Nirodhaḥ Yoga Blog
Just where you are – that’s the place to start.
- Pema Chodron
This blog post is part of our Yoga Sutras series.
Want to start at the beginning?
Sutra 1.1 - अथ योगानुशासनम् - Atha Yoga Anuśāsanam
Now Is the Guide for Yoga
The reason the Yoga Sutras take a lifetime (or even longer!) to understand fully is that many of the Sanskrit words contain multiple meanings. The richness of this approach means both that the essence of Yoga is expressed as succinctly as possible and that the process of understanding their meaning is the path toward Yoga itself. In that way, the Yoga Sutras are both philosophy and instructions (Satchidananda, 23); they give both the why and how in one breath.
To truly understand a Sutra, the student must devote successive readings to it. There is an unfurling process, as the student deciphers its meaning over time in conjunction with the student’s lived experience.
This is why the aphorism, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears,” also applies to the Yoga Sutras. The lessons to be learned from this text develop in the student’s mind over time, finally becoming fixed when life gives the aspirant a chance to practice and then comprehend their meaning.
So let’s start on the most surface level - the literal meaning of the Sanskrit words - and then delve deeper.
Atha means “now” but it also means “auspiciousness,” a “prayer,” “blessing,” or “good omen” (Iyengar, 48). Patanjali has good reason to begin the entire Yoga Sutras with the word Atha. It is both an introduction and a command. Again, this is both philosophy and instruction.
Atha means not only are we beginning the instruction of Yoga but that the instruction of Yoga is always in the now; in the present moment. We cannot attain yoga by only analyzing the past or planning for the future. Yoga is attained by application in the present moment.
I find this extremely empowering. No matter if I’ve made a mistake in the past and doubtless, I will make mistakes in the future. What matters is at every moment, I have the opportunity to live Yoga. I have the opportunity to apply these lessons in the life I am living at this very moment and advance.
As you may have heard before, Yoga means “union”. It also means the “application” and “result” (Iyengar, 48). But what are we uniting? How are we applying these concepts? And what is the result?
Yoga is the union of our little self - our individual consciousness in the form of our body, mind, and ego - with our big self. Our big self is our true nature, which is the consciousness that inhabits all things in existence. Some might call this God. I will call it Universal Consciousness, which witnesses everything that happens within and around us. Patanjali calls this consciousness, the Purusha.
Yoga is the uniting of our individual selves with the Universal Self. Although it appears that each body, mind, and ego are separate, through practice of yoga we learn to see that in actuality, all things that exist are united. This is achieved through deep meditation and contemplation of the Supreme Spirit. (Iyengar, 48)
Yoga is both this unity (the philosophy or why to practice yoga), the means to that unity (the instructions or how to practice yoga), and the result of applying this philosophy and these instructions.
Anuśāsanam can be translated into “exposition,” “instruction,” (Satchidananda, 23) “introduction,” “advice,” “direction,” or “guide,” (Iyengar, 48) among others. Anuśāsanam thereby reinforces the double meaning implied in the word Atha and the whole of the Yoga Sutras’ purpose. The book is meant as both an introduction to the philosophy of Yoga, as well as a guide to the practice of Yoga.
Taken together, Atha Yoga Anuśāsanam shows exactly what we were discussing last month. The first Pada (and here, the first Sutra) is both an introduction to Yoga for beginners and a savvy way of getting to the heart of Yoga for Patanjali’s most advanced students. It means simultaneously that the instruction on Yoga is beginning now and that the way to understand Yoga is in the here and now.
I find Yoga so incredibly moving because it is not just a philosophy with which to view the world, it is not just a scientific method of attaining unity with the Universal Consciousness, it is also the art of devotion. Understanding this philosophy by application of this scientific method, each person’s subjective reality can be transformed to one of supreme devotion to the experience of being alive.
By that I mean, each person lives their own reality through their ego. We are born, we live and then we die. Through that cycle, each of us experiences our own pains and pleasures, which may differ from our neighbor’s. The particulars of our own suffering are subjective However, the experience of suffering in general is universal and objective (in fact, this is discussed in all religions). We all know what it means to want something, to fear losing something, and to grieve a loss.
Luckily, though pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Through the method of Yoga, we can learn to overcome suffering and attain a state of liberation - free from attachments and aversions.
This state of liberation is Yoga. So the steps to get there and the state of being are both Yoga. In that way, both the novice, who is just starting to practice these steps, and the expert, who embodies the state of being, are both practicing Yoga.
Yoga is always in the present moment.
What do you think? How can living in the present help us attain Yoga? What happens if you take a breath and just experience this present moment without distractions? Can you experience Yoga for that moment?
Just some thoughts about yoga as I go...
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