For many people, the word ‘yoga’ immediately conjures up images of beautiful people, their bodies formed into breath-taking positions. This idea of yoga being a gym-based activity, designed solely to achieve physical perfection, is a relatively modern, western incarnation of this ancient practice. Delve a little deeper into the roots of yoga and we find a wealth of literature and tradition which speaks not only to the body, but also to the mind and the spirit.
One text in particular is of huge importance in the history of yoga. Around 100CE, we find the first editions of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali. It is thought that all the elements of the Sutra existed prior to Patanjali, but it is generally agreed that he was the first to bring them together in the form we are now familiar with.
This text of four chapters comprises 196 short aphorisms, and forms a treatise on the theory and practice of yoga. More than this, though, it can be seen very much as a handbook of the human condition.
There are no instructions as to how to perform ‘downward dog’ or a headstand, but instead we are gently and carefully led through descriptions such as how creating focused attention can calm us, of the importance of identifying what we need to let go of, and how with deliberate and steady practice, we can achieve a clarity of mind. The Yoga Sutra is a guide to life which acknowledges that suffering exists, explains what the causes of suffering can be, and gives us the tools to avoid it.
While there are 196 sutras, we can distil the teachings of these 196 into the first four sutras of chapter one. They are, if you like, the picture on top of the jigsaw box – explaining what yoga is, before breaking into the many pieces which form the complete text.
The YS is written in Sanskrit, one of the earliest of the Indo-European languages. For us to understand the text, therefore, we must rely on translations and commentaries. Due to the nature of the language, there are many ways in which the words can be interpreted, hence the numerous translations which one can study. The general flavour, however, of the text, is retained throughout most of these.
The first sutras are laid out here, in Sanskrit, and with an interpretation in English. We’ll use the convention YS1.1 to indicate Yoga Sutra Chapter 1, Sutra 1, etc.:
YS1.1: Atha yoganusasanam: Now begins the teaching of yoga.
YS1.2: Yogah cittavrittinirodhah: Yoga is the focusing of the mind, without distraction, in a single direction.
YS 1.3: Tada drastuh svarupe avastanam: In this state we see completely clearly and are at one with our true self.
YS 1.4: Vrittisarupyam itaratra: At all other times we are not.
In short, the first four sutras are telling us that it’s time to explore this idea of yoga, both as a process and as a state. It is giving us a definition of yoga, not as the ability to touch our toes, but as the ability to be absolutely focused, without distraction.
It is telling us what yoga can do for us if we practice, and how we will be if we don’t.
Let’s look in more detail at YS1.2 – yogah cittavrittinirodhah. The idea of ‘nirodha’ is one of ‘stilling’, of calming the waves in the ‘cittavritti’ – the activities of the mind. We are all familiar with the feeling that our heads are buzzing with activity, when it’s so hard to focus and concentrate because there’s so much going round. This sutra tells us that the point at which we can still this activity, when we feel calm and focused; this is the state of yoga. From this simple description it’s clear that yoga is not confined to the mat or the gym – we can experience yoga when we are engaging in any activity that completely holds our attention: gardening, painting, playing music, anything in which our mind is completely focused in a single direction, without distraction.
YS1.3 has great resonance with many. This sutra: Tada drastuh svarupe avastanam, which would be fairly directly translated as, ‘Then, the dweller exists in his own form’, can be interpreted as meaning that the individual is at one with his true self and sees completely clearly. The ‘dweller’ is a metaphor for the witness inside us, that which sees the world through the lens of the mind. This may seem a little esoteric at first, but if we think of an example such as when you have a day when everyone you encounter seems a bit off with you and nothing seems to be going right, you might think to yourself “What’s wrong with everyone?”. It’s only when you are able to take a step back, and realise it’s not them, it’s me! I’m the one who’s out of sorts today.
We so often identify with our current state of mind that we are unable to see that it is always changing and our view of the world changes with it. If we can step back, become the witness, the ‘dweller’, free of the transient moods which take hold of us, we can be at one with our true self and see the world completely clearly.
It’s like being out for a walk on a foggy day, when it’s so easy to think that everywhere is cloaked in the same fog. It’s only when we climb a hill, taking us out of the fog, that we realise we were just in a tiny patch of cloud, and the rest of the world is clear to see. Achieving a state of yoga is the same as climbing that hill and seeing the world, and ourselves, for what and who we really are.
The suggestion previously was that the whole Yoga Sutra can be condensed into the first four. We can go further and make the claim that the essence of the whole Yoga Sutra can be found in the first word: Atha. This word means ‘now’. We can take this word ‘now’ to be a call to action – an instruction to make ‘now’ our goal. In other words, being absolutely present in everything we do. The action of being present is the goal of yoga. If we focus absolutely on the present moment, in our practice and in our lives, we may achieve the state of yoga; obtain absolute clarity, be content and at one with ourselves.
Surely this is a more satisfying goal that being able to touch our toes.
Em Goldmark June 2012