Yoga: Approaching a Modern Practice with an Ancient Text

A couple of months ago, I read The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali for the first time.  Given that I’ve been practicing yoga for 14 years and teaching for a handful of years, I figured that I was probably due.

After reading it, I wondered if any of it is still relevant to yoga practitioners of today.  If you don’t know what’s in it, imagine an esoteric collection of words that describes a self-cultivation process that allows the practitioner to free herself from ego in order to reach an ultimate goal, called samādhi.

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The word samādhi literally translates as “placing together.¹”  Given the descriptions of the state of samādhi in The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali, it appears that the two things that are being “placed together” are self and God.

The āsanas—poses—are barely mentioned because this text is about meditation.  You might even say it’s all about mental āsanas.

Today we live in a world where yoga is has gained exceptional popularity, even compared to most other fitness crazes.  Yoga is often appealing because of the physical benefits associated with the exercise and perhaps for the benefits associated with its naturally meditative qualities.

We rarely consider samādhi to be the goal of yoga.  If we consider it, at all, it is nothing more than a happy accident of practice.  Ironically, this is how The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali asks us to approach yoga.  Maintaining the goal of samādhi turns yoga into an ego driven pursuit and the ego must be sacrificed in order to achieve samādhi.  In the meantime, the practitioner can expect to experience the benefits of practice for the sake of practice.²

After having approached the mat hundreds of times over the years and having watched others do it hundreds of times, I have observed a quality that goes beyond a vacant series of poses.

The yoga class becomes a place where we are constantly but indirectly asked to release our egos.  A long held stretch may ask us to make friends with discomfort.  A strong vinyāsa might force us to ask our bodies about its desired pace, rather than fall into mindless competition.

Somehow, in the space between the calming reassurance and intense physical challenges, we naturally begin to loosen our grip on our egos.  We may not necessarily reach samādhi every session or ever, but these tiny releases of ego offer us more profound changes off the mat.  We recognize those changes and that is what keeps us coming back.

This is how I think The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali is still relevant to modern practitioners.  We’re drawn to yoga for the same reason that the people reading that text around the 3rd century CE were drawn to it.  We are looking to achieve some kind of goal that has to do with our individual development.

We also end up getting the same answer: That’s not what this is about.  I think the āsanas do maintain something that is more than exercise, stretching, and breathing.  All of those components combined create another thing that keeps us coming back for more.

If yoga has always been about exercise for you, then maybe next time you practice you can ask yourself how it challenges your ego.  That question might prove to be useful to you.

What do you think?  What does yoga do for you?  Is it an especially transformative practice or is it just about as transformative as anything else?

¹Feuerstein, G. (2005). Encyclopedia of religion. 2(12), 8066. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3424502725&v=2.1&u=temple_main&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w&asid=714b66ee4c3c7e4fac5aa3d8686964de

²Patañjali, & Feuerstein, G. (1989). The Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali: A new translation and commentary. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

Embrace Your Pain to Reveal Your Peace

Sometimes cold hard winters can give rise to a lot of negative feelings.  I know that’s true for me.  However, negativity doesn’t have to be all bad.  Feeling bad sometimes can be quite beneficial, not unlike how watching a sad movie can actually make us feel better.¹

The idea that to relieve suffering, we must first embrace suffering is not a new one.  This has been discussed in Buddhism for a long time.

Here’s a quote that has been attributed to the famous Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Buddha called suffering a holy truth, because our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation. Embrace your suffering and let it reveal to you the way to peace.”

There’s this other guy named Hiroshi Motoyama who is a semi-well-known Shinto priest.  He wrote several books on his numerous peak meditative experiences.  His whole story is so complicated that I can’t get into it in one blog post.  However, in one of his books, Toward a Superconsciousness, he wrote, “Drawing an analology from the carbonated drink, we know that gas will bubble off when the bottle is opened and the pressure is released…Similarly, the psychic contents of the unconscious that surface to consciousness should be left to dissipate as they well up” (p. 18).  This is in reference to letting the bad stuff come up.

In some areas of psychology, these bottled up non-expressed thoughts and feelings become part of what is called our “shadow.”  The shadow is made up of all of the things that we don’t want to know about ourselves so we pack them away—out of reach of any daylight.  From this place, the shadow continues to operate, but it’s under the radar and outside of our conscious control.

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Denying our suffering is like bottling up the carbonation.  When we keep our negative thoughts and emotions bottled up, then sure, no one ever sees them, but then they are still stuck inside of us, making us sick.

This is the healing wisdom behind having what is called “a good cry.”

Similarly to what is taught by those who started the “law of attraction” movement, I do believe that our thoughts and feelings directly affect our physical experiences and the overall course of our lives.  This is the reason that we must be exceptionally careful with how we deal with them.  Forcing a negative thought or feeling into the shadow will only cause it to operate from a place that we can’t see.  This is much worse than being consciously aware of how our thoughts and feelings are affecting our lives.  Instead of awareness, we’re stuck wondering why we’re tired, lethargic, suffering or otherwise unsuccessful in our endeavors despite all of our intensive positive thinking.

Today, the pop-spirituality movement has turned our culture into a “no-negativity-ever” zone.  This is not only a stifling environment for growth, but insensitive to people who are truly suffering at the moment.

At the bottom of this post is a talk by Barbara Ehrenreich where she talks about how obstinate positivity has negatively impacted the greater good.  I don’t agree with every single thing she says, but overall, she makes a lot of good points.

I’m not advocating for wallowing in depression or cynicism, but I do think that we owe it to ourselves to fully explore our down times.  Often times negative thoughts and feelings don’t come flying out in a fit of tears, but need to be given time—to be coaxed out with sensitivity and compassion.

I am advocating for exploring how you honestly feel without judgement.

I say “without judgement” because judgement makes us want to manipulate our emotions into being appropriate to our given situation, something we would rather feel, or expectations that we have for ourselves.  Conversely, the judgement tempts us to tell a story about our given situation that fits our feelings.  This only serves to intensify bad feelings which is the negative side of being “negative.”

Good luck, folks.  Since today is one of the numerous snow-days we’ve had this year, why not take the time to let out whatever you’ve been carrying around?

 

¹I know that the conclusions drawn in this article are not exactly the same as the message in this post.  However, I do believe there is a connection because both support the idea that a more honest perspective about one’s own situation (even if it’s negative) is beneficial.