At the beginning of this year, I decided to start sharing some yoga philosophy in every class I taught. Using the Yoga Sutras as a teaching tool has proven to be popular with students.
It has also helped me better understand the Yoga Sutras and challenged me to make the sutras applicable to our modern day asana-focused yoga practice.
Considerations: To share or not to share
When first considering whether or not I wanted to start sharing yoga philosophy in class, I was confronted with the idea that the Yoga Sutras actually aren’t that applicable to modern day life.
Some yogis these days argue that philosophical texts like the Bhagavad Gita are much more relevant because they are written explicitly for the “householder,” or one who lives in the world. Scholars suggest the Yoga Sutras were written for those wishing to choose the ascetic, priestly life; therefore, many of the practices outlined are inherently un-useful to someone who wishes to live in this world.
Acknowledging this argument, I still felt I wanted to share the knowledge of the Yoga Sutras through a modern lens. I strongly believe that yoga must continue to evolve as our modern society evolves. I find it’s more useful to re-interpret and discuss the Yoga Sutras in a modern context, even if we find them to be ultimately irrelevant, then to ignore them altogether.
The next consideration I faced was the fact that the Yoga Sutras are essentially philosophy. How to teach yoga philosophy in an asana-focused class, where most people are coming to class with the expectation, at least in the studio environments I teach in, to flow quickly and get a good workout? Yoga philosophy and fitness don’t always make the best match.
Some fellow teachers suggested I start sharing sutras from the second chapter since the second chapter is generally agreed to be the most accessible of the 4 chapters of the Yoga Sutras. As a bit of a purist, I wanted to start from the beginning and see how it goes.
That meant I had to come face to face with some pretty esoteric concepts and decide not only how I wanted to share these concepts with a classroom full of people paying for Downdogs and Chatarungas, but also how to make it relevant to the very asana practice I was delivering. To teach the concepts without offering up a direct experience of those concepts is, in my mind, a cop-out, and a total failure at the stated goal of making the Yoga Sutras relevant to the modern-day practitioner.
Out of the studio into the world
So, I started from the beginning. Some days are better then others. Some sutras are easier to teach and make relevant then others. But we can’t be perfect every day and I’m doing the best I can with the knowledge I have.
I continue to learn as I go along. In this journey, I have watched my students enjoy their practice more, find more peace, steadiness, and ease in their practice, feel better after their practice and keep coming back for more eager to learn. I’ve also had students who could care less, and that’s fine too.
Because not all my students can attend class every week, I promised to share these yoga philosophy teachings online so students can contemplate further and take yoga practice “off the mat.”
Yoga Sutra 1.1
Today, we begin with the first sutra.
In my experience, considering multiple translations has been helpful in coming to a more complete understanding. I’ll share some of my favorite translations and then offer my own commentary.
And now, the teaching on yoga begins. (Shearer)
Now that one is ready, the teachings of yoga will be shared (Ovissi & Alexander)
Now, after having done prior preparation through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins. (Jnaneshvara)
Here begins the authoritative instruction on Yoga. (Desikachar)
Now, the exposition of Yoga is being made. (Satchidananda)
Now Yoga is explained. (Vivekananada)
Commentary: a blessing
First, the word Now shows up in most translations. It stems from the Sanskrit word Atha. It is important to remember that one Sanskrit word can have many different meanings and connotations. In this regard, context is always important. Desikachar explains, “…atha carries the connotation of a prayer, both for an auspicious beginning and a successful conclusion to the work that follows.” (The Heart of Yoga 149)
In this understanding of the word, the first sutra becomes more then just the first sentence of a philosophical work. It’s a blessing to, for, and by the student. Traditionally, yoga was an oral tradition, so anyone learning the Yoga Sutras would have had to memorize all of the sutras in chant form. The very first sutra you recite then, is a blessing. A blessing for learning, experiencing, practicing, and sharing. In this way, the practice of yoga is inherently a spiritual practice.
Remember, spiritual does not mean religious.
Yoga philosophy is not for everyone
Next, I want to talk a little bit about the translations that presuppose some type of knowledge prior to starting the practice as if there is some prerequisite to learning yoga. This is a controversial opinion because it brings up the question of whether or not yoga is for everyone. In the business interest of the yoga industry it’s important that yoga is made accessible for everyone no matter your condition because it’s essential more and more people start practicing yoga to sustain business and industry growth.
Outside of the business interest though, there is some philosophical foundation for the argument that yoga is not for everyone. This is not to say that there are some people that should never practice yoga, and this argument shouldn’t be used as convenient excuse for those who just dislike yoga.
It’s important to note here that when I say yoga, I don’t just mean the practice of postures on a mat in a studio wearing tight, expensive pants. Part of the challenge in teaching the Yoga Sutras in an asana-based yoga practice is the fact that the word asana is only referenced 3 times in the entirety of the text! Yoga is not asana, at least in the context of the Yoga Sutras. Yoga asana may be for everyone (although there is an entire argument for why that is not true either, but we’ll save that one for another post on another day), but the earnest study, understanding, and practice of yoga in it’s entirety does require commitment.
Another reading of the first sutra might look something like this: Now that you’ve lived life a little and have some experience in the world and have some questions and are scratching your head a bit and feel a a little confused and are quite sure this is the path you want to explore even though you can’t possibly know what you’re really getting yourself into, now we can start teaching you some yoga and it may or may not make any sense to you.
There is an inherent presupposition that you are ready to commit to the path ahead, even when it gets tough. No crapping out. You’re in this now. If you’re not ready to make that commitment, come back tomorrow when you’re ready to dive in head-first.
A reminder to be present
Finally, what I love about this first sutra is that it reminds us of the importance of the present moment. Now means right now. This sutra can be recited at any moment in your life and it will always be true and relevant. The teaching of yoga is always just beginning. Once you are enlightened there is no more learning to be had. Until then, we are always learning (or unlearning). What better way to stay present then to remind yourself in every moment that the teaching of yoga is just beginning!
The practical application of this sutra in asana practice is to continuously return to present-moment awareness. Now, in Child’s Pose, the teaching of yoga begins. What can yoga teach you in each and every posture, in every breath? In practicing asana with present-moment awareness, we practice the philosophical teachings of yoga.
My challenge to yoga teachers: teach yoga
I’ve said it before on this blog and I will continue to say it until I leave this human form.
I am not an exercise instructor.
I’ve never wanted to be an exercise instructor. It’s been hard for me at times to reconcile how fitness-focused yoga asana has become, even though my initial attraction to the practice was a physical one and my first training was in a heated, power vinyasa modality. At the same time yoga provided exercise, it also provided stress-relief, a sense of peace and calm, a community, inquiry into my own body and mind, and a connection to something unknown but powerful. In that way, yoga was so much more then physical exercise.
I take pride in being able to deliver asana-based classes that challenge my students physically, but it’s important to me that my students are challenged mentally too. If yoga is a mind-body practice, the mind must be just as present in class as the body. As teachers of yoga, we can go further in implementing the mind component then just reminding students to breathe and reading an inspirational quote. There are entire traditions and hundreds of classical texts that offer up ideas for how to challenge the mind. It’s up to us yoga teachers to make that relevant to our students today.
So, are you ready to learn the teachings of yoga?