Do we need to learn the Sutras?
We all found our way to yoga along different paths – maybe a need to relax, to give our ‘fitness’ regime more substance than we found at Zumba or the gym, maybe through rehabilitation, maybe, like me, your grandmother sat you on the floor in your swimsuit and told you that you were being a cobra or a lion – and the idea had magic for you… Whatever the path - it is more likely than not that we didn’t come to yoga out of a spiritual need – at least not one that we were conscious of…
But now we regularly come to class, surrounded by iconography from Buddhism or Hinduism. Sometimes we chant to someone called Patanjali, sometimes we just Ommmm together in slow elongated cadences. We call our poses by strange Sanskrit names that we work hard to remember. We learn to lie down in Savasana and breathe in Pranyama as preparations for something more.
We might have come to yoga for ‘physical’ reasons – but we know that yoga extends beyond the physical movements. Can we really just sit on the side-lines picking what we want from it – or rather what we think we want? Do we owe it to ‘yoga’ and to ourselves to learn more? These are the questions I am asking myself…
I’m not advocating that we try to become ‘sages’ or ‘ yogis’ - the image of sitting on a mountain top eschewing the temptations and fripperies of modern life is intimidating and ridiculous in equal measures. We live in the 21st century in large cities with complex lives.
But we have been drawn to a practice that is more than 5,000 years old. What can we gain from learning about how it came to be and what the purpose behind it really is? Don’t we owe the practice something - even just our curiosity - for enriching our lives to the extent that it already has?
I think we do…
If you agree as well – then we are taken to a metaphysical text called the Yoga Sutra written by the sage Patanjali in 300 or 400 CE. It is constructed in four chapters "pada" of 196 one-line aphorisms – or maxims of deep truth - designed as a path toward enlightenment for the ignorant and spiritually uninvolved. The aphorisms are short and pithy - since most knowledge at that time was passed on orally - and they were meant to be lessons that a sage or teacher could then elaborate on for students.
The Sutras give direction on how to achieve mastery over the mind and emotions and guidance on spiritual growth. They examine what the goal of yoga is, the difference between the mind and consciousness, the nature of enlightenment and its stages, the eight-limbed practices of yoga and the transcendent powers of meditation. The Sutras are not a religious text, and not even really a spiritual text – they are more like an ‘instruction manual’ on self-realization.
In our 'Western' yoga – the focus is primarily on asana practice, but this is just one ‘limb’ of yoga - and only a small one at that. Of the 1,200 words that make up the Yoga Sutra, only 12 pertain to asana. Because the core of yoga is not moving the body – but moving beyond the body and mind.
Edwin Bryant, a professor of Indian philosophy and religion and a translator and commentator on the Sutras says that like science and religion - yoga also has at its center the goal of alleviating suffering and that the Sutras actually complement many belief systems and spiritual paths. “The Sutras attempts to answer those big existential questions that people have asked since time immemorial: Who are we? How can we be happy? Those wisdom teachings remain ever relevant, because even if culture changes, consciousness doesn’t.”
Judith Lasater, co-founder of Yoga Journal, also sees relevance of the ancient yogic text in today’s world, believing that, " … Yoga is not only a practice, but also a state of being …Patanjali’s verses offer a time-tested “roadmap” of human consciousness… (the Sutras) continue to speak to the human mind and heart through the ages..."
At their core, the Sutras are about simplicity, respect, self-understanding and living a meaningful good life. They are tools to extend a purely physical yoga practice into a fuller practice that will ultimately become part of your daily life.
In this age of inspirational memes and tweets, self-help books and self-improvement boot camps there is actually some comfort in knowing that the Yoga Sutra have been studied by those attracted to yoga for about 1,700 years. And that whether we acknowledge it or not - we are part of the history and lineage of yoga, and it is part of us - and our lives. I think we do have a debt that demands we open the book - and our minds.
So we turn over page 1 of the Yoga Sutra: Sutra 1.1 reads: atha yoga anushasanam, which has been translated as “now the practice of yoga begins.”
Seems very appropriate…