Yoga: Approaching a Modern Practice with an Ancient Text

A couple of months ago, I read The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali for the first time.  Given that I’ve been practicing yoga for 14 years and teaching for a handful of years, I figured that I was probably due.

After reading it, I wondered if any of it is still relevant to yoga practitioners of today.  If you don’t know what’s in it, imagine an esoteric collection of words that describes a self-cultivation process that allows the practitioner to free herself from ego in order to reach an ultimate goal, called samādhi.

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The word samādhi literally translates as “placing together.¹”  Given the descriptions of the state of samādhi in The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali, it appears that the two things that are being “placed together” are self and God.

The āsanas—poses—are barely mentioned because this text is about meditation.  You might even say it’s all about mental āsanas.

Today we live in a world where yoga is has gained exceptional popularity, even compared to most other fitness crazes.  Yoga is often appealing because of the physical benefits associated with the exercise and perhaps for the benefits associated with its naturally meditative qualities.

We rarely consider samādhi to be the goal of yoga.  If we consider it, at all, it is nothing more than a happy accident of practice.  Ironically, this is how The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali asks us to approach yoga.  Maintaining the goal of samādhi turns yoga into an ego driven pursuit and the ego must be sacrificed in order to achieve samādhi.  In the meantime, the practitioner can expect to experience the benefits of practice for the sake of practice.²

After having approached the mat hundreds of times over the years and having watched others do it hundreds of times, I have observed a quality that goes beyond a vacant series of poses.

The yoga class becomes a place where we are constantly but indirectly asked to release our egos.  A long held stretch may ask us to make friends with discomfort.  A strong vinyāsa might force us to ask our bodies about its desired pace, rather than fall into mindless competition.

Somehow, in the space between the calming reassurance and intense physical challenges, we naturally begin to loosen our grip on our egos.  We may not necessarily reach samādhi every session or ever, but these tiny releases of ego offer us more profound changes off the mat.  We recognize those changes and that is what keeps us coming back.

This is how I think The Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali is still relevant to modern practitioners.  We’re drawn to yoga for the same reason that the people reading that text around the 3rd century CE were drawn to it.  We are looking to achieve some kind of goal that has to do with our individual development.

We also end up getting the same answer: That’s not what this is about.  I think the āsanas do maintain something that is more than exercise, stretching, and breathing.  All of those components combined create another thing that keeps us coming back for more.

If yoga has always been about exercise for you, then maybe next time you practice you can ask yourself how it challenges your ego.  That question might prove to be useful to you.

What do you think?  What does yoga do for you?  Is it an especially transformative practice or is it just about as transformative as anything else?

¹Feuerstein, G. (2005). Encyclopedia of religion. 2(12), 8066. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Retrieved December 5, 2013, from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX3424502725&v=2.1&u=temple_main&it=r&p=GVRL&sw=w&asid=714b66ee4c3c7e4fac5aa3d8686964de

²Patañjali, & Feuerstein, G. (1989). The Yoga-sūtra of Patañjali: A new translation and commentary. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions.

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