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Was Patañjali truly important?

29 August 2022

Assess the importance of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the history of yoga.

James Russell, MA Student, SOAS, University of London

The Pātañjalayogaśāstra - 'Patañjali's Authoritative Exposition of Yoga' is a Sanskrit treatise composed by Patañjali in approximately 400 CE (Maas 2020:1). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is the foundational text for the yoga darśana (viewpoint) of Indian philosophy, and Pātañjalayoga has become synonymous with 'Classical Yoga'. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra comprises two layers of text: one consisting of 195 aphorisms commonly referred to as yogasūtras, or the Yoga Sūtra, and another consisting of an explanatory auto-commentary. The yogasūtras and their auto-commentary are often presented as two separate works, with the commentary titled the Yogabhāṣya and attributed to an author named Vyāsa. However, Philipp Maas (2013) has demonstrated convincingly that both layers were, in fact, authored by Patañjali and constitute one unified text. This essay will, therefore, treat the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as a whole and will investigate its composition and status in premodern India. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra's reception will be examined, as well as its influence on other yogic traditions. In this way, the significance of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra within the broad context of yoga's history will be assessed.


Patañjali was a Brahmin who lived in India between 350 and 450 CE, possibly in the west of the province today known as Madhya Pradesh (Maas 2020:1). Patañjali's command of Sanskrit and philosophy suggests that he was a scholar rather than a yogi. In the centuries following his death, Patañjali became credited with the authorship of two additional texts he could not possibly have composed: the Vyākaraṇa-mahābhāṣya, a second-century work on grammar and the Carakasaṃhitā, a first-century work on Āyurveda. Thus, in the conclusion of Śaṅkara's eighth-century1 Pātañjalayogaśāstravivaraṇa, Patañjali is lauded as a guru of yoga, grammar and medicine (Bühnemann 2018:580). The Naṭarāja Temple in Chidambaram ascribes five additional texts to Patañjali, and twelfth-century statues at the temple depict the author as a demi-serpentine nāga and devotee of Śiva (Bühnemann 2018:582). The mythologisation of Patañjali has become enshrined within his quasi-historical legacy and has continued until the present day. In the 1980s, the influential haṭhayoga teacher T. Krishnamacharya linked Patañjali with the snake god, Ādiśeṣa, and it has become a custom of Krishnamacharya's lineage to commence yoga practice by invoking Ādiśeṣa and reciting Śaṅkara's eighth-century homage (Bühnemann 2018:578). Patañjali's wider acclaim, beyond the yoga tradition, is attested by India Post's 2009 release of a commemorative stamp depicting Patañjali as an authority on yoga, grammar and Āyurveda.


Patañjali was primarily influenced by a strand of Sāṃkhya philosophy, with similarities to the now-extinct Ṣaṣṭitantra2 (Maas 2017). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra reveals Patañjali's additional familiarity with Mīmāṃsā and Vaiśeṣika philosophies, as well the influence of the early Purāṇas (Maas 2020:9-10). The influence of the Mahābhārata is also demonstrated in Patañjali's advocacy of mental control through abhyāsa (practice) and vairāgya (detachment) (1.12), which echoes Bhagavadgītā 6.35.3 Patañjali's systematisation of aṣṭāṅgayoga (2.29) may also be inspired by the Mahābhārata, which alludes to an eightfold yoga in the Vedas (12.304.7) and posits two further eightfold doctrines, containing elements that resemble parts of Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:8). It is noteworthy that Patañjali's third auxiliary of aṣṭāṅgayoga is the first textual source to list a variety of twelve meditative postures (1.46).

