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Yoga and the Yoga Sutras

Jun 15 2018

Yoga and the Yoga Sutras

This article was originally published on The Shift Network, here.

The word “sutra” literally means a thread. In English, if you fall and hurt yourself and have to get stitches, the stitches are called “sutures.” It’s the same concept. It’s a thread that is weaving together — in sutures, it is weaving together our flesh; and in sutras, it is weaving together our lives. This is what the Yoga Sutras are about.

There’s no sutra, even if we went through every sutra, that says, “Here’s how flat your palms have to be on the ground,” or, “Here’s how long you have to stand on your head,” or, “Here’s what your leg must look like in this posture.” Sure, we have other texts on that, we have a wealth of studies on the asanas. But the Yoga Sutras, that which truly weaves us together, are something much deeper than just the physical postures of our body.

It’s said that after God (in the form of Lord Vishnu) had incarnated as Dhanvantari — the God of health, the God who gave us Ayurveda — and made everyone healthy, there was still unhealth in peoples’ minds, there was unhealth in peoples’ hearts. So, Lord Vishnu was again beseeched to incarnate on Earth in a form that would give us not just what Ayurveda gave us for health of the body, but something that would bring us health of the mind, the heart, and the spirit. So Lord Vishnu incarnated as the Sage Patanjali, who gave us the Yoga Sutras. That’s the foundation of how these Sutras came in.

The Sutras begin by saying “Atha yoga-anushasanam,” meaning, “Now, for the discipline of yoga.” Now, we are delving together into the discipline of yoga. This is important because yoga is a discipline. Ultimately it takes us into samadhi, moving through the eight limbs, but in order to get there, it’s a discipline. These days, when there’s so many different types of yoga all over the world — acrobatics yoga and swimming yoga and yoga with my dog and yoga to music, there are so many — it’s important to remember that whatever the manner in which you might be doing your asana practice, yoga is a discipline. This doesn’t mean that you can’t be disciplined while listening to music or with dogs roaming around, but it means that my yoga is a discipline. If I lose that, I’ve lost everything.

This is true not just in my practice on the mat, but yoga is actually my life. We always say that “yoga” is a noun, not a verb. It’s not what you do, it’s who you are. So in the discipline of yoga, it’s not just about keeping your leg straight in trikonasana, it’s about the discipline of the self. This is why, when Patanjali gave us the eight limbs of yoga, he didn’t begin with trikonasana, or any asana for that matter. He began with the yamas and the niyamas, the disciplines of life, how we are internally, our internal discipline, and how we are with those in the world.

While I don’t want to go into the all the details about the eight limbs, this is actually very core when speaking about the Yoga Sutras. A lot of us think that yoga is just the third limb, asana, and sometimes we include the fourth limb, pranayama. But yoga actually begins with yama and niyama. These are the disciplines of how we live in the world. They have nothing to do with the straightness of our legs, nothing to do with the flexibility of our spine, and everything to do with the straightness of our morals and our values. They have everything to do with the flexibility of our egos.

They begin with ahimsa, non-violence; satyam, truthfulness; asteya, nonstealing; brahmacharya, restraint of the senses, not just sexual discipline, but a broader concept of general discipline and restraint; and then aparigraha, non-hoarding, non-covetousness. If we simply look at all of them as a whole, what we realize is that this is how we move in the world, but it’s not just my interaction with others, it comes from a place within. I can’t not-steal or not-covet or not-hoard until and unless I have an experience within of fullness. I might sit on my hands and prevent myself from actually stealing your handbag or shawl or diamond necklace or husband, I could forcibly prevent myself from doing that, but that’s not really what we’re talking about.

What we’re talking about is something deeper. In order to not steal, covet, or hoard, I have to no longer be moving through the world with an experience of emptiness or scarcity. If I consider myself “less than” in any way, naturally, I’m going to want and need more, whether it’s more money, clothes, respect, love, approval, or whatever it is. Then I’m going to have to figure out some way to get it, whether it’s through lying, stealing, or whatever it is. I need it because I’m having an experience of emptiness, I’ve got an experience of scarcity, and I’m moving through the world with this myth of a limited amount.

Now, we all know intuitively that of course this doesn’t make any kind of sense. We all know intellectually that there, of course, is an infinite amount of happiness possible in the world and success in the world. Yet, on a deep level, a lot of us don’t believe that, and the reason that we know that we don’t believe that is the way that we begrudge each other’s happiness and success. If you’re really honest with yourself, take a moment and think back on times when people you know, even friends of yours, got a fantastic raise, promotion, fell in love, got married, had a child, got a house, whatever it was. They had these things that are just fantastic, beautiful landmarks of success and happiness, and while we’re happy for them on some level because we love them, much too frequently there’s a little bit inside that begrudges them that. If they lose it, although we’re sad for them because we love them and they’re our friends, there’s a little bit too much of a place within us that smiles.

That horrendousness of the self, if we’re really honest and look at it within us, is not because we’re horrible or mean people, but because we’re operating under this cultural concept of scarcity. If you’ve gotten something wonderful, it means that there’s less of the wonderful-ness for me. If you’ve lost that wonderful thing, now there’s more wonderful-ness for me.

If I’m moving through the world with any kind of vision of scarcity in the Universe, any sense of lack within myself, I’m going to be stealing on some level, whether I’m snatching someone’s handbag or jewelry or whether I’m simply stealing someone’s time and resources. To force people to listen to you gossip, to force people to listen to you complain or judge other people or tell negative stories about other people is stealing their time and stealing their peace. To force people to do things that aren’t meaningful is stealing their time. To force them to do something against their own values is stealing them from themselves.

So much of the way that we shop, the way that we eat, what we wear, while we may not be stealing it from the store, but the production of that item, in order to satisfy our constant clamoring for more and more and cheaper and cheaper, is where we are stealing. This is where sweatshops come in and child labor comes in. So, yes, even though I paid the $8 for the new sweater I got on sale, was the real price only $8? In order to give it to me for only $8, did I steal some child’s childhood? Did I steal some woman’s health? Did I steal something from the Earth, because the factory, in order to provide things so cheaply, has to not put in a proper waste management system, so the waste is polluting the soil and water and stealing the health of people who live in that city?

This is where we start to understand the depth of the discipline that yoga is, the depth of what is required of us to be on a yogic path. But, the beautiful thing to always keep in mind is that ultimately, even though we may be practicing these limbs individually, the goal is samadhi, Divine bliss. Union. Ecstasy. So many times while practicing the limbs, we feel like we’re really sacrificing something. I may have had a craving for a steak, but I’m practicing ahimsa so therefore I didn’t eat the meat, yet on some level maybe I’m feeling like I’ve really sacrificed something. I feel good that I’ve done it, but nonetheless there’s a part of me that’s thinking, “Oh, that steak would have tasted so good, I’ve given up so much.” This is where it’s important to always remember, regardless of what limb we’re focusing on at that moment, that the eighth limb is samadhi, which is ecstasy and bliss. Samadhi is a far deeper, far higher bliss than anything that you can get from a steak, or an $8 sweater, or somebody else’s diamond necklace, or someone else’s husband.

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