One of the biggest criticisms of yoga philosophy (or any philosophy for that matter) is that it’s not practical. Since the beauty and magic of the Yoga Sutras lies in its breadth and depth behind the simplicity, reading such a text requires patience and the expectation that you won’t understand it the first time around.
It takes many readings, much life experience, and multiple translations to really come to a profound understanding of the wisdom baked into each tiny aphorism. You can’t get to that understanding without first slogging through all the rounds of reading with utter confusion.
With that said, it’s always helpful if a teacher guides you coherently along the way. A teacher must make the wisdom of the Yoga Sutras relevant to your life, your circumstances, and your needs for the “aha” light bulb to switch on.
It is with great honor and reverence for this practice that I humbly attempt to make sense of these esoteric verses and breathe new life and meaning into them so that you can integrate this wisdom into your own way of life.
Step 1: Master The Yamas
Thus far, one of the most well-known aspects of the Yoga Sutras (besides asana) is the Yamas and Niyamas, or the ethical guidelines that comprise the first two limbs of the 8-limbed path of Patanjali’s Classical Yoga system.
The Yamas are meant to be guidelines we use to live in relationship with others in the world around us, while the Niyamas are the guidelines that establish a solid foundation for living with our Selves.
It is important to note that while the 8-limbed path is not meant to be chronological in the sense that you may start working on limb 3 before limb 1, there is hierarchical order implied in the importance and ordering of how the wisdom is presented. From this understanding, then, the Yamas are the most important limb and no other limbs can be expected to be mastered without first resting on the foundation of these ethical principles. In addition, the first Yama, ahimsa, takes precedence over all other Yamas.
Step 1A: Don’t kill people
Ahimsa is commonly translated as non-violence. I prefer the positive translation of compassion. One of the reasons why the Yamas may be hard to integrate into daily life is because of the negative orientation of the translations. You’ll often get a higher success rate when you tell people what to do instead of what not to do. Admittedly, this shifts control into the hands of the master or teacher and out of the hands of the student, which is problematic. I’ve found in my classes students are more likely to respond when I tell them exactly what to do rather then me giving vague instruction and space for them to figure it out on their own. I try my best to strike a balance between the two because empowerment unfolds in the space between these two extremes.
Anywho, it’s both informative and slightly comical (IMO) to study various translations of Sutra 2.35. After Patanjali introduces the Yamas and Niyamas in the Yoga Sutras, he goes on to give examples for when we can know that we are progressing in our practice of each principle.
“The more considerate one is, the more one stimulates friendly feelings among all in one’s presence.”
“When (the yogi has) firmly established (in himself the principle of) non-violence; in his presence (there accrues a natural) loss of enmity (from the minds of others).”
“Abstinence from killing being confirmed, there is suspension of antipathy in the presence of him (who has acquired the virtue).”
“As a Yogi becomes firmly grounded in non-injury (ahimsa), other people who come near will naturally lose any feelings of hostility.”
“In the presence of one firmly established in non-violence, all hostilities cease.”
The first time I read this sutra I was a bit confused because it seems so obvious and basic. (I thought the Sutras were supposed to be repositories of deep wisdom!).
The way I understand this in its most basic translation is: if you are not mean to other people, they won’t have any reason to be mean to you…
Duh. Don’t we learn this in Kindergarten?
And yet, here we are today in 2017 witness to grown adults killing others daily across the world.
So this basic wisdom, no matter how basic it seems, serves as a great reminder to us all every day.
You might recognize this wisdom from somewhere else too.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Or, in plain English for 3-year olds:
Most mothers everywhere
The subtleties of compassion
There is something deeper happening here though.
If this Sutra is meant to be a measurement from which one can gauge his or her progress on the path of Yoga, then recognizing when others are kind to you is part of your responsibility for tracking your progress. It’s not about whether Jack and Jill were nice to you today — it’s about whether or not you deserved to be nice toward!
Here’s where the positive reinforcement translation comes in handy. When we are compassionate with others on a daily basis we sow seeds of compassion rather then enmity. This comes back to us in the form of others feeling safe and kind in our presence.
