In our physically-focused world, it’s easy to get lost in the look, style, and alignment of yoga postures while missing the experience and spectrum of the mental state and the intentions behind them. To me, there are few places that this is more evident than in the social media “yoga challenges,” in which participants take photos of themselves in a series of postures for a set amount of time.
These are wonderful for generating support and building a certain community, but asana is only 1 branch in the 8 limbs of yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali explain yoga to be much more. Sutras, or segments of verse containing Sanskrit teachings, are categorized into four “books,” or sections. The first is listed below. I invite you to explore them with me, and connect them to your practice. These are much less explicit ideas than a list of postures, so they will be incorporated into your day or practice much more subtly. They are an exercise in intention, in awareness, in openness to your experience, and in sitting with uncertainty.
Patanjali is the author and compiler of what are known as the Yoga Sutras. There are 4 Chapters that comprise over 190 Sutras about how to attain liberation using the mind. Patanjali describes the obstacles most of us face in the way of Enlightenment and then outlines many systems for overcoming or dissolving those obstacles.
Yoga is found in the Now, the present moment, this is the key teaching of Yoga. The deep peace and fearless nature that come from the practice of Yoga comes from the connection to the present moment and the eternal nature of the divine vibration that is felt there.
How to Participate: I invite you to write just a small reflection on how your experienced the idea in your yoga practice: in any of the 8 limbs, or in the yoga of everyday life. You may keep this private, or you may share it in the post comments or on your own social media. Use the hashtag #31DaysofYogaSutra to spread the word!
Book One of the sutras is the “Portion on Contemplation,” and will be the start of our journey into the yoga sutras. We will begin on February 1, 2017. This is appropriate for the contemplation that the dark winter months can plunge us into!
You may keep these reflections private, or you may share it in the post comments or on your own social media. Use the hashtag #31daysofyogaphilosophy, and spread the word!
- अथ योगानुशासनम् atha yoga-anuśāsanam
Yoga in the here and now: an introduction to the study and practice of yoga.
Today’s sutra is Sutra #1: “atha yoga-anuśāsanam” or Yoga in the here and now: an introduction to the study and practice of yoga.
When you practice yoga, you are making an intention-filled commitment. Not to your ego’s goals, but to stay present and committed to your practice through each moment. Atha refers to both the source of your initial draw to yoga and your ongoing commitment to practice NOW! Atha makes yoga accessible and perfect in any place. As Neil Spencer puts it, atha “makes any time the right time to do yoga.” We shouldn’t put mental limits on when or how we do yoga, or get to carried away with specific ego-goals. Quality of presence is valued over quantity of time slotted for “yoga.” We may feel rushed or pressured to get a certain asana sequence in, but that is not the space in which yoga grows. This practice involves slow assimilation, which grows from dedication to finding yoga in the present moment.
Intention: I show up with my whole being, and hold openness to process and possibility without strain or overexerting myself.
Ask yourself the following questions on how “atha” shows up for you. You may keep these reflections private, or you may share it in the post comments or on your own social media. Use the hashtag #31daysofyogaphilosophy in your post to spread the word!
What first drew you to yoga? What was your goal? How would you describe the qualities of that initial spark?
What parts of your life are too full, and are feeling rushed? What are your priorities, and does the impact of your efforts echo those values?
- योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः Yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ
When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear.
- तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपेऽवस्थानम् tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam
For finding our true self (drashtu) entails insight into our own nature.
Each day of this challenge we will share a piece of the yoga sutras and take time to reflect on what it means and how it applies in our daily lives on and off the mat. Today we are looking at the next two sutras 1.2 and 1.3. Sutra 1.2 defines yoga: Yogaś-citta-vr̥tti-nirodhaḥ: When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear. Sri Swami Satchidananda, a popular translator of the sutras, assigns so much significance to this sutra that he says it would be enough for a very keen student, because the rest of the sutras only explain this one. 1.3 is tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam: For finding our true self (drashtu) entails insight into our own nature.
Chitta can be loosely translated as “consciousness:” the mind-stuff, the totality of what exists between our true and clear awareness, and all that is external to us. It can be loaded with behavioral patterns, assumptions, projections, and emotional baggage from the heaviness of our experience.
Vritti is the constant wave of input that the chitta assimilates. Vritti block the chitta from the experience of true awareness, or purusa. These are “untruths” and thoughts that we take to be true about reality because we drew them as a conclusion about our reality, perhaps only one time. They are like clouds blocking us from seeing the sky, and they don’t stop: we must constantly remind ourselves that the clouds (vritti) are not the sky (chitta — our consciousness). The truth of sky lies in the depth of space (purusa). The true awareness, outside of habits, conditioned behaviors, and defense mechanisms, leads to drashtuh — the true self.
Nirodhah is restraint or control, in this case of vritti — that constant input into the mind — sorting it out from true awareness. Here we have: yoga! Through yoga we aim to step away from our mental chatter.