The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is also indebted to Buddhism and contains numerous Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit terms (Wujastyk 2018). Patañjali's four stages of mental absorption (1.17) and four means of realisation (1.20) both closely resemble Buddhist soteriology, and Patañjali's views on suffering (2.15 - 2.17) echo the Buddha's four noble truths (Bronkhorst 2009:188, Maas 2020:9, Dasgupta 1922:237). Furthermore, as demonstrated by Maas (2014) and O'Brien-Kop (2018), the Pātañjalayogaśāstra is informed by the fourth-century4 Buddhist work, the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya. Jain influences are present too, and Patañjali's yamas (restraints) comprise five ethical precepts (2.30), which mirror the five mahāvratas (great vows) of Jainism (Ācārāṅga-sūtra 2.15). Patañjali's four realms of rebirth (3.18) are identical to the gatis of Jain cosmology (Kalpa-sūtra 121), and Patañjali's four categories of karma (4.7) are similar to the Jain leśyās (Uttarādhyayana Sūtra 34.1-34.9). The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is thus a synthesis of ideas drawn from earlier sources and is an example of Brahmanical appropriation of Śramaṇa teachings, which are repurposed within a Sāṃkhya paradigm. T.S. Rukmani has noted: 'The greatness of Patañjali lies in the skill with which he fitted these various traditions into a framework having as its ultimate goal kaivalya or liberation' (Rukmani 1981:213).

Initial Reception

From the fifth century onwards, references to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra occur in diverse literary sources, e.g., a fifth-century commentary of Bhartṛhari's Vākyapadīya and the sixth-century Viṣṇudharmottara-purāṇa (Freschi and Maas 2017:55-56, White 2019:35). Patañjali's Yogaśāstra also became known within Buddhist circles, and the fifth-century author Buddhaghosa is chronicled as following Patañjali before his conversion to Buddhism (Freschi and Maas 2017:56). Although initially well received by Sāṃkhya authors such as Gauḍapāda and Māṭhara, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra subsequently attracted critique from authors with alternative philosophical affiliations, such as Vātsyāyana and Bhartṛhari (Maas 2020:10). By the ninth century, dissemination of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra had moved beyond specialist philosophical circles. The Vaiṣṇava poet Māgha's epic poem, the Śiśupālavadha (c.750 CE),5 makes several references to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, as does the Śaiva poet Ratnākara in his Haravijaya (c.830 CE).6 These references demonstrate the reception of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra within both Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava milieus. In the tenth century, Vallabhadeva's Saṃdehaviṣauṣadhi acknowledges and expands on the Śiśupālavadha's earlier references, suggesting widespread recognition of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra during this period (Freschi and Maas 2017:47-56). Phillip Maas has concluded: 'This indicates the PYŚ [Pātañjalayogaśāstra] was known as an authoritative work on yoga even outside yogic or philosophical circles for several centuries after its composition' (Freschi and Maas 2017:55).

The Yoga School

Pātañjalayoga is classified as one of the six darśanas (viewpoints) of Indic philosophy. Each darśana denotes an intellectual school with a commentarial tradition based upon a foundational sūtra text. However, the colophon of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra refers to itself as a work on Sāṃkhya, indicating that initially, yoga was considered a subsidiary of Sāṃkhya rather than a distinct philosophical school. Consequently, Haribhadra's eighth-century7 Ṣaḍdarśanasamuccaya does not include a yoga school within its taxonomy of six darśanas. Likewise, Mādhava's fourteenth-century8 Sarvasiddhāntasaṃgraha also does not feature a yoga school. Mādhava does, however, distinguish between atheistic and theistic Sāṃkhya and aligns Pātañjalayoga with the latter (Nicholson 2014: 82). The twelfth-century Sarvasiddhāntasaṃgraha does classify Pātañjalayoga as a darśana and the twelfth-century Sarvadarśanakaumudi9 and the sixteenth to seventeenth-century10 Sāṃkhyapravacanabhāṣya also both acknowledge Pātañjalayoga as a philosophical school (Mallinson and Singleton 2017:xxxvi, Nicholson 2014:81-82). The classification of Pātañjalayoga as a distinct philosophical school is thus a comparatively recent and contested development. Therefore, the current canonical status of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra does not necessarily indicate its recognition as a foundational philosophical text in premodern India.

