Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Whole Enchilada Concisely Wrapped up in Three Neat Parts.

After you have cracked open your copy of The Yoga Sutras and looked it over some, you may quickly notice that this text is pretty concise. Actually, Patanjali was a master of the art of conciseness. He didn't leave any explanation to the Sutras. (The job of explaining this brief text was taken on by the multitude of not so concise commentators.) So, Patanjali really gets to the point by wrapping up the entire story of yoga in just the first three Sutras. Let's take a look at them and see how they form a story:

I.1-3 atha yoganushasanam
yogas chitta vritti nirodhah
tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam

Now, the teachings of yoga [are presented].
Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.
When that is accomplished, the seer abides in his own true nature.1

With these sutras 1, 2, and 3, we have a complete story: an introduction, body and conclusion. Those enchiladas are really starting to make me hungry now.

The introduction sets the stage to begin our practice at the physical level with a process of purification. We have to get rid of some baggage before we can start our journey. Then we shower, get dressed, put on our walking shoes, and head out the door. The body of the story gives us the task we need to do on our journey. Our practice moves to the mental level. When we attempt to still the mind we run into all kinds of obstacles, but we keep going on our journey until the obstacles are overcome. In the third sutra we reach the innermost level of spirit. We are home! Now we can kick back and relax. Sounds simple enough, right?

But wait, I ask myself what if my mind is not that simple to still? How can I possibly still this thing jumping around in my head? Maybe I should read on. The next 193 sutras help fill in the details on how we can accomplish the task of sutra I.2. The big "but" is sutra I.4 which explains that in all other cases when the mind is not still we are lost in the disturbing waves of the mind.2 We remain as mere slaves to our minds. The practice of yoga is the process of breaking free from this mental slavery.

I have to face it my story is not as neat as the one above. It looks something more like this: I started out on my journey with way too much baggage and an untied shoe that doesn't fit right and I keep falling down. Somehow I forgot where I was going, and my trusty map didn't seem to help; it just got me more lost. I wound up stumbling into an ocean. I have no goggles, and I can't even swim. Now, I'm getting pounded by waves. Where do I go from here? The first step is to admit I have a problem . . . Ah, that feels better. Somehow, I'm able to float back to shore. I get the water and seaweed out of my ears and pull out my soggy map to take another look. Then it hits me - I've been looking at the map up-side-down this whole time. Well, the good news is I think I might be on the right track now. The bad news? As it turns out I still need to cross that ocean. Maybe I should get some goggles and learn how to swim.

An extremely difficult task lays ahead, but if I'm interested in breaking free from mental slavery, I need to gain control of the mind-waves (vrittis) says Patanjali . For the few rare beings out there, sutras 1-3 is all they're gonna need. End of story. For the rest of us, like myself, there are the other 193 sutras, and a lot of hard work ahead.

Something else to chew on: Patanjali didn't pull these teachings out of thin air. In fact, he didn't claim any authorship to the ideas and practices in this text. Instead his task was to organize and record what was already known and practiced by random yogis. He must also have drawn from the wisdom of older texts like The Bhagavad Gita and The Upanishads. It my be worthwhile to take a look at some of those as well.

1. Trans. by Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. 2009. (pp. 4, 10, 22)
2. Paraphrase of I.4 my own. Here is a more literal translation: I.4 vritti sarupyam itaratra. "At other times [the self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications." Trans. by Sri Swami Satchidanda.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different . . .

This famous line from Monty Python's Flying Circus, is not that different from the opening line in The Yoga Sutras:

I.1 Atha Yoganushashanam
"Now the teachings of yoga . . ."

With the word "now", Patanjali, who compiled this splendid text, is urging us to move on to "something completely different" after we've tired ourselves out from chasing life's fleeting pleasures. It's as if he is saying something like: "remember that yoga stuff you may have heard about and perhaps dabbled in? Well, now it's time to start a comprehensive practice, and really dig in below the surface."

This opening line marks the beginning of a new adventure, and the wisdom that follows provides us with a road map that will help us navigate through our yoga journey. Now, let's take a look at these yoga teachings, shall we? After all, when would be a better time than now?

Plan of action: If you haven't already, visit your library or search online for a copy of The Yoga Sutras, start reading and enjoy! Any translation will do, but for starters I recommend: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda). A good commentary can be helpful.

For more info. visit: The Yoga Page.