Yogic Philosophy : Modern Use of Yoga Sutras in Today’s Environment
I came upon Yoga eleven years ago. I was in my early 40’s. A mother of two boys, I was building a career in IT, lived a busy life in a busy city and wanted to stretch a bit. The yoga center I had joined was affiliated to MISA, the biggest Romanian yoga school, with weekly classes for 80-100 first year students. After around 2 hours of both delicious and tormenting warming up, asanas and relaxation, we used to have a short meditation and then lectures and debates on Yoga Philosophy.
At the beginning I was leaving the class immediately after relaxation. My body was radiating and I was there for gentle gymnastics, not for boring lectures or dialogues. However, after a short while, I started to notice the inner beauty of the teacher, of the assistants, of the students around me and a spark of curiosity made me stay a bit longer around these people. This is how the adventure begun and then, everything changed in my life, step by step; some things with grace and others rather unceremoniously. The first lecture I attended was on Yoga Sutras, Yamas and Niyamas. Hearing the lecture about first ethical command in yoga, Ahimsa (non harming) was pleasant, up to the moment when they addressed the culinary choices. I was not very much aware at the time neither that I was violent, nor that I had a choice. I tried very much to disregard this new way of seeing things, but my jnana mind was there and I had to give it a try. I decided to have an one month trial period of both practicing and contemplating vegetarianism. It is difficult to almost impossible not to change your way of eating if you are AWARE of what is the reality that stays behind the simple habits of buying some steaks or ordering crispy chicken.
Of course, changing the content of my plate was neither the end nor the resolution of the battle for the truth, but only the beginning.
What I love in spirituality in general and in Yoga Philosophy in particular, is that the quest is never ending. If you are open and curious you can go further and further, deeper and deeper.
(As long as you don’t use the endless ramifications of the “quest” as a way to avoid the essence. We are lucky that life has its funny ways to put us back on the track if we are wandering too much.)
So, going further...
Now that I knew that vegetarianism is a far better option, and being vegan is probably the best, was I ready to go there then, 100%? Or this would mean to harm myself? I made my decisions for my self. But what about my teenagers boys I was cooking for? Forcing them to adopt my diet is just fine or is it rather aggressive?
I remember the answer that Jiddhu Krishnamurti (who was a vegetarian) gave when asked about his diet: “But this is a very superficial question - the problem is much deeper. You don’t want to kill animals for your stomach, but you do not mind supporting governments that are organized to kill” (Krishnamurti, 1950)
How many and how subtle are the ways in which we can harm others? How many and how subtle are the ways in which we can harm ourselves? Can we harm others without harming ourselves?
For this essay, I pondered as well on what means Ahimsa in the yoga class. The answer came: by being gentle - with the students and with my self, compassionate - with the students and with myself, lovingly accepting body’s and mind limitations (of the students and of my self). Studying more anatomy, asking more questions about students medical past or current condition, cultivating attention and discernment: as a yoga teacher you
want to be able to sense when to ask the student to stop and when to push, and if so, how much to push. Also I find important to create a non competitive environment in the class. In the same way described above about Ahimsa, everything I learn about yoga produced changes, dramatical or more subtle, in my day to day life.
Interesting but difficult was the odyssey of Satya (telling the truth). I decided to give to Satya one month trial period as well. It was one of the most toughest months of my life and the journey still continues. Sometimes I fail, some other times I succeed. Being true to my self, true to others; see what happens when I lie. Why do I lie? How do I feel when I lie? When is better to tell the truth and when not to say anything at all? What does it mean to be true to your self?
What are the consequences of remaining true to your self?
What is true? What is truth? What is Truth? What is reality?
On this fabulous journey toward my self, or maybe toward the truth, one of the lessons I learned was that sometimes all you can do is to be aware, to notice and to ask yourself questions, with complete honesty. Your behavior, most likely, will not change suddenly, it
takes time. One should be patient and compassionate with himself (ahimsa, remember?). But, by all means, honest.
