Yoga is the means and the ends — it’s the practice we do and it’s the state of being we may enjoy as a result. The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali are a source we can turn to provide guidance and inspiration for our process. The first four sutras provide us with a succinct teaching on what yoga is….
1.1 atha yogānuśāsanam
Now, the instruction of yoga.
“Atha” means now and “nuśasanam” is a way of indicating that teachings are about to be provided on a subject. In this case, that subject is yoga.
With a slight shift of emphasis, one can also glean from this that yoga happens in the now. Mind drifting backward into past or projecting forward into future is unable to connect with the present and the present is where yoga is happening.
1.2 yogaś citta-vrtti-nirodhah
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness –
or the stilling of the mind – or mind control.
Patanjali wastes no time getting to the point. This sutra tells us exactly what yoga is. It is nirodhah – the stopping of thoughts. “Citta” is a word that represents the field of the mind and “vrtti” is the movement on that field – our constantly changing thoughts. Yoga is described here as an internal effort to gain mastery over the citta vrttis and clear the mind.
1.3 tadā drastuh svarūpe ‘vasthānam
Then the seer abides in its own essence.
What happens then? “Tada!” the magical then. When thoughts slow down and there are gaps between them our spirit has the opportunity to abide in its true nature and observe the world, rather than be immersed in it.
This isn’t just some new age mystical babble, this is a means to bringing moments of true peace and true unconditional happiness forward into your life. These tada happenings give our minds the opportunity to be free, to have space. Dukkha — the Sanskrit and Pali word for suffering that is discussed as an unavoidable end point of all of life’s experiences in both Yoga and Buddhists texts — can be translated to mean a lack of space. I’ve learned from my teacher David Garrigues — both in theory and in practice — space is the opposite of suffering.
As a practice, yoga can provide us the experience of spaciousness in body and mind. This is a great gift and a real game changer. Whether we know it’s happening or not, this experience of spaciousness connects us with something deeper — connects us with all of life — and chips away at our typical self-centered I me mine egoism. Our normal mode of being time and space bound. In this way, yoga makes us extraordinary.
1.4 vrtti sārūpyam itaratra
Otherwise, it (the seer) is absorbed in the vrttis.
Patanjali wraps up this section by saying “look, it’s up to you, if you want to remain mired in ego centered physicalness, there you’ll be, stuck in your over identification with the material — body and mind.”
It’s not that this is a “bad” thing — in fact this practice moves us out of our usual dualistic mode and beyond good/bad, right/wrong, happy/sad way of being. We simply begin to recognize that there is more to ourselves than this flesh and bone self that plugs along from day-to-day doing our worldly things. We appreciate our underlying nature and possibly even yearn to connect with and abide in it. Yoga provides us a way — a path — for doing so.
Up next, Patanjali on the five kinds of thoughts….
References consulted (frequently 😉
Garrigues, David: personal notes from on-line and in-person teachings. https://davidgarrigues.com/
Bryant, Edwin. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. On-line. https://omstars.com/the-yoga-sutras-of-patanjali
Houston, Vyaas. 1995. Yoga Sūtra Workbook, 2nd Ed. American Sanskrit Institute.
Sarasvati, Shri Brahmananda. 2010. The Yoga Sūtras of Patanjali. Baba Bhagavandas Publication Trust.