A Perspective Drawn from the Yoga Sutras
This is something I wrote several years ago but updated just now. I thought it was appropriate for the YogaScope Kaleidoscope.
A Perspective Drawn from the Yoga Sutras
Note: the English text that is in italics is Desikchar’s translation of the particular Sutra.
In what is below I have taken a selection of Sutras from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to present a cohesive perspective on how to understand what you are working with during a yoga practice. This is merely one way of looking at things but it is, in my opinion, a particularly useful and healthy perspective. Hopefully it will help empower you to understanding things more clearly and integrate this understanding into your own practice for yourself.
yogas = yoga or union,
chitta = mind or consciousness
vrtti = fluctuation or unnecessary activity
nirodhah = to bring to an end
This is the Yoga Sutra’s definition of Yoga. A literal translation would be: yoga is bringing an end to the unnecessary activities of the mind.
Because this bringing to an end to unnecessary mental activities can create clarity and one pointed focus Desikachar translates the Sutra: Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively towards one object and sustain that direction without any distractions.
This is a nice interpretation rather than a literal translation.
I have also heard Desikachar translate the word yoga as: relationship, connection and anything that can create an improvement in your mental state.
tada drastuh svarupe ‘vasthanam
Desikachar’s translation is: Then the ability to understand the object fully and correctly is apparent.
When you have your mind fully focused on something you can come to understand it clearly and accurately.
Deslikachar’s translation is: The ability to understand the object is simply replaced by the mind’s conception of that object or by a total lack of comprehension.
When you are not fully focused on what you are observing you could be mislead by your mind’s projections and/or misunderstandings.
abhyasa = bringing your attention towards, this word often gets translated as practice.
vairagya = space, distance, detachment.
tannirodhah = refers to nirodhah in Sutra 1.2 and means something like: so, this bringing an end to the fluctuations of the mind.
So this sutra might be translated something like: So, this bringing an end to the fluctuations of the mind can be reached through practice without attachment.
Desikachar’s translation is: The mind can reach a state of Yoga through practice and detachment.
I think the idea is that you practice for the sake of the practice and not for the results or benefits you expect to receive from the practice. This is nice and simple in theory but sometimes it is not so easy to establish in a practice.
Desikachar’s translation is: Any inquiry of interest can calm the mind.
I have also seen as a translation: any inquiry that elevates the mind can be used for the attainment of the state of yoga.
It says any inquiry can be used. You can choose anything and use it to help focus your mind. What determines what should be used is determined by several of the other sutras. But the basic deal is that what you use to focus your mind should make things better, not worse. In an asana practice it could be alignment, it could be the breath, it could be any number of things to help you focus on what you are doing.
Sutra 1.44 expands on this idea.
tayaiva svicara nirvicara ca suksmavisaya vyakhyata
This process (i.e. yoga) is possible with any type of object, at any level of perception, whether superficial and general or in depth and specific.
The way I like to explain this is this, the last three limbs of yoga, dharana, dhyana and samdhi are like this.
1) dharana = concentration
2) dhyana = sustained concentration, which we often refer to as meditation.
3) samadhi = integration, merging with the object of concentration.
When you read a book you bring yourself to pay attention to what you are reading. If the book is boring you continually have to bring your attention back to what you are reading. That is the stage called dharana. When the book starts to get interesting there is a relationship that is established. This is the important part. It is not that you force yourself to pay attention. The story or content of the book actually begins to draw you in. You bring yourself to concentrate but your attention is also captivated by the content of the book. So it is not a one way street. You cannot simply impose your will on your attention and expect to be successful. When the subject matter of the book starts to suck you in, you attain a period of sustained concentration. This is dhyana. Then, every so often while you are reading you are drawn in to such an extent that everything else besides what you are reading seems to disappear. All that is there is what you are reading. You stop even realizing that you are looking at a book and reading words on a page. You start seeing the scenes of what you are reading. You almost feel like you are living what you are reading. You have merged with the object of you concentration. That is a kind of samadhi. So who ever thought that reading could be a yoga practice. Any object at any level of perception can be used.
I have had this kind of experience while playing music, while riding ramps on in-line skates, while doing an asana practice, while meditating and while doing many other things. With each different activity it has a different quality to it. I have heard Joseph Campbell refer to this as a peak experience.
I do not want anyone to think I am presenting this kind of experience to lightly, because when ever it has happened to me, even while reading, it has been a powerful experience. I often feel how much I would like to get back there and/or spend more time there. And what you can do is promote the circumstances for it to happen but you cannot force this experience to occur. However, in yoga practice and meditation you can learn how to create the circumstances for its natural occurrence and significantly increase its likelihood.
Here is a quote from Martin Pierce, author of Yoga for Your Life, in a presentation on yoga and meditation where he is talking about this experience with Desikachar:
“There is a lot of confusion, particularly about Samadhi. There are so many different meanings of Samadhi. I'd like to share my experience of a state of samadhi. I was on a bicycle tour on the Baltic Islands, on a lonely penninsula. At one point, I felt a part of everything around me, the wind, the trees, waves. Something happened that changed me and the way I felt about the world. I don't know how long it lasted. I didn't understand it at the time. My relationship with the group I was with on the tour changed. I even tried to explain it to them which wasn't of much use. I talked to head master because I thought it was a religious experience. And he replied, "Oh, pantheism." It wasn't until many years later, when I came to Desikachar and studied the sutras, I learned about Samadhi and recognized that was what the experience was. Samadhi is to be so much at one with the object that only that object shines forth. The waves, the wind, what was shining inside broke through to the another understanding of my place in the universe. Not that I'm special. Most people have experiences like this but our society belittles it, denies it and says we're crazy.
