I have literally been mind-f*cked by 233 pages.
This is pretty counterintuitive to what the book I’ve just read is trying to help with, really.
See, I have been a yoga teacher for a number of years now and a student for a few years longer than that. And yet, I am still learning how to convey this message of “yoga.”
After having finally finished reading The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda), I sit here contemplating what yoga even is and how the heck we apply it, most importantly, off the yoga mat.
Growing up, I always felt that there was something larger at play—the universe, energy, divine, God, whatever label you feel compelled to give it. But I knew I wasn’t religious as such, so I labelled myself the ever-popular “spiritual.”
What did this really mean though? To be honest, I am still trying to figure that out for myself.
It seemed natural, then, to find myself drawn to the practice of yoga mostly for the physical practice, at least to begin with.
As an exercise physiologist and someone who always loved to stay fit, play sport, and move in general, yoga was quite obviously a great addition to my already healthy life.
Initially, I enjoyed the feeling of being strong and flexible, and slowly, I started to understand the real benefit for me as an individual was about finding strength and flexibility in my mind as well.
But even now, coming toward the completion of 500 hours of study in the practice of yoga, I find myself ebbing and swaying between beliefs, concepts, and my understanding of what they mean in my life—our lives. It makes sense when you look at the ever-evolving concepts of the 4,000-and-something-year-old practice.
When I began to realise that the power of my mind is way greater than that of my physical body, particularly when it came to feeling healthy—think of the fact that “you can eat all the good food, exercise daily, but when you don’t deal with the toxic stuff in your mind you are still unhealthy”—I started to delve deeper into the world of personal development, and I have since marvelled at the similarities it mirrors to the spiritual practice of yoga.
Reading Patanjali’s sutras has consolidated many of these ideas for me.
Below are some of the things that felt like truths for me in this book, deep revelations from somewhere beyond my mind perhaps, things that I will continue to come back to when I am lost, floating somewhere between human form and the spirit world:
1. What is yoga?
In Patanjali’s text, put quite simply, yoga is the experience we gain when we control the fluctuations of the mind.
Ah…the mind. It is certainly powerful and all-consuming at times. Using certain tools, he outlines exactly how to achieve this state, which essentially is liberation from all attachment and an ability to be unaffected by anything. It can also be described as bliss (samadhi), enlightenment, or the superconscious state.
Maybe just a little different from being able to touch your toes, right?
2. Who is yoga even for?
Patanjali says that yoga is neither for those who have gained the light nor for those who are ignorant and have no desire to know anything. It is for us humans in between—those of us who search for truth and meaning in the world.
At some point, though, the weight can become too much to bear and to try and understand the meaning. It can be overwhelming and consuming. Too much can meddle in the mind, Patanjali says.
I know I have certainly felt this at times. The concepts in his sutras—literally translated as threads—bring some relief to the fact that we need not do it all. He provides a moral guideline for living (how to deal with the external world), as well as how to manage ourselves as individuals through gaining control of our minds (our internal world).
The concept of karma—how we reap what we have sown throughout previous lifetimes—means we are all at different stages on the path toward liberation. Perhaps this means then that it’s okay if we can’t achieve it in this particular lifetime. Perhaps, a little is better than nothing.
I know as an overachieving individual who can’t sit still and wants to get it all done right now, this helps me feel a little less like I have an epic cliff to scale to becoming that better human.
3. The path will be full of obstacles.
It is a natural law that, as humans, we will be tested. We will face obstacles. I have certainly found this to be true based on my own life; the moment I think it’s all happiness and rainbows—bam—life throws me another challenge to help me grow. I truly believe this.
Patanjali says, “If a river just flows easily, the water in the river does not express its power. But once you put an obstacle to the flow, then you can see its strength in the form of tremendous electrical power.”
To understand this concept is to surrender to the suffering in knowing that it is necessary for our path forward. Patanjali says that these obstacles—klesas—can be destroyed by meditation, where we can release attachment to our idea of how we want things to be and accept what actually is.
4. Pain is your friend.
Following the obstacle thing, it is no surprise that the sutras discuss how pain is also necessary. In fact, all experiences that come from outside of us will create pain. Therefore, the world is just a beautiful training place.
“In order to make our minds clean and steady, we must accept suffering,” he says. Additionally, when we perceive that someone causes us pain, we can reframe this as them helping us to purify ourselves.
We must surrender to the acceptance of pain, knowing it is an opportunity for us to study.
This is yoga in practice.
