Studying sacred texts is part of being an intelligent, thinking human being.
Ever since people created the first scrolls and scripts, we have been sharing knowledge via this channel. Leaving messages for each other through the limitations of time from one fragile human being to another. “I was here. This is what I’ve learned. Take my knowledge, I will leave it for you.”
With no exception every script, documentary, guideline and book was written with this intention.
The people who wrote them were up for a great task. Facing the greatest challenge of using words, languages, sentences which so very often mean different things to each and every one of us.
All religious, spiritual or ancient writings remain unchanged throughout the ages. The only thing different about them is the reader, translator or editor of the text. One might live in Africa, another in the Amazons. Someone perhaps read the Bible in the 15th century, another person in the 18th century. Some hold the Koran in their hands in English, others in German. So, yes, we do have many ways to understand these texts and therefore: each other.
But the texts do not change. They are solid, silent, and permanent. They are like rocks on the timeline of humanity or landmark posts for the intelligence of humans to light the way, pointing us to the right direction.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one of the fundamental texts of Yoga Philosophy. The truth is: we don’t even know if Patanjali was one person or a group of people whose combined efforts became the step by step guide to health, happiness and liberation of the soul. The Yoga Sutras is a collection of nearly 200 chapters (or Sutras), divided into four books.
What we do know is that these texts were written somewhere between 4,000 to 5,000 years ago and ever since, they are unchanged. They have been translated and explained many times many ways, but the sanskrit words, the original ideas of the Sutras are the same ever since. Landmark posts. Little torches in the darkness of ignorance and easy entertainment. Available to me, to you, even in this present moment.
You might wonder… “Oh well. That is just way too much for me to read. How do I know which translation to read? Will I even understand it?” It really is true. How can we apply the wisdom of a 5,000 year old book into the age of smart Facebook posts and “quick-fix pills” and self help books?
I started reading the Sutras about 15 years ago. Different copies, translations, editors and teachers translated and explain it differently. I picked it up, put it away, back and forth ever since. I do not claim to understand it all. I may never grasp the complete thing in this lifetime.
Every once in a while however, there is a light going off in my head reading the lines. Like a moment of “aha” or enlightenment when it becomes clear and sharp. Yes! Of course!
If I may, I would like to share one of these moments with you. Please forgive my stumbling, I too am limited by words, language barriers and sentences.
An example like this my help you understand how the Sutras work and how amazingly relevant they are in every age to every human being all around the world.
The 33rd Sutra goes like this:
“Maitri karuna muditopeksanam sukha duhka punyapunya visayanam bhavanatas citta prasadanam.”
Same thing In English, here we go:
“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked the mind-stuff retains it’s undisturbed calmness.” (Translation from: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda.)
At first read, it sounds like lots of nice words, guidelines of friendliness, warning to stay away from the wicked, etc. But why? What purpose this serves and how exactly to bring this theory into practice?
Now let’s try to serve these very same words a little bit more 21st century style. (You know, when everything starts with numbers, turns into an advice and hopefully is very easy to apply.)
There are four kinds of people in your daily interactions and everyone will fit into one of these four boxes, based on your current state of mind. If you have these four keys in your pocket you can open all four boxes and remain mentally at peace. Once you have attained a peaceful mind, no one should take that from you.
1. Be friendly toward everyone who is happy around you.
Happy box = friendliness key.
Isn’t it nice to hang out with people who smile? Of course it is. Be friendly with them.
2. Be compassionate toward the unhappy.
Unhappy box = compassion key.
You may not like to be around unhappy people, but you can understand. Some days are harder then others. You had bad days too. So be compassionate and send them a smile.
3. Delight in the virtuous.
Virtuous box= delight key.
Someone has it better then you? Great! Good for them. Celebrate it. They are proof that it is possible.
4. Disregard the wicked.
Wicked box= disregard key.
Yep, some days, some people are just bad. Get out of there as soon as you can. It’s as simple as that.
And the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness, meaning: you remain calm and peaceful in your heart, body and mind.
Isn’t this brilliant? Isn’t it simple? It sounds like those people 5,000 years ago dealt with the exact same issues we do, when it comes to social interactions. In Sutra 33, they have left us the four keys to handle people and do not lose our cool. The writing is on the wall, the message is decoded. Now we just need to carry the keys around and start noticing which key to use and when.
To me, the messages of this ancient text are powerful, meaningful and very helpful. Not only as a yoga teacher, most importantly as a Practitioner of a conscious life. To understand and apply any Sutra a day, a week, a year or even a lifetime may be necessary. Time doesn’t really matter. If these words like rocks, can still stand the test of time after 5,000 years.. oh well! I have nowhere to rush to in these few decades of my lifetime.
I chose to spend the precious capacity of my mind trying to decode, understand and practice their words.
In our studio (Flow Yoga Studio Campbell River, BC) we started a study group and gather time to time to discuss, analyze and share Yoga philosophy. Attendance and interest indicates great success. What better way to deepen our understanding of this brilliant wisdom system than returning to the original, fundamental writings of it.
Perhaps other Yoga studios will chose to do the same. Add one “philosophy” class a month or every couple of weeks. Pick a topic, a Sutra perhaps, or a Yama or Niyama and allow time for people to read. The right people will gather every time. For those interested to start their own studies, below is a list of books to read. Variations on the same topic. These are the ones I found in English. I’m 100 percent certain translations do exist on every language of the world.
Good luck to all of you. Enjoy the process, trust the words and have an amazing time sharing your understandings. I would love to hear from you. What did you learn from the Yoga Sutras? How did the words open your heart and mind? Did you have a moment of “aha” lately? Let’s share, discuss and connect the present world of Yoga to its own past.
Sources & Suggested reading:
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satchidananda
The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali: A New Edition, by Edwin F. Bryant
Light On Yoga Sutras Of Patanja by B.K.S. Iyengar
The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft
Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study & Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras byJaganath Carrera
Author: Orsi Foldesi
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Erin Wallis