Strolling into one of the famous book stores not long ago, I stumbled upon the Yoga section.
There, I found many colorful books with pretty, fit women and men, dressed in revealing attire, adopting some sort of complicated physical postures. If I wasn’t familiar with yoga poses, I would assume they were advanced contortionists!
Some were sitting cross-legged with eyes closed, looking blissful and relaxed; this is how most of you probably think of or experience yoga, as it’s commonly known as a fitness regime or a relaxation tool.
As I was browsing one of these books, I recalled how I got into yoga at the first place—it was because I wanted to relieve physical pain and get fit.
Twelve years later, moving along the wonderful path of being a yoga student, I am amazed how much more yoga can offer, way beyond just fitness and relaxation.
Bhagavad Gita, for example, yoga is introduced as Karma yoga, the path of action; Jnana yoga, the path of knowledge; Bhakti yoga, the path of devotion and Dhyana yoga, the path of meditation, which is the subject of Yoga Sutras of Patanjali’s text.
According to this text, yoga is a path of meditation or a means to sustain attention. There are four chapters in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras; the sutras are simple, clear and concise aphorisms, pregnant with meaning.
Traditionally, a teacher would decode the text to a qualified student. The Yoga Sutras are not a theoretical philosophical text but a practical system where the student is required to practice and constantly reflect to shape his or her own experiences.
The first chapter (Samadhi pada) is about a deep perceptual experience and is for an experienced student with a refined mind. In this chapter, Patanjali defines yoga as a means to sustain attention. As the result of sustained attention, we can know ourselves better.
In our social and economic culture, our minds are always jumping from one thing to the next. This means we get distracted and confused; our natural rhythms get muddied and out of sync and we’re driven by our senses—emptying the cookie jar, filling another liquor glass, adding yet another charge to that already maxed-out credit card. By contrast, yoga is a means of refocusing and ceasing the endless jumping of the mind; it offers a variety of tools to achieve a much more preferable state: the state of yoga.
In the second chapter (Sadhana padah), Patanjali presents the practice on how to bring your system to the state of yoga—or to bring the mind to equanimity and sustained attention. This chapter is for people who don’t enjoy the same mental clarity as the seeker in the first chapter (I fall into this category).
It opens with a preliminary kind of yoga: a Yoga of Action.
YS II.1 Tapah-Svadhyaya-Isvarapranidhanani-Kriya-Yogah
Action for the realization of Yoga of Action is composed of correct practice, personal inquiry and surrender to the highest.In other words, any thought or action which encompasses these three qualities qualifies as Kriya yoga—Yoga of Action.
1) Tapah: correct practice
This word can translate as “to heat, purify, vigor, discipline.”
The practice of yoga is about eliminating impurities—not necessarily toxins from the body, which is a part of it—but mostly toxic pattern or behaviors. Imagine a perfect diamond, covered with dirt. You are just like this diamond, whole, perfect but the dirt is preventing you from truly shining.
Tapas is about removing what’s not shining.
This does not mean to heat the body or head in any random manner but tapas in this context, means adopting the correct and appropriate discipline. We should not weaken the body by inappropriate practices such as extreme fasting, rigorous exercise or fasting. These things are the exact opposite of the goal of yoga, which is to clear the mind.
It can be tricky to stay on the path of correct practice. We tend to head towards familiar territory, reinforcing existing and not-so-helpful tendencies. For example, some of us, who are already “hot-headed,” tending to overload ourselves with activities, are drawn toward a very active practice—even hot yoga—that make us sweat and generate more heat. What we really need is more cooling, centering practice.
Others, the slow-moving types, are drawn to a very gentle and relaxing practice. These people can really benefit from more active and stimulating practice.
2) Svadhyaya: self-understanding, self-knowing
Svadhyaya is the inner antenna which we develop with an ongoing reflection.
Instead of going through life on auto-pilot, we stop and ask ourselves, “Where I am now?” and “What is the direction I am heading towards?” Eventually, we can understand our patterns and why we are really doing what we are doing.
Personal inquiry traditionally involves the study and recitation of the sacred text, which acts as a mirror; it also requires an on-going self-reflection to understand and to know oneself.
As Gary Kraftsow wrote in the Yoga for Transformation: “Mantras and textual studies offered by the classical tradition function as references from which we can measure where we are. If we come back to the image of the inner navigator, then the mantras and texts can be seen as the polestar, which shows us true north.”
We can also see how important it is to link svadhyaya—self-reflection—with tapas—practice. A mindless application of practice is not only useless but can even be dangerous, leading to injuries and unnecessary stress. Tapas can aid svadhyaya and vice verse.
As we progress in our journey, we can see that self-knowledge is a step to discovery of the bigger “diamond-Self.”
You need to understand yourself to properly understand the world.
3) Isvara pranidhanai: gratitude of acceptance
To surrender to the supreme force is to understand that there is a higher power beyond us—and even though we participate in shaping our reality, we are not the complete masters of what we do.
Isvara Pranidhanai is about accepting and honoring what is beyond us, cultivating love and generosity. Don’t become attached to the results of your actions. Don’t do actions in order to get results. Do an action simply because it is the right action.
We are the part of a bigger picture that our mind can’t even perceive. For example, you might be a manager whose job involves firing a really good person because of the budget cuts. If you focus on the results as you see them, you might feel bad and refuse. But what if in following through with your responsibility, the person you fire is faced with a whole new world of possibilities. They might become a great artist or take the time to face up to their own life’s questions that got buried in the endless routine of the day job.
Our knee-jerk reactions tend to be based on the ‘obvious’ values of the world around us; the bigger picture, beyond our control, contains a refreshly difference wisdom. As your mind becomes more refined, with practice, you know what is the right action and this is the practice of yoga.
As you can see, tapas, svadhyaya, and isvara pranidhanai all work together as one unit, forming Kriya yoga, which is very similar to Karma yoga, the path of action.
To conclude, all of our actions and thoughts can be yogic in nature, if we follow correct practices, reflect on our behavior and don’t cling to results.
(Interestingly, Patanjali’s Kriya yoga actually incorporates the yogic paths outlined in the Gita: Karma yoga (tapas), Jnama yoga (svadhyaya) and Bhakti-yoga (isvara pranidhanai); these are the outer or preparatory aspects of yoga.)
The three ingredients of Kriya yoga specified in this sutra are also three of the five niyamas; the eight limbs of yoga are the most important preparatory ingredients to embark on the Yogic path.
This is an ongoing and intelligent process where the alchemy of yogic transformation can bring our minds into the state of yoga and our whole beings in harmony, with the deepest currents of our true selves. But remember, yoga is not a philosophy; it’s a practical “how-to” guide, so try it for yourself.
Choose one activity, whether it’s doing homework with your children, knitting or making dinner and make an effort to practice mindfulness, observing your behavior and not clinging to results.
Share your experience!
Resources used: 1. Liberating Isolation: The Yoga Sutras Of Patanjali: Translation & Commentary by Frans Moors; 2. The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali by Edwin Bryant; 3. On-line Classes with Chase Bossart.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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