What follows is a sample chapter from Easing into Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, book 5 in the Easing Into Collection which includes Easing into the Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras (combined edition), Easing into the Bhagavad Gita (single updated edition), Easing into the Gospel of Thomas and Easing into the Dhammapada. Easing into Lao Tzu's Tao te Ching will be released in April. All these titles are available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle editions, with audio editions coming soon.
What in the world is Yoga?
The very first sutra, in translation, says NOW is the exposition of yoga made. I’ve capitalized the NOW because, in a sense, the entire sutra is right here, distilled into this one bare line. Beyond meditation, beyond samadhi, beyond conduct and moral and ethical concerns, in spite of spiritual gifts and abilities, this is the very base of any yoga practice.
OK. Maybe it is a simple statement, but we probably all agree it is one that is much harder to practice than conceptualize. If it were not so, Patanjali could have stopped with this first line. And indeed, for some very adept students in Indian history, it has been enough.
I don’t reckon you or I are that kind of special being, though.
Instead, Patanjali unfolds the next nugget of his whole opus: he tells us that Yoga is a stilling of the modification of the stuff of the mind. In other words, yoga, which simply means “union,” is that state of resting in pure conscious awareness, where the line between the subject and what the subject senses and responds to (an object), and the very action of sensing has become one. That union is the reality that our desires, aversions or simple lethargy veil from us. Stilling the mind draws away those veils from reality, and we are able to rest in what is and what we are.
And now Patanjali hits his stride. This first book is about the stages of contemplation: what it is; what gets in our way; and the great “why do it” of this practice. In a sense, he begins at the end, the goal, the fruit of the practice. But then, isn’t sugar often added to medicine first?
In this first chapter, Patanjali introduces an important Sanskrit term: Vritti. This word captures the whole dance of thought forms in our consciousness. Vrittis have many different forms and can be experienced in many different ways. For example:
They can take the form of direct perception of the world and actions there. You see the cat walking through the shadows of a pine tree.
They take the form of influenced by someone else: you notice your mother dislikes salmon and because of this, so do you.
They can clothe themselves in scriptural belief: you act a certain way because of what you have read or been taught in your religious upbringing.
They can be pure misconceptions, when knowledge is not based in truth. Perhaps you believe that a cold pot of water will boil faster than a warm pot (I held to this grimly as a first grader!).
Vritis can arise because of verbal delusions, not understanding or interpreting what you heard incorrectly. Remember when you used to play pass the story? One kid would whisper a long, convoluted tale in one person’s ear, and then that person would tell another and so on? Then, when the original tale was revealed to the group, the ending story line sounded nothing like it. That is an example of a verbal delusion in its grossest form.
They arise in sleep. We sometimes think that we aren’t aware when we sleep, but then, how did you know you were sleeping? Sometimes the dreamscape is taken for reality. Even when we awaken, the mood of sleep can influence how we react to our world.
Memory can be faulty, creating sensations, emotions and thoughts that we store that may or may not be accurate. You remember a deer running through your yard, chased by three dogs almost a year ago. But later, when you relate the story to a friend, your spouse was sure there were actually four dogs.
Patanjali then tells us that we can work with all these interesting twists of our minds by practicing non-attachment to them all. To achieve that, we engage in a practice that develops a steadiness of the mind or what we might call meditation. Again, he is saying that all of these vrittis are seen for what they are when we practice being present and aware.
To make matters even more interesting, Patanjali then mentions that all these vrittis are further influenced by the basic energies of nature. He calls these basic energetic signatures gunas, and goes on to explain how each function through gross physical matter. Please remember that just by being embodied, we will experience a constant shift and play of these gunas, and they can vary wildly in their strength and duration.
The first guna, tamas, is the energy of torpor. (Couch potato energy in other words.) Tamas can be observed when you stare at your yoga mat by the front door. And stare at it. And stare at it. It is a state of non-movement, thickness, heaviness and sloth.
The second guna, rajas, is the energy of action. It is the bustle of a busy kitchen, the fingers flying over the keyboard, the hawk swooping down on its prey. In its most extreme form, it can be experienced as mania and workaholic behaviors.
The third guna, Sattva, is the energy of balance, presence, a kind of wide- awake-and-comfortable-in-your-own-skin sort of sensation. You are neither lazy nor overzealous, neither dull nor excited. It is the still pond surface of a thriving ecosystem, the palms folded in namaste, everything still and alert. It binds us, however, because it feels so very good.
All three of these gunas affect how we in turn experience the vrittis. Let’s say you are filled with rajasic feelings because you’ve had one too many cups of coffee. You look out the window and remember the time when you were a child and fell off your bike and suddenly your gut is clenching and you are on your way to the computer to write on Facebook about the need for bike safety classes for all children. That is memory under the influence of rajas. Memory was a seed, you watered it, and with the hot energy of rajas it turned into an action that could have very good or very bad consequences for you.
It’s important to understand that Patanjali isn’t making a value judgment about any of the gunas. They simply are. And the aware practitioner of yoga needs to be able to see them at play as part of being in the NOW.
Yoga is simply the stilling of the vrittis. Yoga is simply the quieting of all the stuff that ruffles the waters of your mind-body-spirit- intuition-sense of joy. Yoga is NOW.
Miserable white sugar and little black grains.
Who would drink black water anyway?
I did not hear the cedar whisper
missed the whole point
of the day.
Questions to Take You Deeper
Take a moment and consider how you approach any spiritual practice.
1. Why exactly do you practice?
2. What is the state of your mind in various poses or states of mind? For example, you might compare a warrior pose to a child’s pose. What did you learn about your body, your breath, your mind, your intuition, and your sense of joy?
3. How does the breath create a bridge between the mind and body? How does the texture of the breath echo the state of your mind? Your body?
4. Do any of the vrittis surface in your practice? How do you work with them? How could you help someone else understand these phenomena?
5. Are you aware of the play of the gunas within your practice? Explain.