Wisdom Beyond the Mat: Unpacking the Yoga Sutras
Practicing yoga as a physical set of movements can be a great experience. The benefits are numerous and the popularity of studio classes demonstrates how appealing and widespread this practice is.
I focused solely on the physical aspect of yoga for years and loved it, but at a certain point, like many yogis, I wanted to engage with the other, multi-dimensional aspects of this ancient discipline and discover more of the wisdom that informs the practice.
Delving into some of these deeper layers has enriched my time on the mat as well as my life off the mat.
This blog will touch on one tiny thread of the rich woven history that makes up the vast tapestry that is yoga philosophy with a look at the first three yoga sutras.
I hope this information will pique your interest in learning more about the origins and many layers of yoga or give you seeds of contemplation to incorporate into your existing practice.
Background – to yolk
The first known writings to reference “yoga” are the ancient Sanskrit texts from India, the Vedas. Written between 1500-1000 BC, they introduce the word yoga to mean “to yoke” or unite which is why people often talk about yoga meaning to find union.
Depending on the translation and interpretation, union could mean:
union across all aspects of one’s self – mind x body x spirit
union between an individual and the collective/universe
Note that in these spiritual texts where we first come across “yoga,” the word had nothing to do with postures or a physical practice!
The Yoga Sutras
The yogic text you will more often hear referenced is the Yoga Sutras by the Indian sage Patanjali. These writings include 196 aphorisms and are believed to be his synthesis of knowledge about yoga from older traditions (including the Vedas). The Yoga Sutras are recognized to be one of the foundational texts of classical yoga philosophy and most modern yoga traditions pull from them in some way.
As with the study of most ancient and spiritual texts, the meaning and understanding of the words evolves and grows richer the more one interacts with them and experiences their wisdom. I invite you to contemplate them as part of your practice and life and see what meaning they bring to you. The first three sutras offer a foundation for deeper self-awareness – my understanding of them, at present, ss as follows:
Sutra 1.1: Atha Yoga Anushasanam
Now we begin our practice and discipline of yoga.
Come to this moment. Be present, right here, right now. Let this mat, this time you’ve set aside, be sacred. Everything you’ve experienced and practiced in the past has led you to this auspicious and special moment that you’ll never live in this exact beautiful way again. Come to it fully, with intention. Come to it openly, acknowledging all elements of who you are right now, and let the practice balance and yoke those elements as you journey towards deeper self-awareness and union.
When I step onto my mat, I chant this first sutra out loud or silently to myself to remind me that what I’m doing with this practice can be sacred and intentional, a ritual, if I want it to be, if I treat it that way (versus going through the motions without taking a moment to remember what the practice is about). I give myself the gift of complete surrender and focus on the present moment. I release thoughts about the past and future and live right within now, turning my focus to this practice that I am here to do.
Sutra 1.2: Yogash Citta Vritta Nirodaha
Our yoga practice is one of quieting the fluctuations and noise of the mind
Our minds are often buzzing with thoughts -- stories, memories, worries, future plans. Thoughts we identify with and maybe restrict ourselves within. This sutra talks about yoga as a practice of quieting this “vritti” or mental chatter by becoming aware that we are separate from our thoughts.
We can practice yoga as self-inquiry and observation-- a discipline of noticing the patterns of our minds. As we notice, we become the witness to our experience, stepping deeper into a state of pure awareness where we can observe things as they are, free of bias and judgment. With this heightened awareness, we can cultivate a sense of discernment in which we’re able to focus our attention on those thoughts/patterns that serve us and quiet the chatter of the thoughts that distract – we can then move forward more intentionally and more aligned with who we are as our highest selves.
Sutra1.3: Tada Drashtu Svarupe Avasthanam
In this way of concentrated meditation, the seer/witness is able to rest and abide within their true nature, to stand steady in ones deepest essence or form
This sutra tells us that through the practice of the first two - coming to the present moment and quieting the mental chatter - you come to know and connect with your true divine nature. The practice of yoga allows you to engage in a deep and compassionate awareness for who you truly are when you are present and not subject to the whim of your mind’s fluctuations. You find an inner stillness, a peace, a sure footing where you can stand firmly grounded in your mountain state.
In this state, like a beautiful mountain, you are strong, solid, unmoved by any chaos spinning around and within you. You are connected, you are whole. And in this state you can bring the beauty and perfection of who you are into the world, recognizing it in others, sharing it with others, moving towards union within yourself and with all beings.
I encourage you to delve into the ancient wisdom of the Yoga Sutras and infuse your practice with what you find there. Doing so has enabled me to connect the physical movements and breaths we practice in classes with a state of power, peace, and awareness that carries off my mat and into my life.