a highly advanced yogi with a deep knowledge of an already existing tradition who was also able to articulate clearly the many facets of yoga.

Why another book on the Yoga Sūtra?

There are many, many books on the Yoga Sūtra. These form a vast spectrum – from highly academic tomes which will leave you scratching your head and furrowing your brow in an effort to understand what is being talked about, to very lightweight (and sometimes rather misinformed) simple ones. We wanted to write a book of some academic rigour which was also accessible and useful – and we don’t think there has been anything quite like this before. Not only that, but we also wanted to make suggestions for practice – both on and off the mat.

We start each chapter with a deconstruction of one of the sūtras. This often involves looking at how each word is constructed in the original Sanskrit language and we are as clear as possible with how we have made our translations and our inferences. This main sūtra is then put into context, and we explore themes and other sūtras which relate to the main sūtra. Finally, each chapter has a section on ideas for practice – ways to embody some of the theoretical ideas in a simple way.

Do you need to know Sanskrit to understand the book?

As we said, although there is quite a lot of Sanskrit used in the book, we have made it as clear and accessible as possible. We provide an extensive glossary, and wherever possible we are transparent in our deconstructions and interpretations of Sanskrit words. So, no – you don’t need to understand Sanskrit (at all!); what you need is an enquiring mind, a willingness to engage and learn, and curiosity. You can read and re-read this book many times – like the sūtras themselves, this book is a slow burn. And it’s fun too.

Why is the subtitle ‘Support, Direction, Space’?

It sounds like a book on architecture, right? Our original idea was to call the book ‘Support, Direction, Space’ – but our families rightly pointed out that this would be too obscure and rather misleading. But actually, these three ideas form the bedrock of our discussions, and we are very precise in how we use the terms. We discuss what is the nature of support, and what are the conditions for ‘taking support’. From this support, a direction shows itself. And from the interaction between support and direction a space opens up. This formulation was presented to us by Peter Hersnack – one of our brilliant teachers, and the ideas we discuss in this book are viewed through the lens of this trio. It is, therefore, an important subtitle as it informs our discussions of the Yoga Sūtras themselves.

How did you write this together – what was the process of writing?

We have been working together very closely for a long time, we have watched each other teach; we have discussed and practiced together a lot. In fact – rather amazingly – we were even in the same school at the same time about the age of 12 – but didn’t know each other as we were one year apart! But because of the closeness of our association and also the similar teachings we have had, writing was relatively smooth – if painstaking!

The book has taken many years to come into its present form. We needed to take time away from teaching in order to write the book, and this was only possible through a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. We were thrilled at the support that we had – people were immediately and incredibly generous. Friends, relatives, but mainly a whole network of students, and students of students – more than 200 of them – help us get the book off the ground and get it done. We initially planned to self-publish, but as the project grew, we realised that it had the potential to reach a far greater audience via traditional publishers. Ranju’s sister, Anita Roy, who is herself an editor and publisher, helped not only to launch the Kickstarter campaign, but to secure publishing deals both in the UK and US for the book. 

Where did the ideas in the book come from? Did you have teachers?

We were both lucky enough to be taught in a very accessible, but also rigorous, yoga tradition. Desikachar was a modern man, very interested in the Western sensibility as well as being steeped in traditional ideas, practices and philosophy. Our first teacher, Paul Harvey, was a direct student of Desikachar’s and an extremely dedicated practitioner and teacher. He was faithful to his teacher and he was inspirational in his teaching. Indeed, his expositions on the Yoga Sutrās were clearer and more rational than anything else we came across at that time. Through Paul we met and worked with Desikachar on a number of occasions both in the UK and in India – each time we were moved and inspired. Later on (2004) we met another of Desikachar’s direct students, Peter Hersnack. Peter was Danish and lived in France and he had worked very closely with Desikachar in the early 1970s for a number of years in India. He was also something of an iconoclast, and he invited us to explore the teachings we had already received from new perspectives, nudging us gently this way and that to look once again at what we thought we understood. Peter opened new doors and invited new ways of seeing.

What do you hope for from this book?

When we showed a draft of the book to one of our friends, who is a very experienced yoga teacher and trainer for the British Wheel of Yoga, she said:

I’ve just finished reading your book and it is delightful. Not only is it approachable, articulate and lucid it is also sincere and charmingly and utterly yours – I can hear both your voices so clearly as I read …. It is the most readable book on the yoga sutras I have ever come across and the format is great, sort of self-help manual and work book and little articles and hints and ideas all rolled into one rather satisfying thing to mull over and come back to and think about and return to again…….. I think you have a best seller on your hands here and I imagine it will be required reading on almost every TT course in the UK before very long.” (Tara Fraser, Yoga Teacher and author) – I think that is more than we hoped for!

This is not a ‘how to do yoga book’. It doesn’t have detailed instructions for home practice.  But if it was read and used by anyone interested in both the philosophy and practical application of yoga, we would be delighted. And if it was used as a standard text book for yoga teacher trainings, that would be great too!

