I admit, when I first came to my yoga teacher training, I had no idea that there was this whole ancient philosophy behind it.
I had taken one whole yoga class, on the behest of my sister, with a tough-as-nails Iyengar teacher, and had done, in my opinion pretty well. Some time later, living in a practically yoga free region and while dealing with some significant physical issues, I sought out the local YMCA teacher. I wandered in, sure of what to expect, based on my previous and singular experience, only to be thrown completely thr0ugh a loop. There were no props, no young people, no ropes on the wall. Instead I found myself in a dark room, surrounded my elderly men and women, music playing and *oh you’re in my spot, please move* mentalities. I was not met with enthusiasm, in all of my youth. They eyed me, to say the least, suspiciously.
Then in walks my teacher. Kyphotic, a gagillion years old and wearing orthotic shoes. I was not impressed. Until she threw herself up into shoulderstand and over the course of the class, gave me the deepest insights into my body that I had ever had. I spent a year in that class, earned the acceptance of my much older classmates and found out first-hand why they hated us youngsters (mostly due to gossip and disrespect during class). To this day, I affirm that I learned more in her overly gentle, secular, geared-toward-arthritis class than I have in any other. (I will get into, someday, my many physical issues and congenital joint disease, but not today).
You see, I didn’t know about yoga culture, about philosophy or about Yoga Journal. I only knew yoga made me feel good. And I liked it. So when I moved to a city 100 miles from anywhere, I decided to commute monthly to a teacher training to get a goodly dose of it. I never intended to teach, it just evolved organically from my being immersed in a community that didn’t have any yoga. In the bible belt of California, no less.
Anyway, I digress. So here I am, in front of a self-proclaimed Patanjali scholar, studying the Yoga Sutras, and I can’t get my head around it. To me, Patanjali is outdated, obtuse and is asking me to be a yogi zombie. How can I live in this world and not be a part of it? It’s ludicrous! So I ditched the philosophy altogether. I spent the next few years teaching asana, never straying outside of the physical box, as it where.
But something strange happened. Over time, I found that my lifestyle and my yoga practice wasn’t matching up. I was smoking (yes, I said it, thank you Elena Brower for demonstrating the honesty it takes to be on this path) and drinking, and although yoga was/is, to most people, purely physical, I was having major insights into myself. I was being asked to look at things I didn’t want to look at. And in the sentiments of one of my favorite bloggers, Elsie Escobar, I could either step into it, or choose to *not* look at it. I stepped completely out of my yoga practice, because it was too hard to look at who I was, my habits and what I would have to give up to be the person I was expected to be. I said no.
It took me about a year to come back to my practice. I was still teaching and attending workshops, but my heart wasn’t in it. I eventually stopped teaching and began reading. I read Eknath Easwaran’s interpretation of the Upanishads. I read Eckhart Tolle. I read the Bhagavad Gita, the Rig Veda and Autobiography of a Yogi. I started meditating. But what really changed was that I stepped fully into becoming a more authentic person, becoming hyperaware of my actions, my words, my habits and my thought processes.
It’s not been until recently that I have started to understand Patanjali and his obscure Yoga Sutras. Not at first from the actual readings of them (although, I have, in the past, laid out four or five translations side-by-side and compared them) but from practice. When reading the sutras, in the beginning, all I could think was, What could this ancient, ascetic dude really tell me about how to live my life as a modern woman, mother and wife? From all I had ever known, he was overly intellectual and impenetrable.
But you see, he wasn’t then, and he isn’t now.
I eventually saw that the introspection I was doing was the Yoga Sutras. I just had to let go of my overly-intellectualized education of it. I read an article on my beloved elephantjournal, recently, that sparked an all-out personal objection to the traditional interpretation of the Yoga Sutras. Behind the Sanskrit words are whole ideas, myths, cultural ideas that simply cannot be summed up in one English word. Yet here we are, quibbling over the same, tired, outdated ideas and trying to put them to current use. That can’t be done because we are creating our own limited ideas of them. Patanjali was more hip than we thought. We just haven’t given him enough credit.
The Yoga Sutras have been made to be impenetrable by those theologians that like to hear themselves talk. The problem is not the practice, the practice is for everyman (or woman). The problem is the interpretation. When we hear the Sutras interpreted by a scholar, often he is wishing to make himself sound credible. By the caste system: to make themselves sound evolved. By the west: oh dear god, where do we start? Commercialism? Fame? Ignorance? Psuedo-Enlightenment for profitable gain?
The Sutras are absolutely appropriate, and usable, by today’s generations, and not in the way that they have currently been prescribed. What follows is the way that I use them in my life and how I teach them to my students. I don’t place myself as an authority. What I do hope is that my experience is useful in some way to another’s understanding. What is beautiful about yoga is that you can take these insights and see if they are true for you, make them into your own understanding. What I hope to do is to make them applicable for the modern yogi.
I am open to criticism and to doubt, because I can’t claim that my journey had anything, at all, to do with your journey. What I hope to do is to find avenues that we can all look at the way we live in our bodies and in this world. To recognize our habits in living, being and thinking, and to, ultimately, transcend them…not based on becoming yoga zombies but by living mindfully enough to make the right choices.
At the basis of Patanjali’s sutras, is the idea that we cannot make right choices if we are living in delusion.
So what are these ideas and how do we live them in this age?
The 8 limbs of yoga are the art of right living, uniting body, mind and spirit so that we can live in peace with ourselves and in this world. They are a systematic way of attaining freedom and begin with the yamas (universal morality) and niyamas (personal observances). The key to understanding these ideas is to not limit them to one definition, to avoid oversimplifying them or making them so complex as to be completely useless, but to make them a deep part of your practice. Reading them is not enough, you must begin to ask deep, profound questions, constantly, about how you can embody these ideas. You must say yes.
Yoga is sneaky that way. You begin by showing up in a yoga class. You learn to watch the breath. You start practicing mindfulness before you even realize it. Pretty soon you start to notice the quality of your thoughts during warrior 2. After that you notice how you are off the mat. It grows, organically. The Sutras are of little use if they can’t be understood by the modern yogi.
So dear friends, I’ll be posting the next article on the Yoga Sutras soon. I hope you’ll be there to read it and that you find it useful. For now, be well.