January 2021: Intro to the Yoga Sutras

Week 1

Welcome back, friends! It’s been a while.

As I mentioned back in October, I spent the last two months (among other things) reviewing active content and made any changes that called for them. I’ll continue to take these “content review” breaks a few times a year to ensure I’m always checking in on my work. And as always, last year’s content is there for you when you need it; to read and reread at your leisure. If there is anything you’d like to see added or changed, please contact me! I will never claim to know it all. In fact, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. As I learn and adapt, so will my writing. I hope you’ll continue to join me for the ride and call me in where it’s needed.

Full disclosure: We’ll be spending most of 2021 talking about the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We touched upon it here and there last year, but I really wanted to take a deeper dive with you because there is so much fruitful knowledge to absorb. I think I’m on my fourth round of reading it, and even still, I am finding something new in every sutra.

As a refresher, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a collection of 195/196 sutras that thread together the practices of yoga. Patanjali was a sage who is estimated to have written the Sutras somewhere around 400-500 B.C.E. and based the text off of older teachings. It’s broken down into four padas (chapters/sections): the first pada, Samadhi, discusses what yoga is, obstacles to attaining yoga, and how one can be successful (or even unsuccessful) throughout their journey. The second pada, Sadhana, moves us into the practice of yoga, and it’s here we are introduced to the eight-limbed path, or Ashtanga yoga. The third pada, Vibhuti, describes the benefits of reaching moksha, including the attainment of special powers, and provides a more in-depth look at some of the last few limbs. Finally, the fourth pada, Kaivalya, is an inquiry into liberation, and what it really means to detach from the material parts of our being; what it means to detach from prakriti and become truly connected with purusha.

This month, we’ll focus on a few aspects of Samadhi Pada that give life to the rest of the sutras. It’s incredible how much comparison I can draw between the sutras and modern-day psychology. It’s another beautiful example of how these ancient teachings were far ahead of their time.

If you’d like to read along with the sutras, use this link to download a free PDF. This PDF is the sutras, pure and simple. There are several books you can buy that not only translates the Sanskrit, but also provides a commentary. I recommend reading both at some point on your journey so you have a chance to both learn about the sutras from a teacher, and be able to draw your own insights through reading a simple translation. If you’re going to go with a commentary, here’s my recommendation.

We’ll end this week with a short video, where TKV Desikachar offers a very brief introduction to the Yoga Sutras.

Reflection: Begin reading the sutras using the free PDF listed above. Jot down anything that comes up for you about the “five patterns” and any examples of how these are reflected in your own life.

Week 2

Once Patanjali pronounces the start of the text, he brings us right into a simplified definition of yoga:

1.2 – yogascittavrittinirodhah: yoga is the cessation* of the modifications, or fluctuations, of the mind.

These fluctuations within the mind can also be thought of as patterns and are placed into five categories:

  • Pramana, or right perception, are patterns that arise from experiences we witness with our own senses or those that are shared by others;
  • Viparyaya, or misperception, truly speaks for itself. It’s an incorrect interpretation of what we experience with the senses. Desikachar says this is the most common pattern we have;
  • Vikalpa, or conceptualization, is verbalization; a misunderstanding of words or expressions in the absence of the subject of the experience;
  • Nidra, or sleep, is another pattern in the mind that goes without saying. Desikachar says though sleep is a common recurrence and necessity for living beings, other variables can create sleep-like patterns out of boredom or exhaustion;
  • Smrtayah, or memory, occurs when we revisit experiences through information that is stored in the mind. Memories have a habit of becoming cloudy as time passes, and are typically incomplete accounts of what actually happened. We saw this exemplified in psychology where false recollections were famously studied in the 90’s through the well-known Challenger Phantom Flashbulb experiment.

Whether or not these patterns are good or bad, pleasant or benign, or happy or harmful, doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of the sutras. Regardless of what we think they are, our attachments to these fluctuations keep us from experiencing consciousness in its purest and truest form. According to Patanjali, both practice and non-reaction will guide us toward a yogic state. It takes time and effort to be free of effort, and though it’s not an easy road to walk, the reward is worth every step.

When we begin to practice, Patanjali explains we will first meet with four types of cognition: vitraka, or analytical thinking; vicara, or insight/reflection; ananda, or bliss; and asmita, or sense of self. This is the beginning of true inquiry and our practices can feel like they’re creating millions of little “aha moments” and pockets of joy. This, as Desikachar teaches, is practicing on a superficial level, but with time and commitment, these inquiries melt away just like our vrittis (fluctuations). 

We’ll end off on Sutra 1.22 this week, where Patanjali talks about the level of commitment needed for liberation. The proximity of where we are now to where liberation is, is dependent on how deep our practice is (mild, moderate, intense).

As we always should, I’ll leave that sutra open to interpretation. I remember hearing an old Buddhist story, where a student kept asking their teacher if they would reach enlightenment quicker by working harder. Each time the student raised the amount of effort, the teacher would increase the length of time to reach enlightenment. I think this is a perfect example of where we need to find balance with our effort and determination. Our practice should be steady without latching on to the fruit of our efforts. If we are more attached to the idea of liberation than to the practice that will get us there, we’ll miss out on integral parts of the journey.

When I think about my personal journey, perception and misperception tend to show up quite often as teachers. Myself and others, I’m sure, tend to forget that we’re viewing the world out of a lens that is made up of much more than just what we see and observe.

Imagine we are in a room with other people, standing in a circle, and an apple is on the ground in the center. We are all looking at that same apple, yet there is no guarantee that it is perceived by everyone in the exact same way. Perception begins with noticing the apple through our sense organs (such as eyes), which sends signals to the brain. The brain quickly sifts through our memories and experiences to attach to what our sense organs have gathered. If someone in our circle had an unpleasant experience with an apple, their perception of that apple will be vastly different than others, even though our apple is not their apple.