Irrespective of Pātañjalayoga's autonomy from Sāṃkhya, numerous authors composed commentaries on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, of which these have been the most influential:

• The Pātañjalayogaśāstravivaraṇa - Śaṅkara (c.700 CE)11
• The Tattvavaiśāradī - Vāscaspatimiśra (c. 950CE)12
• The Rājamārtaṇḍa - Bhojarāja (c.11th century)13
Yogavārttika - Vijñānabhikṣu (c.16th century)14

With the exception of Bhojarāja, all the leading commentators position themselves as outsiders to Patañjali's system rather than advocates of Pātañjalayoga. Śaṅkara has been linked, albeit inconclusively, to the Advaita Vedāntin, Śaṅkarācārya (Maas 2020:11). Vāscaspatimiśra composed commentaries on numerous philosophical treatises and was able to argue convincingly from a variety of conflicting standpoints (Burley 2007:85,86). Vijñānabhikṣu authored commentaries on several darśanas and attempted to reconcile their views through the lens of Viśiṣṭādvaita philosophy (White 2019:45). Only Bhojarāja was an actual proponent of Pātañjalayoga. Commentaries on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra were thus produced predominantly by philosophical specialists rather than members of an actual yoga school. Therefore, the proliferation of commentaries could be the result of scholarly tradition and does not necessarily reflect the significance attributed to the text by those actively engaged in yoga practice.

Transcultural adaptation

In the eleventh century, the Perso-Muslim scholar Al-Bīrūnī composed an Arabic translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra titled the Kitāb Pātanğal (c.1017-1030 CE),15 which he later references in his Kitāb al-Hind (1030 CE).16 Rather than a purely literal translation, the Kitāb Pātanğal is a work of naqlu - a term denoting the transmission of ideas from the vernacular of one language to another (Maas & Verdon 2018:286). Al-Bīrūnī takes many liberties with the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which he furnishes with a rich new dialogue, replete with Arabic metaphor. Al-Bīrūnī rejects the Sāṃkhya-orientated duality of the original text and equates liberation with absorption in god. The Kitāb Pātanğal is a creative elaboration on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which breathes new life into many of Patañjali's dry aphorisms. The impact of the Kitāb Pātanğal remains uncertain. Georg Feuerstein states that the work 'may well have had a lasting influence on the development of Persian mysticism' (2008:235). However, Carl Ernst points out that both the Kitāb al-Hind and the Kitāb Pātanğal survive today in single manuscripts, indicating their limited readership (Ernst 2016:405). Nonetheless, the Kitāb Pātanğal is the first known translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra into a second language and is the product of an early encounter between yoga and Islam. Additionally, the Kitāb Pātanğal demonstrates the Pātañjalayogaśāstra's potential for adaptation and transcultural dissemination.

The fifteenth-century Dharma Pātañjala (1450 CE)17 is an Indo-Javanese treatise containing a presentation of Pātañjalayoga, which shares many details with Al-Bīrūnī's work, suggesting that both authors may have worked from a similar source commentary. The existence of the Dharma Pātañjala establishes that by the fifteenth century, knowledge of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra had extended as far as Southeast Asia (Acri 2016:260). In the sixteenth century, the A'in-i Akbari ('Institutes of Akbar') by Abu al-Fazl contains a section on yoga that includes a synopsis of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Al-Fazl combined the Pātañjalayogaśāstra with haṭhayoga and transposed the text into an Islamic idiom (White 2019:149-150). Abu al-Fazl's reference to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra demonstrates the text's continued recognition in sixteenth-century Mughal India as a credible source of information on yoga.