For me, this beautifully mirrors the concept that life is always happening for us. When pain and obstacles come up for me now, I ask myself, “How is this happening for me? What is this teaching me?”
It isn’t always easy to surrender or to learn the lesson, but if we don’t accept it as study, then we will never reap the reward.
5. The body is the path.
Leading on from that, Patanjali discusses how the human body is simply a vehicle or instrument for experience, that life is experienced by the mind through the body.
In fact, if the world is a training place, it is necessary then to have this impure material skin suit to learn in! The individual soul will continue to evolve through various lifetimes and travel through numerous bodies.
He delves further, explaining that a happy or unhappy life is merely your own creation. This is based on not only your current life but those that preceded the one in this body.
Whether you believe in karma and reincarnation or not is irrelevant here. The reminder is that we all have different lives and different things to learn, so comparing ourselves to others is simply a waste of time. You are your own worst enemy as well as your best friend because you create your reality.
For me, my life begins and ends with me, not what anyone else has done to me. I am where I am, and nothing is changing that apart from my own thoughts and actions. Perhaps I was a naughty person in my past life, perhaps not, but either way, I like to think of things that happen to me, not necessarily as my fault, but definitely as my responsibility.
6. How to live (ethically)—inside and out.
The eight limbs of yoga, as stated by Patanjali, are a beautiful framework for helping us live consciously and dutifully.
I won’t bother regurgitating them all here, but if the concept has tickled your fancy so far, perhaps it is calling you to study them deeper.
Essentially these are things to do and not to do. You may have heard them used as themes throughout classes at times. Think of things like non-harming (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), and so on.
As previously mentioned, they are the formula for managing the external world. As a real yogi, there is no excuse not to live by these, he advises. As a regular human, though, how you choose to live by them can be modified. Take your pick.
For our internal world, Patanjali discusses how the physical practice of yoga—asana—is a way to put a brake on the mind. For me, this is why I kept coming back to yoga. I began to feel a subtle shift in my mind during and after each class, a broadening of awareness, acceptance, and gratitude for the world. He further discusses how breathwork—pranayama—is also a means to regulate the mind.
He states, “First, we learn to control the physical body, then the movement of the breath, then the senses, and finally the mind.”
This breathwork helps us unveil the light within, which ultimately leads to the freedom he speaks of. This explains why the physical practice of yoga can never really be done without a focus on breath.
In terms of meditation itself, to reach that higher level—contemplation, bliss (samadhi)—we go through stages. First comes concentration, a little like mindfulness, really, where we focus on a specific thing (dharana), then the real meditative state (dhyana), then samadhi.
He explains the barriers to this as such: the biggest mistake we make when learning to meditate is thinking we are not doing it right!
The nature of the mind is to be distracted.
The spiritual practice of yoga is learning to bring it back to awareness and focus again and again. In essence, even before we are meditating, we are training the mind to meditate! The problem is that we give up before this training is complete.
I have had moments where I have been so deep in meditation, but honestly, for the most part, it is just bringing my mind back again and again, when I realise I have followed some tangent for a good few minutes.
I feel this will be a lifelong study for me. Small moments of non-attachment right now seem enough. Small moments of transcendence of the mind where I feel deeply a connection to something bigger than just me…
7. Be of service.
If we do nothing else, in fact, if we don’t even practice ‘yoga’ as the modern world knows it, we can still live a dedicated life. Being of service to others, learning to be selfless, and using the opportunity of daily activities to help us grow as individuals can be enough.
So chill, relax, and enjoy the little things you can do for someone else to light up their day.
How to even start.
Perhaps you have been practicing asana yoga for a while. You have begun to feel the benefits, and you sense there is something more. So where to from here? Sure, you could study all the texts, but realistically, in this modern life of yours, what can you actually do to become more conscious?
Patanjali says that we could achieve the goal by any means. So perhaps, it is totally up to you. Maybe you are drawn to try breathwork, maybe sit for longer with a meditation practice before you give up, maybe something else that doesn’t even look like yoga.
If you are still reading this, then maybe it’s your call to deepen the spiritual practice you have already been living.
As for me, I am hoping at least this was somewhat of service to the reader, a slightly deeper insight into what yoga really means, apart from just a damn good stretch.
I will continue to face my obstacles, surrender to the lessons in my pain, remember that I am a mind in a body, move, breathe, and sit still.
Patanjali clearly states that yoga can bring you superpowers, but only when you stay unattached to wanting them.
The key for me is not chasing any outcome; it is being totally okay with not needing to be anything other than who I am, where I am.
And then, perhaps, I will find total freedom…