We could get dressed in the exact same way every single day, yet look completely different each time we step in front of a mirror. It’s not that we changed; it’s our perception that changed.

Perception is not universal truth. It’s our truth. It doesn’t make it any less true, but “truth is in the eye of the beholder.” The more we understand how our mind works, the more we’ll be able to discern our experiences with more clarity.

Let’s wrap up this week and reflect. As I didn’t cover every sutra in detail up to 1.22, feel free to refer to your own text or the free PDF to read a bit more into these aspects of yoga.

Reflection: Read through each of the vrittis (patterns) and start making connections to your own life experiences. Which vritti do you connect with the most? Which do you feel will be the most difficult to work with? Feel free to do additional research and find other points of view.

*Refer to August’s Off the Mat for a small blurb about the nirodhah debate. 

Week 3

We’ll end this month with a continuation of Samadhi Pada, beginning with sutra 1.23: isvarapranidhadva, realization may also come if one is oriented toward the ideal of pure awareness, Isvara.

Patanjali has already written about what yoga is, the mental fluctuations we must still/direct to be in a state of yoga, and the importance of consistent practice. 

Patanjali also mentions that having a deep, innate faith in [any] God, can also bring one towards yoga. Isvara pranidhana is to be connected to pure awareness (isvara); a connection to a formless, changeless, omnipresent awareness that isn’t bound by karma or suffering.

From The Heart of Yoga:

“God is eternal. In fact, he is the ultimate teacher. He is the source of guidance for all teachers: past, present, and future…In different cultures and different religions, different words are used to describe God and his qualities. It is more important that we express God with the greatest respect and without any conflicts. In this, a teacher can be a great help.” – T.K.V. Desikachar

For me, this sutra and explanation above can also mean that no matter what religion we practice or culture we come from, we must refer to our faith in the Divine with respect and dignity. Divinity, as it relates to the idea of God, is separate from the perils of a human experience. Pure awareness is beyond our human experience. That’s the beauty in it.

Sutra 1.27 includes a translation that refers to isvara as represented by the sound of OM/AUM. As we remember from prior months (LINK TO POST), AUM is a divine sound with many interwoven meanings, and Patanjali believes repetition of AUM and/or a deep fixation on God brings clarity. And with clarity, all obstacles that create difficulty in reaching a state of yoga will fall away.

Easier said than done, right?

This part of the sutras is where we see Patanjali list obstacles (and there are quite a few!), that if left to their own devices, can create roadblocks in our practice: vyadhi, sickness; styana, apathy; sansaya, doubt; pramada, carelessness; alasya, laziness/fatigue; avirati, sexual indulgence or overindulgence; bhranti darsana, delusion; bhumikatvanavasthitatvani, lack of progress or perseverance; anavasthitatvani, inconsistency/regression. 

If these seem daunting to you, don’t get too hung up on them. In order to remove barriers to our well-being, we need to know what they are and then be able to identify when they surface. 1.31 tells us that when these obstacles surface, we aren’t able to practice with ease. We may feel anxious or depressed. It’s those days where we roll out the mat or sit on our pillow and we want to be anywhere other than there.

And those experiences happen. And that’s okay.

So what can we do to dissipate these obstacles?

We can be kind, compassionate, and radiate joy towards all beings without discrimination.

We can practice pranayama (breathing exercises), give our attention to sensations, thoughts, and emotions as they arise (good or bad), examine our dreams, and essentially inquire about anything that is happening within our human experience. Energy flows where attention goes.

Pause. Take a breath. And understand that this process is a gradual progression. Release any attachment you have to yoga being just a goal.

It’s a journey.

And with unmarked roads, wrong turns, and backtracking, you will still get there.

Samadhi Pada has a bit more to it (including a few sutras on meditation) that I’ll leave up to you to read over. My aim for this month was to get you thinking about your mind and all of the ways it guides you in the right direction, and all of the ways it veers you off course.

We don’t inquire within enough. And when we do, a lot of times it’s met with poor self-talk and feelings of being less than or incomplete. Relating to the obstructions we’ve looked at this week doesn’t make you less-than AT ALL. These are normal and very human experiences to have.

And we may never fully get rid of them. I’ve even heard Buddhist monks say they still feel aggravated when they are running late. The difference is, they don’t attach themselves to that feeling. And they realize that aggravation isn’t who they are; it’s a feeling they have.

Remember that the next time you latch on to an emotion or feeling that is less than pleasant. They are just experiences and they do not define you. You are whole and complete exactly as you are.

Say it with me. I am whole and complete exactly as I am.

If you prefer listening as a means of learning, feel free to watch/listen to the following video from The Sanskrit Channel. This video reads aloud the Sanskrit and translation for the entire Samadhi Pada.

Reflection: Out of all of the obstacles we’ve learned about this week, which resonate most with you? Write them down and follow each obstacle with the following sentence: “I am not _________ (obstacle). This is a barrier in my practice, and a very normal part of my human experience. I am whole and complete exactly as I am.”

References and Resources:

The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice by T. K. V. Desikachar
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Sanskrit-English Translation & Glossary by Chip Hartranft

Side Note: To be sure I am giving you this content in the most wholesome way I know how, I want to remind you that these teachings are very much up for different interpretation. I am not writing what I was once taught. I am writing what I heard. Please be sure to comment below or email me if anything resonates with you or if you ever have a different interpretation of the Sutras. I would love to hear from you!

…until next month!

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