Tantra and haṭhayoga

From the sixth to thirteenth century, tantra emerged as India's dominant religion, incorporating within its vast praxis, mantra, ritual and yoga. Tantric yoga typically adopts a framework of six auxiliaries and involves methods of interior visualisation, which share some general concerns with Pātañjalayoga, such as contemplation and breath control. However, tantric yoga remains essentially distinct from Pātañjalayoga. As David Gordon White has noted: 'very few tantric schools or sects have ever explicitly linked their theory or practice to Patañjali's legacy' (White 2019:6). Patañjali's influence is, however, discernible in some early haṭhayoga manuals such as the Dattātreyayogaśāstra (c.13th century),18 Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā (c.13th century)19 and Yogayājñavalkya (c.13th -14th century).20 The authors of these works adopt the framework of eight auxiliaries, expand on the yamas and niyamas and overlay the remaining auxiliaries with tantra and haṭhayoga practices. All three texts equate samādhi with absorption in Brahman.21

Later haṭhayoga manuals continue to adopt the eightfold formula, and Hargreaves and Birch (2016) have located numerous examples of quotations from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the Yogacintāmaṇi (c.16th century)22 and the Yuktabhavadeva (c.17th century).23 Hargreaves and Birch conclude: 'In fact, generally speaking, the eightfold system of Aṣṭāṅgayoga became the dominant paradigm for the majority of yoga texts composed after the fifteenth century' (Hargreaves and Birch 2016:9).

Sundaradeva's eighteenth-century24 Haṭhatattvakaumudī contains numerous references to Pātañjalayoga and also adopts eight auxiliaries, stating that 'aṣṭāṅgayoga should be considered in the mainstream of knowledge itself' (1.25.2, Gharote 2007:9). Sundaradeva demonstrates extensive knowledge of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and paraphrases Patañjali in numerous verses. The Haṭhatattvakaumudi's conceptions of saṃprajñāta, asaṃprajñāta, and dharmamegha samādhi25 all borrow extensively from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra and Sundaradeva directly quotes from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in his summaries of pratipakṣa-bhāvana (6.5)26 and dhyāna (49.2-3).27

Brahmānanda's nineteenth-century28 Jyotsnā29 commentary on the Haṭhapradīpikā is also indebted to the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Brahmānanda borrows numerous concepts from Patañjali, e.g. the five kleśas (3.14) originate in Pātañjalayogaśāstra 1.5, and the vāsanās (4.22) originate in Pātañjalayogaśāstra 4.8. The fourth chapter makes multiple references to Patañjali, and nine verses contain direct quotations from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra.30 It is noteworthy that Brahmānanda equates samādhi with Patañjali's definition of yoga, 'samādheścittavṛttinirodhasya' (4.63). Brahmānanda later similarly equates rājayoga with the controlling of all the mental vṛittis: 'rājayogasya manasaḥ sarvavṛttinirodha-lakṣaṇasya' (4.102). This semantic parallel is an early correlation between rājayoga and Pātañjalayoga.


The Pātañjalayogaśāstra also helped to shape the development of Jainayoga. Haribhadra's eighth-century Yogadṛṣṭisamuccaya (c. 750 CE)31 expounds an eightfold yoga that links the guṇasthāna stages of Jainism with Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga. Haribhadra sought to attract Jainayoga to a wider audience by locating it within a well-established Brahmanical intellectual tradition. Śubhacandra's eleventh-century32 Jñānārṇava and Hemacandra's Yogaśāstra (c.1150 CE)33 are also both influenced by Patañjali and, in the seventeenth century, Yaśovijaya composed a Jaina commentary on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra (Chapple 2017:27). In the modern period, Prekṣā meditation is a popular form of Jainayoga that combines Patañjali's aṣṭāṅgayoga with several other doctrines.


The Pātañjalayogaśāstra first received attention from European scholars in the early nineteenth century and was discussed in essays by William Ward (1810) and Thomas Colebrook (1823). David Gordon White has credited Colebrook with rediscovering the Pātañjalayogaśāstra, which White claims had fallen into obscurity for several hundred years: 'The yogasūtra had for all intents and purposes been lost until Colebrooke found it' (White 2019:60). White's claim is primarily based on early Indologists' difficulty in locating pandits familiar with Patañjali and an alleged scarcity of Pātañjalayogaśāstra manuscripts at this time (White 2019: 73,77). However, White's assertion is contradicted by the fact that Indian scholars were still producing commentaries on the Pātañjalayogaśāstra at this time, e.g. the eighteenth-century Yogasudhākara and the nineteenth-century Patañjalicarita (Burley 2012:31). As noted by Seth Powell, the Descriptive Catalogue of Yoga Manuscripts (Kaivalyadham 2005) contains information on several hundred Pātañjalayogaśāstra related manuscripts composed between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries (Powell 2018:353). Furthermore, Phillip Maas has located over 120 Pātañjalayogaśāstra manuscripts copied during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Maas 2020:2), affirming the text's continued relevance during this period.