This is basic psychology/neuroscience. When you feel unsafe, you have no reason to be thinking about kindness because you are more concerned about survival and you will do anything, including mean and violent things, to survive. But when someone in your presence is exuding compassion and you feel completely safe, it’s much, much harder to be mean and hurtful.
There is magic in compassion. Exhibiting it transforms those around you. If you approach a person or situation with the intention of compassion, if you are ready to listen and empathize, if you are open and transparent and ready to give, then the person you are in relationship with will equally be transformed on the subtle energetic level and reciprocate.
In fact, it’s the energetic exchange that is the most magical and profound and also the least able to be explained or made sense of. Some of this magic comes from the faith we must have in the cosmos and a willingness to surrender to the mystery.
My theory on compassion being #1
I also have a theory about the Yamas. One of the many reasons why the Yoga Sutras are awesome is because they were written to be distributed to the masses. They were written as a distillation of the similar but varied and disparate yoga practices that existed at the time (thousands of years ago). It was perhaps Patanjali’s intent to codify and simplify the practices of yoga so that the layman could practice too. Throughout its history up until the point of the Sutras being written, Yoga was mostly a practice reserved for the elite. (For more information about the history of the Sutras, I suggest reading Georg Feuerstein’s The Yoga Tradition).
To bring the practices of yoga to the masses, Patanjali not only had the task of curating, synthesizing and distilling practices from many lineages but also he had to make them relevant to his audience — a group of people potentially unfamiliar with the ways of yoga and potentially without easy access to a teacher (hence the purpose of the Sutras in the first place).
The “masses,” or commonfolk, thousands of years ago may not have been as on board with the principles outlined in the Yamas that seem so common sense to us today. So while it seems obvious that we must practice compassion and it seems silly to read about how we shouldn’t kill each other, this was news to the masses and needed to be said. Remember, thousands of years ago the ancient Vedic tradition that yoga comes from included human sacrifices…
This better explains why the Yamas come first. I like to think of the Yamas as the pre-pre-work and the Niyamas as the pre-work. Once you begin asana, the work has begun. It’s like mastering anything. Take music for example. First you must learn to play the basic scales. Then you need to learn how to read music. Then the fun begins as you learn the nuances and details of performing a song and creating your own music. The same is true for writing. First you must learn to write the letters, then you must learn the grammatical rules that allow you to write sentences, and then you can start constructing a story.
Today the Yamas may seem a little outdated. It feels a bit obvious that we shouldn’t kill others. But back in the day it wasn’t so obvious, and the foundation had to be laid in order for the work to be beneficial.
At the same time, it’s easy to argue that we do still need to spend time looking at these foundational principles in our own life. While we understand the basic meaning, the more subtle, profound wisdom has yet to be revealed for many.
The compassion-in-action steps
- To bring the practice of compassion into your daily life try active listening. Jeffrey Davis, a fabulous inconspicuous yogi, suggests listening with your feet to stay grounded, present, and out of your head. Are you constantly thinking about what you’re going to say next in a conversation or are you fully listening to what the person in front of you is saying both in the form of words and in the form of body movements?
- Are you ready and open to experience vulnerability and discomfort? Are you willing to be present with discomfort? It is from this place of confidence in your Self where you can create strong boundaries and safe spaces for others to experience the same. The only way to practice this is to constantly put yourself in uncomfortable (but safe and supportive) situations where you can experience and reflect upon your discomfort.
- Are you present and aware with what’s going on around you or are you worrying about the past and anxious about the future? In all states of mind other then the present you are giving up space for presence with the individuals in front of you. Some of the practices you learn in yoga class will help you remain present, such as breathing and meditation.
- Do you try to understand all sides of a story? Are you putting yourself in the shoes of the person you’re in relationship with? Compassion builds from understanding and understanding requires you to set open your eyes, mind, and heart to different truths.
Do you have support to help you live and practice this yoga in a safe space? Join us over in The Yoga Life Facebook group to tap into a supportive group of people all walking the Path alongside you.
What are your favorite ways to practice compassion in your life? How do you bring this skill with you wherever you go? Is this even something you need to work on? Spend some time reflecting on compassion today and then make a pact with yourself to implement one of the action steps above today!
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