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Q&A: Nischala Joy Devi Offers a Woman’s Perspective on the Yoga Sutras

By on May 17th, 2011 — Responses are currently closed, but you can trackback from your own site.

yoga teacher femaleNischala Joy Devi is a master yoga teacher and healer. She has developed many yoga programs that serve those with life-challenging illnesses, and her teachings emphasize the practice of compassion. She authored two books: The Healing Path of Yoga (on yoga therapy) and The Secret Power of Yoga (a female-centered interpretation of the Yoga Sutras, also made into a CD). She talked to The Sacred Cow about the importance of including a heart-centered—and female—perspective in one’s yoga studies. 


Sacred Cow: What inspired you to write a woman-centered interpretation of the Yoga Sutras?

Nischala Joy Devi: I had studied with some wonderful teachers, including Swami Satchidananda, who I studied with as a monastic disciple for more than 20 years. But all of my teachers were men. And, as I started to teach, I realized most of my students were women.

I’ve always been drawn to the Sutras, and I started to teach them because I wanted people to know what yoga was really about. Still, all of the translations and commentaries were by and for men. There were almost 1500 translations of the Sutras and not one of them was by a woman. The result of this was that the ideas in the interpretations were all coming from the mind. There wasn’t much heart in it. I realized that the heart—which is more of a woman’s perspective—had to be represented.

SC: Can you offer some examples of how the mind is dominant in male interpretations of the sutras and how the heart is underrepresented?

NJD: Yes, let’s look at the second sutra. Yoga cita vriti nirodaha. The translation is usually something like, “Yoga is control of the mental modifications of the mind.” My version of this Sutra is: “Yoga is the uniting of consciousness in the heart.”

It’s not a matter of control, it’s a matter of uniting and allowing our consciousness to be present, and realizing we already have that stillness inside. Even in asana, if we push, it doesn’t work. If we just do it gently, we find that the body’s natural intelligence takes over. Controlling the mind is a very difficult thing to do. But, if you open the heart, the mind becomes quiet. This is spoken about in the Upanishads, which talk about the consciousness that lives in the heart. To me, that’s really where we need to go. And that’s the essence of yoga.

Another example is the third Sutra. It is often interpreted to say that when we still the mind, we abide in our own true nature. I interpret it as, “United in the heart, consciousness is steadied, then, we abide in our own true nature—joy.” I think it is important to identify what our true nature is here, so I clarified that it is joy.

SC: These teachings sound like they come from the Tantric lineage. Do you identify with that?

NJD: We don’t have to categorize it. To me, it’s Tantra, Sankya, even Vedanta because when we speak about Vedanta, we’re implying that we are all one. It’s actually Taoism too. It doesn’t matter what we call it. It’s just about letting go of the mental, which we have made the supreme, and going back to how we feel, and how we live our lives from the heart perspective.

SC: What are some other ways that you adapted the Sutras?

NJD: I put in ways to use them in daily life. Also, I divided the Sutras into chapters to make it easier for people to study. And I removed the “he” pronouns. In most translations, it talks about Ishvara [God] as “he”, and I thought that was unnecessary. When a woman reads “he” she feels like she’s not a part of what is being said. My research suggests that Ishvara was meant to be genderless. So, instead of using a pronoun, I talk about knowledge, wisdom, and love as the omnipresent teachers in all beings.

I also created the audio book CD with women in mind because a lot of the women who do yoga are busy people, and often mothers who spend a lot of time in the car doing errands and taking kids to school or afterschool activities. Now, they have the opportunity to listen to the sutras in their cars or if they are doing something else around the house.

SC: Why did you choose the Sutras, of all of the texts, to investigate from a female perspective?

NJD: Most of the stories in yoga are men talking to men, like in the Bhagavad Gita with Krishna and Arjuna. What attracted me to the Sutras is that they are not, in themselves, gender specific. There is also a simplicity to the sutras that is not in the Bhagavad Gita. The Sutras just tell me who I am and, when I forget, how to get back to that. The Sutras are also practical. They are not just philosophy—they offer practices that tell you what to do to find joy.

SC: Why do you think the Sutras are geared toward men in the first place?

NJD: I don’t think the Sutras were meant to be intended just for men. Patanjali compiled the Sutras, but he never wrote an interpretation of them. This way, each person could interpret them in a different way.