The first English translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra was authored by James Ballantyne, initially as a partial translation in 1852. Later, having been completed by Govinda Shastri Deva in 1871 (White 2019:92), the work was published in its entirety by the Theosophical Society in 1885. The Theosophists championed the Pātañjalayogaśāstra as authoritative Indian spirituality and generated considerable interest in India as well as Europe and the U.S.A. Rājendralāl Mitra of the Asiatic Society also published a translation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in 1883, which included a translation of Bhojarāja's commentary. The most influential work on Patañjali at this time was undoubtedly Swāmi Vivekānanda's Rāja Yoga (1896). Vivekānanda uncoupled the yogasūtras from their auto-commentary, allowing him to reinterpret Patañjali's broad aphorisms more creatively. Scores of translators would later employ this same formula in the twentieth century. Vivekānanda's self-styled commentary projects Pātañjalayoga through the lens of Neo-Vedanta, fused with psychology and esoterica. Vivekānanda unequivocally presents Pātañjalayoga as the definitive and superlative form of yoga. Rāja Yoga was wildly successful, and its first edition sold out within the first year (De Michelis 2008:125). It is the first work on Indian philosophy to receive widespread international interest and has been described by Elizabeth De Michelis as 'the first fully-fledged formulation of Modern Yoga' (De Michelis 2008:50).

Early twentieth-century publications from Aleister Crowley (1913,1939) and Ernest Woods (1932) on Pātañjalayoga reflect the subsequent popularity of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in western occultism. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra also received attention from academic authors at this time, most notably James Haughton Woods (1914). Meanwhile, in India, T. Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda (1934) linked haṭhayoga with aṣṭāṅgayoga in a similar vein as earlier works such as the Yogayājñavalkya. Two of Krishnamacharya's students, B.K.S. Iyengar and K.Pattabhi Jois, would later go on to popularise haṭhayoga linked with Pātañjalayoga. B.K.S. Iyengar revered Patañjali as the "Father of Yoga" (Iyengar 1966), and his postural yoga system includes the mandatory chanting of Śaṅkara's homage to Patañjali. Iyengar later published a translation of the Yogasūtras in 1994 and, in 2004, inaugurated a shrine to Patañjali at Bellur, Karnataka. K.P. Pattabhi Jois' Yoga Mala (1962) combines haṭhayoga with three auxiliaries of aṣṭāṅgayoga, and Jois' postural system later became popularly known as 'Ashtanga Vinyasa'. In the 1960s, the Beatles' association with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi generated a fresh wave of interest in yoga, which coincided with the burgeoning growth in modern postural yoga led by teachers such as B.K.S. Iyengar. By the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, scores of translations and adaptations of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra had been produced, largely adopting a creative approach not unlike that of Al-Bīrūnī in the tenth century and Vivekānanda a thousand years later. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra has now been translated into over 40 languages (White 2019:xvi) and, in contemporary globalised yoga, is regarded as the authoritative text for the philosophy of yoga.


The Pātañjalayogaśāstra is primarily a collation of earlier works from Brāhmaṇa and Śramaṇa milieus. Patañjali's distinctive contribution to yoga is his synthesis of disparate teachings through a filter of salvific dualism. Doctrines of Jainism, Buddhism and Sāṃkhya combine in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra to become indelibly associated with yoga. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was initially well-received, and numerous literary references between the fifth and eleventh centuries attest to its status as an esteemed work on yoga. The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was also translated into Arabic and Old Javanese, indicating its widespread dissemination.