Intention: I listen to and watch my thoughts pass through like clouds, as though they are a radio show, a friend speaking to me, or a guide book. They are not absolute truth.
Reflect and journal:
- What is troubling you in life today? What beliefs do you hold that make it a problem for you? Is there another way to experience that situation?
- What did you notice when you intentionally watched your thoughts today? If they were a friend’s words to you, how would you characterize that friend?
- वृत्ति सारूप्यमितरत्र ॥४॥
Lacking that, misconceptions (vritti) skew our perceptions.
- वृत्तयः पञ्चतय्यः क्लिष्टाक्लिष्टाः ॥५॥
vr̥ttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ
There are five types of misconceptions (vrittis), some of which are more agreeable than others:
- प्रमाण विपर्यय विकल्प निद्रा स्मृतयः
pramāṇa viparyaya vikalpa nidrā smr̥tayaḥ
insight, error, imaginings, deep sleep, and recollections.
Vrittis are the constant clouds of input that pass through the sky of our consciousness and distract us from our true awareness and nature. Through yoga, we aim to remember that clouds are just clouds. According to the sutras, there are five categories of vrittis: insight, error, imaginings, deep sleep, and memories. These are not inherently “bad” things, but the sutras tell us that they are, at the end of day, blockades to true awareness.
Intention: With awareness, I am the master of my thoughts. I assume or generalize nothing.
Meditation: Sit quietly and watch your thoughts as though you are listening to a radio program. Imagine each thought as a cloud. Note — gently but without judgement (the tricky part!) — as each “cloud of thought” rises up, if it is detrimental (selfish) or helpful (selfless) towards creating a positive outcome.
Reflect or journal:
- Notice: What are you usually thinking about during your yoga practice? What are you usually thinking about during stressful moments during your day?
- When has a stereotype or prejudice caused you to misjudge someone or something recently?
- प्रत्यक्षानुमानाअगमाः प्रमाणानि
Insight arises from direct perception, conclusions, or learning that is based on reliable sources.
Each day of this challenge we will share a piece of the yoga sutras and take time to reflect on what it means and how it applies in our daily lives on and off the mat. Today we are looking at 1.7: pratyakṣa-anumāna-āgamāḥ pramāṇāni — Insight arises from direct perception, conclusions, or learning that are based on reliable sources.
Direct perception (pratyakṣa) means we can trust the direct experience of our senses: what we hear, smell, taste, see, and feel.
Conclusion (anumāna) is logical inference based in experience, such as seeing smoke and knowing that there is fire, or seeing clouds and knowing that there is rain or stormy weather.
Learning from reliable sources (āgamāḥ) refers to the study of ancient spiritual text. There are many scriptural texts, with varying beliefs, rituals, cultures, and languages. But the common ground between them is what can guide us into spiritual examination.
Even though these sources of knowledge are to be trusted, they too must be seen as clouds that are just passing through, and distracting us from the sky of our basic nature. But we must notice and sort through our thoughts to understand them, so that they may pass through the mind more easily. Sri Swami Satchidananda uses the metaphor of sorting through our old clothes. We likely have more than we need, but it is human to cling. If we can give away and let go of just some of our possessions, like thoughts, we will move most gratefully towards peace.
Intention: I use awareness to examine if thoughts are grounded in my direct experience and sources I respect and honor, or grounded in misconceptions.
In a moment where you feel your thoughts running away with you, notice what you feel in your body. What is your direct perception in this moment? Is your heart pounding, are your palms sweaty? What does that tell you? Breath deeply and invite thoughts that bring you peace in for 60 seconds and then check in with your body again.
- विपर्ययो मिथ्याज्ञानमतद्रूप प्रतिष्ठम्
viparyayo mithyā-jñānam-atadrūpa pratiṣṭham
Error arises from knowledge that is based on a false mental construct.
- शब्दज्ञानानुपाती वस्तुशून्यो विकल्पः
śabda-jñāna-anupātī vastu-śūnyo vikalpaḥ
Imaginings are engendered by word knowledge without regard for what actually exists in the real world.
- अभावप्रत्ययाअलम्बना तमोवृत्तिर्निद्र
Deep sleep is the absence of all impressions resulting from opacity in that which is mutable in human beings (chitta).
- अनुभूतविषयासंप्रमोषः स्मृतिः
Recollections are engendered by the past, insofar as the relevant experience has not been eclipsed.
Each day of this challenge we will share a piece of the yoga sutras and take time to reflect on what it means and how it applies in our daily lives on and off the mat. Today we will examine 1.8-11.
We will recall that vrittis are the thought form “clouds” that fill the sky of our mind, and their categories are listed in 1.6 (insight, error, imaginings, deep sleep, and recollections). In order to find inner peace, we must control these thought forms.
In 1.7, yesterday, Patanjali detailed the origin of the first vritti: insight. In 1.8-11 he details the rest:
– Errors are false thoughts: mistaking a rope on the ground for a snake. The reality of the situation doesn’t matter, your body responds with fear as though it were true that there is a snake.
