Yoga Sutras: 1


The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali start with a simple word: Atha. It’s a Sanskrit work meaning “now”, and if you read my previous post, you might have noticed the attention to the present moment.

Okay, back it up. Yoga Sutras? Formerly known as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, they come from across the centuries like yogic proverbs (how many centuries is up for wide-ranging debate). “Sutra” is Sanskrit for “thread” or “stitch” (our “suture” comes from the same Proto-Indo-European source: “syu” meaning “to sew”), as in threading together the philosophy behind yoga. There are about 200 sutras, traditionally divided into four sections. Like proverbs, they are meant to be contemplated both one at a time and as a whole. Commentary on each one is likened to beads on the thread.

So here we are at the first sutra in the first section (Portion on Contemplation):

Atha Yoga-nusasanam

That’s it for the first sutra: “Now, Yoga exposition/instruction.”

Notice the lack of verbs. We can assume “begins” from the context, but “begins” doesn’t actually appear. The first two sutras are like that: no verbs. No action. The third sutra has one, but it’s not very active: avasthanam = “abides”. 

Ideally, yoga is not an activity but a state of being. The sutras spend very little time directly on asanas. Yoga is all about the mind. Of course that doesn’t ignore the body. The division of mind and body into two distinct parts is a fallacy (thanks, Decartes). The body is the outward expression of our mind, the particular, material space the mind occupies, and cannot be separated in any meaningful way without detriment to both.

Think of a moment that came close to what you felt was perfection? What was it about that moment that gave it clarity? You felt the most you, there was nothing you needed outside yourself, nothing you had to strive to maintain. There was no fretting about what needed to happen in the next moment, day, year, no mulling over what happened a moment ago, a day ago, last week. There was nothing scattered, no disconnect from time or space. One of the things that made that moment “perfect” is that you were the here-and-now you.

The irony, if you struggle to recapture that, you’ll probably lose it because you’ll be too fixed on that past moment and how it felt to allow the present moment its due.

The first time I was struck by the perfect moment, I was swimming in Lake Tahoe. I was in my late teens, on summer break from getting my English degree, head full of the Romantic Poets and all their talk of personal transcendence. A water-lover, I spent most of the day swimming in the lake, challenging myself to swim out further and further. The sun was starting its afternoon decline so that the surface of the water rippled with radiance. I floated on my back to rest for the return trip. It was out there, with the beach a thin pale line in the distance, the warm sun above, the chill holding me up from below, everything just connected. From the exertion I felt alive in my body, at home in the water. I was an integral part of the environment. I belonged in the universe. The moment opened up into eternity–that is to say, there was no past or future. After an adolescence of never feeling good enough (never letting myself feel that I was good enough), the shell around my brain cracked open and allowed me to experience the perfection of the moment.

That is the mind in the here and now. No baggage from the past, no worries about the future. That is where yoga directs us. Though being in nature or in a really awesome yoga class might help us access that state of being, those things are not required. We can sit down and access it right here, right now.

And thus (begins) the instruction of yoga…


[Stay tuned for more contemplation/commentary on the Sutras]


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