From the root yuj meaning ‘to yoke’, yoga is a method of reining in the mind so that it stops focusing on the external world and turns to look inward. This is a far cry from the yoga we see on Instagram or even yoga magazines, but if we look back at the tradition of yoga, back to the ‘classical yoga’ of Patanjali, we find a different world entirely.
Yoga is the practice of stilling the conceptual mind, so that pure awareness can abide in its very nature. Otherwise, awareness takes itself to be the patterns of the mind. (The Yoga Sutras 1.1-1.4)
There is the world of changing forms, Patanjali explains. He calls this prakriti. This includes nature, the physical world around us, as well as our thoughts and emotions. It is the stuff that changes, transforms and is in constant process.
But this is not the sum total of what is.
There is also purusha, a pure awareness that underlies the world of form and change. This pure awareness does not change. It is eternal, not subject to cause and effect. It is pure being. Who we really are.
The greatest cause of our suffering and discontentment in life, according to classical yoga, is the confusion between these two — we take ourselves to be things like our thoughts and emotions and mental concepts. We link ourselves to external things like our house, other people, our clothes or hair or tattoo. When in fact we are none of these things.
They have nothing to do with what we really are.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a beautiful ancient text, filled with short statements to help us train ourselves out of all the mental habits that contribute to our suffering and bring us into a new space where we remember ourselves as pure being.
Have you ever sat in a movie theatre and gotten so absorbed in the film that you completely forgot yourself? Have you ever been in a movie theatre and suddenly “popped back into your body” and realised your were in this dark theatre watching a film, and looked around to see everyone else totally absorbed in the movie?
Or have you every been watching TV or your computer screen and been completely caught up in whatever is on the screen. And then suddenly someone turns the TV off or your computer suddenly shuts down. In that moment when the screen falls still, it takes on a different quality. One of reflection. And you go from being completely caught up in whatever is on the screen to suddenly staring at your own reflection. This is the best analogy to explain Patanjali’s yoga.
Essentially what classical yoga says is this:
Because we are so busy, always thinking about something or wrapped up in our own emotions or focused on the external world, our ordinary life is like the experience of sitting in that movie theatre or in front of the computer totally absorbed by whatever is happening on the screen. For Patanjali, this screen represents our mind. Usually it is absorbed in external events, thoughts or emotions. But when it falls still (through meditation training), it takes on a new quality — reflectivity.
In that moment when the mind falls still, it can reflect pure awareness back to itself. Just like we can suddenly see our own reflection in that dark screen. And that is the way we can finally see what we truly are. Not this changing stuff of form and thought, but pure being.
The path to still the mind and get to this point where we not only recognise what we truly are, but can abide there is not easy. But another thing I love about so many of these yogic and meditative texts is their reassurance that the capacity to unravel our mental habits and experience realisation is innate. You don’t have to be special. Anyone can do it. And for my methodical mindset, I love the step-by-step nature of the training program Patanjali describes. It’s not magic (although it may feel magical at times). If you do X, then Y will happen, and then Z, and then realisation.
This is just the beginning of my thoughts about the Yoga Sutras, so more to follow, but I’d love to know…if you’ve practiced yoga for awhile, do you know about the Yoga Sutras? If so, how has it influenced your approach to your own yoga practice? And if not, let me know your reaction to the text so far and what kind of inward journeying your yoga includes.