How to Relate Through Yoga Practices.
Raja yoga, also known as ashtanga yoga, is a spiritual system aimed at bringing the mind
into union with the true reality. This philosophy and its applications are discussed in Patanjali’s
Yoga Sutras. The practice of raja yoga emphasizes meditation, whereas the practice of hatha
yoga emphasizes the asanas. However, raja yoga does not exclude asana and pranayama, and
hatha yoga does not exclude meditation.
The ultimate ‘goal’, for lack of a better word, of all systems of yoga is samadhi, or an
unwavering experience of bliss. In order to reach this elevated state, we must begin where we
are, and where we are, in most cases, is in constant flux between ignorance, suffering, and
I consider myself a beginner student, at best, of raja yoga. My teacher, Michele Loew
(director of The Yoga Space in Portland, Oregon) imparts her understanding of raja yoga in
eloquent, digestible bits throughout asana class. It’s Michele who invigorated my appetite for
deeper, authentic teachings. In my brief experience with raja yoga as transmitted by Michele, the
concept of the Four Great Virtues has struck me as particularly intriguing in terms of daily
Everyday life is about relationships – your relationships with friends, family members,
employers, teachers, strangers, your community and environment. When one strives to embody
the Four Great Virtues, one directly addresses this fact of life. We have all tried to deny or avoid
the existence of relationships that feel draining or destructive, but according to the Virtues, these
relationships require a certain degree of attention, as well.
Patanjali instructs that one should cultivate friendliness towards equals (maitri),
compassion towards those in distress (karuna), complacency towards those who are superior
(mudita), and indifference towards those who are of ill-intention (upeksha).
Now, the words equals, distress, superior, and ill-intention are arguably open to
interpretation. But for the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that equals can be defined as those
who are on a similar path towards heightened awareness; distress most likely means suffering;
superior perhaps translates as further along the path, whether spiritually or intellectually (but
probably not materially); and an ill-intentioned individual as one who generates negative energy
as a result of his or her own internal afflictions.
By practicing the Four Great Virtues, one rises to meet the challenges presented in each
of these four ‘types’: the equal, the distressed, the superior, and the ill-intentioned. How many
times have we reacted with hostility in response to someone who has acted unkindly towards us,
without pausing to consider whether or not this person was acting from a place distress or from a
place of ill-intention?
According to yogic philosophy, Hinduism and Buddhism, human beings (or at least the
unenlightened 99.9% of us), are caught in samskaras, or ingrained patterns of behavior and
thought. We operate from within the confines of these samskaras and repeat past mistakes,
usually without the slightest idea.
In the moment in which someone close to you acts unfairly or hurtfully, it’s easy to feel
indignant, angry, and betrayed. I am not of the opinion that negative feelings are categorically
wrong – these feelings are part of our human experience. Yet in order to become more aware and
more at peace, one is compelled to transform default gut reactions into opportunities to cultivate
a clearer, more compassionate consciousness. This can be done through all eight limbs of the
ashtanga, or raja, yoga practice: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratayahara, dharna,
dhyana, and then eventually, samadhi.
We have all been burned, in one way or another, by someone we love, and we have all
done the burning at some point, as well. This isn’t about guilt or innocence. It is about attempting
to see the Self by utilizing concepts like Pantajali’s Four Great Virtues and the eight limbs of
ashtanga. Next time someone causes you emotional harm by acting or speaking carelessly,
consider which spiritual pose that particular situation requires: compassion or indifference?
Let me give you a brief example. Recently, someone I have known and loved for years
(we’ll call him Milo) acted completely out of line with who I had imagined him to be. His
behavior suddenly became reckless, cruel and selfish. I reacted immediately to the pain I felt, and
I could not get past the questions, How could he do this and why would he do this to me?
And then, lo and behold, the Four Great Virtues popped up during meditation, and then
again during asana practice, and then again, and then again, until I was forced to confront my
own anger and resentment in the context of these principles. I realized, albeit reluctantly, that I
wanted to make Milo’s actions more about me than they actually were. I wanted to wring out all
those bad feelings of rejection and betrayal with the aid of self-pity. I refused to see how the
situation was one in a string of similar situations, simply another brick in the wall of samskara.
The more I contemplated this, the more I was able to move past egocentric fits of sadness and
anger. After a time, I found compassion for Milo, a compassion that I believe has its roots in the
love I’ve felt for him all along.
If you take a good look at the people in your life, you’ll see that every relationship offers
a space for practicing each of the Virtues. You and I and everyone around us – we are all so
flawed, and yet we are all so capable of being good to one another, if only by keeping
compassion at the forefront of our interactions.
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