Another lesson I learned is that there is no such thing as an universal answer. One has to ask the question every time and find out his right answer for that situation. And not always are we able to act accordingly with that right answer.
As for how Satya does apply in yoga class, I feel that most important is to cultivate the ability of saying “I don’t know, I will study more and I will answer you next time”.
Asteya, non stealing: I was considering myself a pretty honest and fair lady. But when one is ready to pay attention to details, the overall picture changes. Just a small example: Is it really right to use my office printer to print my yoga texts?
When you question what generates the impulse ... and then relax a bit, breathe and start to trust life, you notice that all you need is always provided in magical ways. What about Asteya on the yoga mat? I found this quote on a site named The Yoga Stand and I deeply
resonated: “In a yoga class Asteya looks like this: You may push yourself harder than your body is ready for to achieve what the pose is “supposed” to look like instead of how it feels in your body. By pushing yourself to attain a posture not only are you robbing yourself of a safe and sustainable yoga practice, you are also stealing your presence and peace with
Brahmacharya is an interesting and controversial yama. Every teacher seems to have their own understanding of the concept. Some say that it means celibacy and abstinence, others continence, others monogamy, or simply moderation. Sex related topics are rarely addressed in spirituality in an open and deep way.
I’ll go with moderation and balance. My way of addressing brahmacharya is just asking myself what makes me go out of balance, what are the needs, which are the triggers, what are the consequences. Do I find real soothing, relief, comfort?
On a funny note, aging helps a lot to find the middle way in this area of life. In yoga class, the teacher should encourage decency and warm politeness, making sure there is no room for confusion.
The contemplation of Aparigraha (non-accumulation, non-attachment) can bring a breeze of fresh air in one’s life. At the beginning, of course, I felt contraction. Possessions offer a sense of safety. Buying nice, useful or useless little things brings comfort and momentary joy.
Then, very soon, you find yourself overwhelmed by your own stuff (even yoga stuff you might have too much - too many props, too many suits, too many candles). The questions are the same: why do I want to have this? What is the real need that stays behind? Is that need met in this way? That sense of security, does it have substance? Why does the joy not stay? Why do I keep accumulating things I don’t really need, now that I know that the joy won’t last?
Cleaning your house/yoga class from the unnecessary stuff and your mind from the unconscious habit of accumulating, you find yourself practicing a form of Saucha (cleanliness).
Another nice lesson I learned on my journey is that everything is interrelated. Like a tree cannot exist without sun and water and soil and clouds and air and birds, you cannot practice ahimsa and ignore asteya, or observe satya but not ahimsa.
You cannot practice any yama without constant, thorough self study, introspection (Svadhyaha). All the questions I mentioned before, those are self inquiry, svadhyaya. Without the curiosity, what would the yogic journey be?
Yamas and niyamas cannot exist without Tapas: how else will one build and consolidate the discipline of paying attention and asking himself questions?
Yoga cannot exist without tapas. Being present and punctual for every yoga class, that is tapas. Your daily routine, asana and meditation, that is tapas. Being grateful and saying a prayer every morning, that is tapas, Noticing when you lost the mark (when you find yourself judging, or complaining and so on), that is part of the tapas too, because coming back to the yogic values has to be practiced again and again.
How can one sustain the entire process without contentment (Santosha)? Without santosha we would be harming our self and others. Santosha is a crucial virtue in our practice. Understanding and joyously accepting our limitations creates a true space for growth. These days I was reading an article about malasana and upavesasana, by Emma Newlyn. Initially I was interested in technicalities but I was delighted to find this lovely phrase, which reflects very well the interconnectedness between asanas and santosha : “This [noticing how our anatomy impacts the way we can perform asanas] is a brilliant lesson in santosha – the Sanskrit word for one of the Niyamas – Contentment. When we accept ourselves fully, just as we are, we can begin to practice in a way that will benefit our own unique bodies. Instead of trying to fit ourselves in to an idealistic version of the shape of a posture, we can find a way to allow the posture to work for us, allowing our practice to be about experimenting and discovering, instead of performing and forcing.” (Newlyn, 2014)
And how can one grow spiritually other than being in deep connection with God (observing Ishvara Pranidhana)? Where would we find our resources, our strength, the power to continue? How could we remain humble, without having God in our heart and in our mind? Somehow, it all ends where it starts, the journey and the goal are the same. You can go toward God (Self, Brahman, Truth, Reality) only with God. “Yoga chitta vritti nirodha.”, the famous quote from Patanjali Yoga Sutras: the cessation of mind fluctuations, the peace of mind, is both the way and the destination.