The Pātañjalayogaśāstra was not, however, considered the foundational text of a philosophical school until at least the twelfth century - suggesting both its close association with the Sāṃkhya school and its subordinate position to the foundational texts of rival philosophical schools. Although a commentarial tradition evolved, most commentaries were authored by scholars rather than yogis or proponents of Patañjali's system. From the sixth to thirteenth centuries, the religious landscape in South Asia became dominated by tantra, in which yogic methods remained distinct from Pātañjalayoga. However, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra did contribute to the development of Jainayoga at this time, as Jain authors sought to attract followers through assimilating ideas from the Pātañjalayogaśāstra. Pātañjalayoga also influenced haṭhayoga, as evinced by numerous works which adopt aṣṭāṅgayoga. Although Patañjali's practical systematisation of aṣṭāṅgayoga has been highly influential, particularly within haṭhayoga, other theoretical elements of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra have proven to be less enduring. Patañjali's dualistic soteriology has often been omitted in favour of nondual Vedantic conceptions of liberation.

In the modern period, the Pātañjalayogaśāstra directly influenced the early formulation of Modern Yoga. The subsequent global popularisation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra in the twentieth century, combined with Patañjali's mythologisation, has resulted in the Pātañjalayogaśāstra enjoying a prestige far beyond its stature in premodern India. Nonetheless, the fact that one short text comprising 195 aphorisms and a commentary is still relevant after 1600 years attests to its enduring significance. Having been published globally and translated into more than 40 languages, millions of people continue to glean meaning and draw fresh inspiration from this enigmatic yet incredibly versatile text.


1) Legget 2017:1.
2) As summarised in the fifth-century Sāṃkhyakārikā (Maas 2017).
3) The Bhagavadgītā forms a part of the Bhīṣma parvan of the Mahābhārata.
4) Wujastyk estimates 350 - 430 CE (2018:38). Maas' 2020 estimation of the Pātañjalayogaśāstra at 400 CE, means the Abhidharmakośabhāṣya is approximately 350 - 400 CE.
5) Freschi & Maas 2017: Maas, 50
6) ibid.
7) Nicholson 2014:81.
8) ibid.:82.
9) Vidyabhusana 2016: i-vii.
10) Nicholson 2014:6.
11) Legget 1990:1.
12) Maas 2020:11.
13) ibid.
14) ibid.
15) Maas & Verdon 2018:286.
16) ibid.
17) Acri 2016:260.
18) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xl.
19) ibid.
20) Birch 2018:7.
21) E.g. Vasiṣṭhasaṃhitā 4.61.
22) Hargreaves & Birch 2016:5.
23) ibid.:9.
24) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:xl.
25) The Haṭhatatvakaumudi:49.5, 49.23-24, 49.40.
26) This mirrors Pātañjalayogaśāstra 2.33.
27) This verse quotes Pātañjalayogaśāstra 3.2.
28) Mallinson & Singleton 2017:95.
29) Jyotsnā 2.48 advises prostration before Ādiśeṣa, but does not explicitly mention Patañjali. This may be a source for Krishnamacharya's reference in Yoga Makaranda (1934) (Krishnamacharya 2011[1934]).
30) Jyotsnā (J) 4.1= Pātañjalayogaśāstra (PYŚ) 1.26, J 4.6 = unknown, J 4.7 = PYŚ 1.51, J 4.12 = PYŚ 1.2, J 4.15 = PYŚ 1.49, J 4.93 = PYŚ 3.2, J 4.107 = PYŚ 1.3, J 4.108 = PYŚ 4.30, J 4.114 = PYS 2.2 and 1.23.
31) Chapple 2017:126.
32) ibid.:22.
33) ibid.:126.


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James is a yoga teacher & researcher who's practised yoga for 24 years. He holds an MA in Traditions of Yoga & Meditation from SOAS, University of London, where he specialised in premodern yoga.

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