Now this book is out, what next for you both?

We intend to continue with our teaching commitments; the more we teach the more we understand. In fact, one of the ideas from Desikachar was that this is a teaching tradition – teaching itself is a form of yoga. As well as this, we would like to continue to write together and develop new projects. We have already written some 13 booklets on different aspects of yoga (we called them our Funky Guru booklets). We may well develop these. We have also made over 200 short films on various aspects of teaching and philosophy – again, we will explore how these might be developed and disseminated.  And finally, we have been playing around with the podcast format and we hope to be putting some discussions (about the book but also about other aspects of yoga) and interviews online in the near future.

Anything else you’d like to say?

We were taught that yoga was traditionally an oral teaching – an intimate exchange between student and teacher; how one teaches is dependent on the context, potential, understanding and situation of the student. There is no specific syllabus! In writing a book like this, we are creating a snapshot of our current understanding – not creating a dogma or an orthodoxy. This book is an amalgam of the understandings we have developed. We do not claim that this is THE way of understanding the Yoga Sūtras – but it is where we have got to now. It has involved us going back through our many notes, reviewing and discussing our interpretations and our understandings. Sometimes we are explicit in quoting our teachers, sometimes we quote from traditional sources (for example, the Sanskrit commentator Vyāsa). But where possible, we do try to show how we got to where we have got to – whether it’s through a careful deconstruction of language, or from a direct quote from one of our teachers. We hope that you will learn, explore and develop as we have. Happy reading and happy practicing!

What initially drew you both to Yoga?

I (Dave) became interested in Yoga whilst at University at age 19. I can’t remember exactly what drew me to Yoga initially, I just remember borrowing a book on Yoga from the University library and trying a few ideas out. I then went to a few different classes which in retrospect were a bit of mix of yoga and a kind of western approach to relaxation and stretching. On completing University I started some classes with Paul Harvey who just happened to live in the same town and that was it – I stayed as a student of Paul’s for pretty much the next 15 years. When I started work as a software engineer, I soon developed a back problem – I had a weak back and my job involved a lot of sitting. That’s when I took some individual classes with Paul and started practising regularly at home. It sorted my back out within a few months and I then new this was something that was going to become a central part of my life.

I (Ranju) was first introduced to yoga by my Indian grandfather who was a keen practitioner even into his 90s. I was about 15 when he gave me a book on yoga, and I was fascinated. Just after university I started to attend yoga classes in the Iyengar tradition – which I found fascinating. However, I was dissatisfied with the apparent lack of philosophy, so when I came across Paul Harvey (a direct student of Desikachar’s) teaching classes locally, I was hooked. Paul introduced me to the Yoga Sutrās and also the subtle use of the breath. And also, co-incidentally, it was on my first retreat with Paul that I met Dave too.

Yoga comes from India and the Yoga Sutra is some 2000 years old. How can it be relevant in the West in these times?

Yoga deals fundamentally with the nature of our minds and our experience. As the pioneering Yoga scholar Georg Feuerstein said when asked a similar question, “the human condition truly has not changed”. We are still fearful, jealous, angry and self-obsessed, perhaps even more so in our fast-paced technological lives. The Yoga Sutrā is essentially a text on our psychology and how to work with it, presenting a vision for reducing our very human experience of suffering. The way the text was presented to us really emphasised how such a text could

What do you feel Yoga has to offer for the average person?

There are many ways to improve one’s life – and there are many factors in modern life which contribute to this stress. Yoga is one of the most potent ways to help – it offers something for the body, for the breath and for the mind. In our modern lives, many people are too sedentary and too distracted – yoga offers profound healing for such people. It is simple, accessible, requires little equipment and its spectrum of application is huge.

Most Yoga books have pictures and instructions on the postures, which your book does not. Is there a reason for this?

Although there are a few diagrams and drawings in our book, the point of our book is not to replace a teacher or a class. We strongly believe that yoga is best learned with a real teacher who is sensitive to your individual needs. So, this is certainly not a ‘how to’ book – although there are many suggestions for practice, both on and off the mat. Instead, this book is more of a reference book for you to dive into, read and re-read as an adjunct to your practice.

Do you already have to know about Yoga to understand your book?

I don’t know! We have taken some quite obscure aphorisms in Sanskrit – an ancient language spoken in a different culture – and made them relevant to our modern situation. We hope that we have written in a clear and simple manner which does not compromise the original Sanskrit of Patañjali. So, I think the most important thing is interest and openness rather than knowledge – but it’s for our readers to tell us!

Yoga therapy is something that is becoming more popular. Do you believe Yoga can have a role in healing?

Absolutely. Because it offers something for many levels of our systems, it has tremendous potential. Yoga can work with the young, the elderly, the ill, pregnant women, stressed high achievers, people with injuries, or with mental health problems. Its potential is vast.

How does Yoga compare to mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a tremendous tool which has been popularised recently and applied to many situations. Yoga has the all the potential of mindfulness, but also includes the possibility of working directly with the body and the breath.