– Imaginings are ideas we create in our mind without input besides words. For example, perhaps we have been told that there are snakes in the area we are walking, so our mind produces fear. We do not stop to think that it is winter and all of the snakes are probably staying burrowed underground.
– Deep sleep (nidra) is the thought of nothingness. After we sleep, we still know that we slept. The thoughts are still there. When we completely lose consciousness, there is no awareness of that nothingness. In this way, sleep is still a thought form.
– Recollections are memories — saved thought impressions — that resurface when triggered. These past thought forms may or may not apply to the present situation.
With all vrittis, it is important to see them clearly for what they are, so that we can move into controlling them…
Intention: I examine the origins of my thoughts: insights, errors, imaginings, deep sleep, and recollections.
Journal: As your go through your day or your yoga practice, find one thought that your mind wanders to often. It might be about how good or bad you are at your job, how good or bad of a friend you are, what you are worried about, what goal you want to attain in the near future, what you think of yourself or another person, etc. Sit still, take 5 deep breaths, and see if you can consider the origin of this popular thought. Is it insight from your direct experience or respected sources? A mistaken thought, based on a potentially false conclusion? An imagined thought, based on language and words? Is it an empty thought (perhaps if you do a yoga nidra meditation!)? Or a recollected thoughts, from a memory?
- अभ्यासवैराग्याअभ्यां तन्निरोधः
The state of yoga is attained via a balance between assiduousness (abhyasa) and imperturbability (vairagya).
Each day of this challenge we will share a piece of the yoga sutras and take time to reflect on what it means and how it applies in our daily lives on and off the mat. Today we will examine 1.12: The state of yoga is attained via a balance between assiduousness (abhyasa) and imperturbability (vairagya)
Patanjali is offering us the two roads to take control of our thought-form vrittis. We can actively practice assiduousness, or we can passively calm ourselves into a state or non-attachment. He will soon dive deeper into both of those terms…
Intention: I allow thoughts to pass through the sky of my mind and to be let go of. I can move them with an active practice of mind or body (poses, breath work, a mantra) or I can let go of them through a stillness that allows me to soften my attachment.
Journal: When do you find it most easy to release thoughts? Moving in asana? Breathing with intention in prayama? Verbal mantras? Sitting meditation?
- तत्र स्थितौ यत्नोऽभ्यासः
tatra sthitau yatno-‘bhyāsaḥ
Assiduousness means resolutely adhering to one’s practice of yoga.
Each day of this challenge we will share a piece of the yoga sutras and take time to reflect on what it means and how it applies in our daily lives on and off the mat. Today we will examine 1.13: tatra sthitau yatno-‘bhyāsaḥ
Assiduousness means resolutely adhering to one’s practice of yoga.
Practice is an all day every day thing. We often think of yoga as something we need to schedule into our week, and as something that has a clear start and finish. But yoga isn’t bound like that. You might not make it to your mat every day, but yoga doesn’t only happen on your mat. Remember sutra 1.2? “When you are in a state of yoga, all misconceptions (vrittis) that can exist in the mutable aspect of human beings (chitta) disappear.” Yoga is restraining the mind’s racing to connect back to our true nature.
The yoga of everyday life is the chores that flow like an asana — or yogic postures — sequence and bring you out of your busy mind. It’s the stressful moments where you must come back to your breath, just as you must before moving into a challenging pose.
Intention: Everything is practice. My life mirrors my yoga class.
Journal: Think of one example of “the yoga of everyday life” that you experience today. In what ways did you work with the happenings of life in the same way you work with the happenings of a yoga class?
- स तु दीर्घकाल नैरन्तर्य सत्काराअदराअसेवितो दृढभूमिः
sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra-ādara-āsevito dr̥ḍhabhūmiḥ
Success can definitely be achieved via sound and continuous practice over an extended period of time, carried out in a serious and thoughtful manner.
Each day of this challenge we will share a piece of the yoga sutras and take time to reflect on what it means and how it applies in our daily lives on and off the mat. Today we will examine 1.14: sa tu dīrghakāla nairantarya satkāra-ādara-āsevito dr̥ḍhabhūmiḥ — Success can definitely be achieved via sound and continuous practice over an extended period of time, carried out in a serious and thoughtful manner.
This is fairly straight forward, but easier said than done. Patanjali tells us that a sound yoga practice must be a) consistent b) committed and c) serious and thoughtful. We will remember again that when he says yoga, he is not only talking about a posture flow on your mat. He is talking about the definition he gave us in 1.2, the restraint of thoughts which leads to our true, peaceful nature. The flow of postures on the mat is just one trick, among many, to get us there.
Intention: I am consistent, committed, and intently eager in my omnipresent practice of yoga.
Journal: Which of these three requirement is the most challenging for your practice? What is one tangible step you can take to work closer to bringing that quality into your practice?