Yoga is defined as oneness. In the yoga sutras, many different kinds of samadhi are described. Some minor, some profound. They happen every day, they are not just great moments of enlightenment. Talking with a friend, focusing on a friend and becoming one with them.”
So according to Sutra 1.44, you could be focusing on something on a superficial level or you could be focusing more in depth and have this experience, and according to Sutra 1.39 you can be focusing on any kind of object that captures your interest
tatah punah santoditau tulyapratyayau cittasyaikagrataparinamah
The mind reaches a stage where the link with the object is consistent and continuous. The distractions cease to appear.
tasyapi nirodhe sarvanirodhannirbijah samadhih
(Finally, if ever) The mind reaches a state when it has no impressions of any sort. It is open, clear, simply transparent.
I would say that this means your mind can reach a state of clarity in which it can understand and see what is actually there to be seen. If it is a flower, it is the flower without any preexisting concept of what flower is to interfere with your perception of the flower that is in front of you. If it is quantum physics…
1) kriya = to do.
2) tapas: discipline that could create heat and will clear obstructions. This could simply be the discipline to come to a practice consistently. The only requirement with tapas is that it should create some sense of clarity or cleansing of things that are getting in your way. The tricky part about this is that what would create that clarity for one person might do the opposite for another.
3) svadhyaya: self observation. Traditionally this was practiced by reciting and learning ancient texts by heart and the idea was that by doing this you would come to know something about yourself; that by paying attention and focusing fully on something you come to know yourself better.
4) isvarapranidhana: this can mean many things: self surrender, surrender to god, reverence for a higher intelligence; or, for someone who does not believe in god, God or the gods it can be understood as: acceptance of our limitations and an understanding that there are things in the universe that are beyond our control. The concept conveys a quality of standing in awe before the mystery of life. So the attitude expressed by isvarapranidhana is one of openness, availability, humility and gratitude.
The practice of yoga consists of these three things simultaneously: 1) the discipline to bring yourself to practice consistently, this discipline may create heat and may clear out some impurities and obstructions, 2) self observation during the pursuit of that discipline and 3) the understanding that there are things in the universe that are beyond your control.
This means that, for it to be a yoga practice, as you fold into a forward bend you need to have an attitude of self observation, you have to have the discipline to bring yourself to do this same thing consistently enough so that, while observing yourself over time you can begin to see changes, and while you are folding into that forward bend you need to practice with the understanding that there are things in the universe that are beyond your control, so even if you wanted open hamstrings, that might be beyond your control.
This concept—understanding that there are things in the universe that are beyond your control—is connected to the idea of practicing for the sake of practicing and not for the results which Sutra 1.12 is referring to.
This Sutra is also very similar to that saying: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to now the difference.”
tasya bhumisu viniyogah
The practice must be developed gradually in the way most appropriate to the student.
This sutra is actually referring to the process of samyama which is the practice of dharana, dhyana and samadhi as one process. Desikachar’s translation is: Samayama must be developed gradually. In his comments he says that you should use an object that is appropriate for the student. You should start with simple objects first and then move on to more complex objects. I am paraphrasing. I think if you choose something that is interesting and understandable to the person it does not matter how simple or complicated it is.
nimittamaprayojakam prakrtinam varanabhedastu tatah ksetrikavat
But such intelligence can only remove obstacles that obstruct certain changes. Its role is no more than that of a farmer who cuts a dam to allow water to flow into the field where it is needed.
In Sutra 4.3 Patanjali is trying to explain how to remove obstacles that obstruct our understanding of things and he uses the analogy of a farmer who has a reserve of water and channels cut to direct the water into his fields. Because he has these channels cut, when he wants to water his fields, all he needs to do is remove the block that is obstructing the flow of water and it will flow where it is supposed to.
Over and over again in my teaching I find that people’s bodies actually know where they are supposed to go and something in their training or their minds or something tells them that their instincts are wrong and that they need to work harder or push or something. If they just listened to what their bodies were telling them they would be just fine but instead they listen to what someone else tells them is correct. Yoga is not so much about getting it right as it is about being aware.
So yoga is a system of coming to understand things for yourself. The understanding is direct and immediate because the understanding is through experience. So when you teach it is also a yoga practice because you are paying attention to yourself and what you are doing. You are connecting with an object of concentration, your students. It takes the disciple to bring yourself to teach and practice teaching consistently. And you are consistently faced with the overwhelming fact that there are things in the universe that are beyond your control. There are an outrageous number of things that you cannot control when you are teaching a student or group of students. It is a wonderful and humbling experience.
Sutra 1.33 says:
maitrikarunamuditopeksanam sukhadukhapuyapunyavisaynam bhavanatascittaprasadanam
Desikachar’s translation is:
In daily life we see people around us who are happier than we are, people who are less happy. Some may be doing praiseworthy things and others causing problems. Whatever may be our usual attitude towards such people and their actions, if we can be pleased with others who are happier than ourselves, compassionate towards those who are unhappy, joyful with those doing praiseworthy things, and remain undisturbed by the errors of others, our mind will be very tranquil.
This sutra is actually revealing a way of gauging how successful someone’s practice is. This is a really hard quality to cultivate. It sort of happens naturally when a person’s practice is having beneficial results. When you are clear and connected, you see things clearly, as they are, without judgment. This might cause you to take certain actions and to act effectively in response to a certain issue, but not to become distressed by the actions of others. So if your yoga practice is working well for you it should make you more centered, more whole and less likely to be taken out of yourself and your own disposition by outside events: happy for those who are happier, compassionate for those less fortunate than ourselves, joyful for those doing praiseworthy things and aware but not disturbed or psychologically harmed by someone who might even be trying to cause harm: in a word, centered.