“The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” – Yoga Sutras 1:2
“For a keen student this one sutra would be enough because the rest of them only explain this one.” – Sri Swami Satchidananda
The Yoga Sutras: the handbook for daily living.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a collection of verses, or sutras, which means “threads”, written about Yoga. The text is divided into four separate books. The Portion on Contemplation, the Portion on Practice, the Portion on Accomplishments, and the Portion on Absoluteness. We are not entirely sure when these writings were comprised, but most modern scholars estimate between 500 B.C.E and 200 C.E. The text is attributed to a sage known as Patanjali.
The first two verses of the text are significant. The first verse indicates that in the moment the individual is reading the verse, they are embarking on the quest to achieve Yoga. The second verse defines Yoga as stillness of mind. If we still our mind, we have achieved Yoga. Sounds simple enough, doesn’t it?
In his translation of the Yoga Sutras, Sri Swami Satchidananda says that if we are keen students we would achieve Yoga simply by understanding these two verses. For the rest of us, Patanjali gives us 194 more sutras explaining how we might achieve this state.
If merely reading a mystical text such as the Yoga Sutras were enough, the spiritual journey would be easy! However, the transmission of knowledge from teacher to student is only one part of the process. When we receive the knowledge the question is what do we do with it?
The Eight Limbed Path of Yoga.
In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali gives what is often referred to as Ashtanga Yoga, or the Eight Limbs of Yoga. These are the practices that everyday practitioners undergo in order to live a yogic life. They are the Yamas (behaviors we abstain from), Niyamas (behaviors we participate in), Asana (physical yoga postures), Pranayama (breathing techniques that channel the life force), Pratyahara (withdrawal of physical senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (true knowledge of the divine).
Exploring ideas about Higher Consciousness and diving deeply into the Unconscious is fascinating. However, it doesn’t do much good to leave it in the theoretical realm. The things we learn have to be transfer to our daily lives in order to be relevant. One metaphysical law, and Yoga is a metaphysical art and science, is that this world is maya, an illusion. However, to say that this world does not matter fosters level confusion. For example, within the realm of maya, gravity matters very much! It is inadvisable to go jumping off any tall buildings.
That is why Patanjali is so concerned with everyday issues such as facing our attachments and how to approach relationships with the people around us. How we navigate the illusory world makes a difference. Our experiences can either bring us pain or not bring us pain, but to transcend maya requires we be at peace.
The only way to be at peace is to lead a peaceful life. In order to lead a peaceful life, we must practice. Yoga is one practice that leads to such peace, but there are others. It is our task to find the practices that work best for us and to actually do them!
Practicing to be at peace.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga give us a practice so that we can be at peace. The first steps toward inner peace involve ethical behavior. How do we treat those around us? How do we treat ourselves? A person who lives ethically and does his or her spiritual practices will eventually reach enlightenment. It may or may not be in this lifetime. However, a person who experiences asso-called spontaneous awakening who does not live ethically and/or believes he or she is somehow “above” doing his or her own deep spiritual work is far away from enlightenment. Our ability to participate in maya without being ruled by it is key.
A serious spiritual path is not a fluffy, feel-good, all-is-one pass that gives us permission to deny the world. Denial is not the same as transcendence. Rather, a spiritual path such as Yoga fortifies us and gives us the strength to look suffering in the eye and deny that it has any power over us. When we do our practice, we cultivate that spiritual resiliency that allows us to more actively participate in maya without identifying with it.
Do you have a spiritual practice? If so, how is it going? Is it something that you are attending to consistently? Do you feel your spirit is being fed by your practice, or are things a bit dry? If you don’t have a spiritual practice, do you have some idea of where to start? If you are practicing yoga, a great first step is to develop a home-based practice in addition to going to class. Perhaps first thing in the morning or before you go to bed at night you do two or three of your favorite poses and then sit quietly for a few minutes. Listen to that still, small voice within. It will guide you to whatever practices would best serve you.