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Now Begins…

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This is an article I wrote a little while back for the Southeast Iyengar Associaton newsletter. If you are not a member of the National Iyengar Association (IYNAUS), consider becoming one. You’ll be supporting the growing Iyengar community and get a newsletter every now and again. The membership fees help cover assessment costs and scholarship funds. I was lucky enough to receive a scholarship for my first India trip a few years ago.

Each time we read a sutra, it means something different.  Depending on who we are, where we’ve been, what we had for lunch or what we watched most recently on the television, the sutra can be interpreted differently. But, the sutra can also mean what our mind-body-complex, tangled up and mashed together by the ignorance (avidya) and ego (asmita), want it to mean.

1.1 atha yoganusasanam

Now begins an exposition of the sacred art of yoga.

Fundamentally, many Sanskrit texts began with the word “atha” as a way to introduce the subject matter and lay a foundation, mundane, but true.

Various translations and commentaries suggest it speaks of existing in the moment.

Practice now and don’t procrastinate. No time like the present. Exist in the moment, let go of your past hang ups, put your hands down, step your feet back and practice. What are you waiting for?

So, with this first sutra, Patanjali is saying simply, “here we go.”

2.6 drg darsana saktyor ekatmatevasmita

Ego is to consider the nature of the seer and the nature of the instrumental power of seeing to be the same thing (Bryant).

Egoism (asmita) is identifying the power of cognition (buddhi) as if it were the power of consciousness (purusa) (Dass).

We think that this is it. This world, this body, these thoughts are everything, and we take it very seriously. Deeper than our thoughts, deeper still than our stunning intellect, is pure consciousness. Deeper in the sense that it’s buried underneath all of our psychological crap. When we are not “dwelling with the true self” we are then “dwelling with the fluctuating consciousness,” existing in the realm lead by our ego.

Each time we read a sutra, we are reading it through our personal filters. These filters are colored and clouded by the avidya and asmita.  We rely on these filters as a survival mechanism. For the part of us that is ruled by the klesas (afflictions) and antarayahs (obstacles), it is important that these filters are securely in place.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines ignorant as “uninformed.” The same dictionary defines stupid as “unwilling.”

We are uninformed about a vast amount of things. We make this simple discovery every time we move into an asana and cannot access a certain area or perform a particular action. We may not be willing to endure the truth, or willing to do the work that is required to gain said endurance. In a way, our ignorance gives us some comfort.

These filters give us our identity; make up who we want to be when we present ourselves to the world.  Even if we have an “I don’t care what they think” attitude that too is part of our molded identity. As humans, we need these filters, these molds, to function from day to day. It’s when we get attached to them, cannot fathom letting them go, and move away from change at any cost that they have become a problem.

2.44 svadhyayad ista devata samprayogah

From self study and study of the scriptures, a connection with one’s deity of choice is established.

Notice that svadhyaya is not only study of the self, but also study of sacred texts.

As we examine ourselves, our routines and practices, actions and reactions, likes and dislikes, we can really back ourselves into a corner of self-justification. We can convince ourselves that the excuses we conjure up are valid and that we truly need to make the choices we make, stay stagnant, spend a little more money on an object we’ll grow bored with before too long, or watch internet videos while munching on potato chips instead of doing headstand and shoulderstand.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali apply to all of us. There are no exceptions; like the yamas (moral disciplines), the sutras are universal. We should not exclude ourselves from a lesson or deny ourselves an improvement because of a self-made exception.

Svadhyaya can also be the study of our friends, family, husbands, wives, neighbors, and students.  Does to study mean simply to observe?  Again, to the dictionary: to study, to investigate, to scrutinize or earnestly contemplate, and take pains to achieve. Are we willing to take pains to dispel ignorance and become informed?  Are we willing to shatter our own filter, so we can help someone else?

When we study ourselves, a sutra, or another living creature are we considering how their afflictions and obstacles taint their personal filter or are we too busy being tormented by our own problems?

Our work to ease the suffering of another can in turn relieve our own distress.

3.23 maitry adisu balani

He gains moral and emotional strength by perfecting friendliness towards one and all.

Trying to see things from someone else’s perspective takes courage. Stepping out of our own heads to take action and help someone else takes even more courage. It’s not always as easy as we think, but it’s not as difficult as we think either. We may chant the word ahimsa, but thinking non-violent thoughts is very different from actually taking action and expanding our consciousness to help another.

I remember a time when I was running late for a class I teach in the morning. I was so late, in fact, that I busted out the door with no clothes except for my t-shirt and yoga shorts.  I got about 2 miles away from my house when I saw a small white bunny hopping right along the road side. Immediately, I accelerated, drove past and muttered to myself “no time.” About 10 seconds later I came to a screeching halt, pulled over and got out of the car, intent on scooping up a bunny.

What kind of cruel hearted dingbat did I have to be to think that my class would prefer that I let a helpless bunny perish just so I could get to class in time? I felt sure that they would all give up 10 minutes of their class time to help the bunny.

So, as it turns out, I found the owner of the bunny who was wandering about the neighboring street, looking frazzled. Together we rounded up the frightened thing, and I moved along to class. I actually was not late, but right on time, no worries.

That day stands out for me, not because of the cuteness of the bunny, but because of the giant explosion within myself right before I made the decision to stop the car and help. I cursed loudly and screwed my face up into a horrific contortion. I remember feeling like I was trying to figure out some crazy algebraic equation, yet knowing that the solution was sitting in plain sight just one page over. I had to expand my mind.

That day, after helping with the bunny collection and driving off, I felt light, almost buoyant, like I had nothing to worry about. So, I remember thinking to myself, “that’s it, be friendly, help out, feel better.”

It does not have to be huge. The extension and expansion need not be massive or financial.

Did you scowl at someone because they seem weaker than you?

Did you decide to cut off a friendship because their political view differed from yours?

Did you drive by a stranded bunny?

We can find small ways to cultivate friendliness and compassion. Each difficulty is another chance to practice.

A true svadhyaya involves not only study of the self and study of the scriptures, but also a willingness to change ourselves. Look through someone else’s filter and be willing to see things differently. Stop twisting the meanings of what is put before us to better fit our philosophy.

Action is required.  That’s Kriya yoga.

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