In the same way that all the yoga precepts are interrelating, one’s inner journey will have to reflect in their day to day life. We cannot keep yoga strictly in the yoga class only or on yoga mat; even if that would be a good start, we have to bring it in our day to day life. Step by step, with patience and perseverance, while the initial frustration turns into serene
acceptance, a bit more wiser but more and more humble, we move toward our own nature.
I do not think that the journey is profoundly different in modern times than it was 2000-3000 years ago. We have (apparently at least) massively evolved. But did the human nature change so much? I do not think so, as I feel the basic yoga teachings are still very alive and highly applicable.
Of course, now we have the teachings so comfortably available! We are free to explore a wide range of spiritual teachings and to follow the one that serves us better. At the same time, the modern era seems to leave us with very few moments for spiritual practice between job, commuting, shopping, driving kids here and there. But I do not think that our ancestors who had to gather wood and bring water and sew their own fabrics had more time than we have.
Not to mention, nowadays it does not seem easy to find a yoga class that teaches more than how to stretch your body.
On the other hand, just stretching is not at all a bad thing, a flexible body will improve and sustain mind flexibility and yoga postures do their subtle yet deep miracle, activating dormant energies that we are not even aware exist within us.
These energies will manifest sooner or later, changing our lives in unimaginable ways.
Every era has its own opportunities and its own limitations, but the innate human aspiration to discover and connect with its own deep, true nature is the same now as it was always. I have faith that there is a way for everybody.
I think most seekers are asking themselves at some point if it is possible to live in the world, with all the responsibilities and implications of having a family and a job. All the serious seekers I met have contemplated at some point the idea of leaving the world
behind and fully devote to a spiritual practice joining a monastery, a temple or an ashram. Some of my friends took this path.
But in the same way as every period of time had both adversities and reliefs, every spiritual way has its own difficulties and benefits.
I feel that while it is auspicious to fully commit to a practice, you can remain loyal to your path whilst living a fully engaged life.
In this light, I felt great resonance while reading an article, “Seeking Samadhi” by Judith Lasater in Yoga Journal. I quote from this article the most relevant part, which best concludes the generous topic of this essay:
“When I first began to study yoga I thought that samadhi was a trancelike state which would take the practitioner away from everyday consciousness to a better state of being. Over the years, my understanding has changed. Now I think of samadhi as exactly the opposite of a trance. Samadhi is a state of being intensely present without a point of view. In other words, in samadhi you perceive all points of view of reality at once, without focusing on any particular one.[…]
How does samadhi relate to daily life, a life filled with paying taxes, cleaning up the kitchen, practicing yoga poses, washing the car? Samadhi may seem to have nothing to do with our everyday activities. But on another level samadhi is the most important thing in our lives. […] Patanjali teaches us that we are always capable of experiencing samadhi— that at any moment we can become whole and fully present. If we understand this, that understanding becomes a fundamental acknowledgment of our true nature. Paradoxically, it seems that we need the journey—the journey of yoga—to discover what was present inside us all along.” (Lasater, 2017)
Jiddhu Krishnamurti, 3rd Public Talk, Colombo, Ceylon, 1959
Lasater, Judith , “Seeking Samadhi”; Yoga Journal, Updated :Apr 5, 2017, Original:Aug 29, 2007
Newlyn, Emma, “Practice: Malasana / Garland Pose plus a mini anatomy lesson!”, Aug 28, 2014
Patañjali, Yoga Sutra, Traducere din Limba Sanscrita de Constantin Fagetan, Bucuresti 1993