But the scholars who interpreted them were all male. Part of the reason is because the women in India at that time weren’t permitted to study. They did the worship, the puja, the chanting, and the men were the scholars. Women didn’t even learn to read and write. Women were often considered second class citizens. Today, we live in a different society, but as long as the books are still written from a male perspective, we will still think this way.

SC: Did your woman-centered interpretation get any criticism?

NJD: Yes. It was celebrated a lot and sold out the first printing before it had even become available to the public, but a lot of male teachers were unhappy about it. For example, one teacher said, “Oh, then your husband should write an interpretation from a male perspective.” Of course, there are already 1500 of them written from a male perspective.

SC: Is your book only for women?

NJD: No, it’s simply from the heart-centered perspective. It speaks to anyone who is practicing yoga today. It’s a way to understand the Sutras in the context of our modern life, taking into account the empowerment of women in society, and also the idea that we must start coming from the heart. Yoga has become too based on the physical, and the texts are too based on the mental. It’s a good entry point, but yoga is so much more. Look at the world today, at what we’ve done because we’ve lost the heart. Yoga has to come around and be seen as a whole practice that invites us to include the heart.

To learn more about Nischala Joy Devi, visit her website at, and check out her Secret Power of Yoga CD from Pranamaya. (Her book by the same name, published by Random House, is also available here.

For more of Karen Macklin’s work, visit her website at

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One Comment

  1. Posted By: Richard Rosen 5/29/2011 @ 9:14 am

    I read with interest this interview with Nischala, and feel compelled to respond to several points. First a few factual notes. I’ve done an extensive search for English translations of the YS, and came up with slightly more than 100, since the first was made in 1852. To claim there are 1500 seems utterly impossible unless N is counting those in foreign languages. And then I would ask: has she read all 1500, and if not, how can she be so sure the “interpretations were all coming from the mind?” I would also add that while it’s true most have been made by men, there are certainly several by women, I direct your attention to Alice Bailey, Clara Codd, Swami Savitripriya, Vimala Thakar, Barbara Stoler Miller, and Linda Brown Holt.

    I would also point out that while it may be true that Ishvara “was meant to be genderless,” the Sanskrit root of the word, ish, “lord, master,” is undeniably masculine. Had Patanjali wanted to indicate such genderless-ness, he might have used a neuter root, if there is one. Also the statement that Patanjali “never wrote an interpretation” of the sutras is impossible to substantiate. The oldest surviving commentary on the text is by Vyasa, dated around 500 CE, but it’s accepted that Patanjali might well have composed a commentary on the text he compiled, which today is lost or perhaps buried deep in some library in India. I would further like to suggest that the sutras are not at all “practical,” and were never meant to be. By no stretch of the imagination is the YS an instructional manual, if it was there would be no need for all the commentaries written on it, including N’s. The sutra genre serves as a barebones framework, a mnemonic device if you will, of a system, the details of which need to be fleshed out by a teacher. By itself, without such a commentary, the YS is not particularly comprehensible. Although interpretations like N’s cast it in this light, the text was also never meant as a guide to daily life, certainly not life in 21st century America; rather it was written for Indian men engaged in a very strict form of ascetic meditation with no particular interest in making themselves better human beings. The idea that there’s a “simplicity” to this text is curious, there’s quite a bit about it, it seems to me, that presents some very knotty questions, especially the third and fourth chapters, though if I remember correctly N’s version omits both (I could be wrong here), which would definitely simplify things considerably.

    But what I must object to most strenuously is the idea that all the male-authored commentaries are all “from the mind,” that they “lack heart.” First of all this is the worst kind of sex-role stereotyping, akin to saying that all Westerners are materialistic, while all Indians are spiritual. If I suggested, say, that the reason most translations are made by men is that women are “too emotional” to learn Sanskrit, which requires a highly organized rational mind, I’d have my head handed to me by hoards of irate yoginis, including the one in my weekly Sanskrit class whose understanding of the language is far superior to mine. It’s also unfair to suggest there’s something lacking in the work done by all the male translator/commentators, who undoubtably struggled mightily with this text to render it in the clearest way possible. I have no objection to what N has done with this text, after all she’s correct in saying that the sutra form is relatively open to interpretation. But because the commentary is perceived as “coming from the mind” in no way diminishes its value OR its suitability for women. No doubt an entirely mental-rational approach to spiritual matters is untenable, but that doesn’t mean we should necessarily swing to the opposite end of the spectrum to balance it out. What’s needed … well, no matter what I say here will be labeled as “too mental,” so I respectfully submit the preceding for your consideration.