Gaining some insight into the ancient philosophy of yoga can really help us to “get” why it is we do what we do…
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
The origination date of Patanjali’s Yogasutras is not clear, but it is widely believed and debated to be somewhere between 200 BC and 200 AD. Although considered to be the “author” of these texts, it is also uncertain as to who Patanjali actually was. Some believe he wasn’t even human, but was rather, a divine being, with one such legend suggesting he fell from the gods in response to the human plea for help. Whatever the case, it is universally accepted that Patanjali’s Sutras represent a relatively simple, non-religious, workable and legible interpretation of ancient Vedic texts which contained similar holistic practises to adhere to, but in a much more complex and elaborate form.
Patanjali outlined suffering as being a common universal condition afflicting much of the human race. However, it appears he believed that if the principles of the Sutras were followed, the practitioner would be lead towards a life of peace, harmony, joy and bliss. The concept/word “Yoga” means different things to different people but has been interpreted as meaning “union” or “one” and so, in this context, it could be said to relate to the unification of the mind, body and spirit – arguably, an underlying theme throughout the Sutras.
Quietening the “Fluctuating” Mind
The type of practises the Sutras outline are based on reducing misery by quietening (and therefore knowing) the mind – the basis, it seems, for much human suffering (dukha). We can make positive changes for ourselves if we practise Yoga. We can reduce dukha and create harmony if we both exercise and rest the mind and the body, self-reflect and use dukha as a means for greater understanding and as a motive to keep following the yogic path. In this vein, the underlying themes of the Sutras are many and varied. However, it appears the notion of stress creating fractured mental states is based on what Patanjali sees as being the five often most disruptive activities of the mind (comprehension, misapprehension, imagination, deep sleep and memory), together with what he perceives as being nine obstacles to mental clarity (illness, mental stagnation, doubts, lack of foresight, fatigue, over-indulgence, illusions about one’s true state of mind, lack of perseverance and regression). Among other things, Patanjali believes we can alleviate such negative states by practising the eight limbs of Yoga (Astanga). An interpretation of the eight limbs is (1) universal ethics (Yama), (2) self-discipline/purification (Niyama), (3) Postures (Asana), (4) breath control (Pranayama), (5) withdrawal of the senses (Pratyahara), (6) concentration (Dharana), (7) Meditation (Dhyana) and, (8) super-consciousness/bliss (Samadhi).
Doing the Best We Can to Work Towards a Goal (without becoming attached to the goal, mmm, now that’s different!)
Arguably, we are all a product of our environment which means we have ideals, ideas and certain ways of thinking that are not necessarily true to our real nature. One of the many aims of yoga then is to help “loosen” some of the bonds we’ve become attached to in an attempt to realise the true self. Our society is competitive and generally results driven. Humble people, it seems, do not get on in life. However, in terms of self-acceptance and therefore perhaps a peaceful mind, the Sutras describe the notion of non-desire and the significance of just “being” or “doing”, regardless of the outcome. Even in terms of living an austere/yogic life it is possible to “desire” to be desire-less and therefore, Patanjali’s Sutras seem to suggest we “let go of (the idea of) perfection”. This does not mean one should be complacent or lazy however, but perhaps means we should try to choose persistence instead of accomplishment as our goal. In terms of yoga today then, the Sutras are important and relevant because many of us are liable to “give up” if we think we cannot be the best at something and/or be scared to try in case we fail or make mistakes. This is a shame; we could instead think of our mistakes and failures as significant opportunities for learning and further growth.
All in all, an understanding of these texts and the practises they endorse could hopefully help us become more moderate, tolerant, self-accepting, and to learn to exist in the present moment without buying into every thought.