Patanjali's Yoga Sutras

By Ajita Diamond

Yoga is sitting in the sun early in the morning soaking in the warmth and life-giving energy.

Yoga is watching the rain and listening to its tip-tapping on the leaves and roof tops.

Yoga is singing, dancing, working, walking, running, playing, laughing, eating…

​The practice of yoga can present many challenges; the first one is probably lack of flexibility, and it's quite apparent that the goal of yoga is to achieve physical flexibility. However, Patanjali's Yoga Sutras aim at not just physical flexibility - the ability to contort one's body every which way – but also mental, emotional, and spiritual flexibility.

What is “Spiritual Flexibility”?

I was born into a family of mixed cultures. My mother was of Pnar-Khasi parentage and a member of the Presbyterian Church. My father was a Manipuri who came from a family of Krishna devotees and Sanskrit scholars. I grew up in a little hamlet in Shillong, where the population represented an interesting religious and cultural melting pot. I had a ringside view of the various religious practices of the unconverted Pnar and Khasi people, the festivals and the blood sacrifices performed either to ward off plagues and epidemics or cure someone of an ailment. Holi, Id, Bihu, Shad Suk Mynsien, Beh Dieng Khlam, Durga Pooja, DiwaIi, Shad Nongkrem or Ka Pom Blang and Christmas…were observed and celebrated with equal respect and enthusiasm.

 

Baptism and Protesting Protestant!

To top it all I went to a Catholic school run by Irish nuns and simply fell in love with the rituals of the Catholic Church. To my parents’ alarm I declared at the age of ten that I wanted to become a Catholic. Well, my mother told me I could follow any religion I wanted as long as I waited until I was sixteen. Eventually, after my matriculation, following my cousin brother’s advice I was baptized in my mother’s Presbyterian Church, but I was not happy so began calling myself a "protesting protestant."

Atheism and Modern-Day Prophets

Then I fell in love with an atheist whose understanding of Jesus’ teachings was so profound that I had difficulty in believing his claims of atheism. During this time I was studying at the Yoga Institute, Santa Cruz (East) Mumbai. The course included the study of religious leaders, prophets, and mystics. The life of Jesus was a part of this study, and thus began my journey back to Jesus and my Church. Last year I came across Sadhguru and Joyce Meyer.

I love Sadhguru’s view of life, humanity, the purpose of yoga, deep belly laugh, and sense of humor.

 

I love Joyce Meyer. She has made a great difference to my way of thinking, my understanding of the Bible,

and my practice of being a Christian. All I have to do is love.

 

Spiritual flexibility is an integral part of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. It is this flexibility - practiced through the centuries - that gives Indian culture the ability to assimilate different religious thoughts and beliefs. So, for me too, this flexibility is about staying grounded in my faith and accepting and allowing all the people around me to practice what they believe. At the end of the day, my kindness, goodness and humanity is what matters. In this context, spiritual flexibility has the following traits:

 

Flexibility means...
  • Humility or the ability to overcome my pride, ego, and opinions

  • Acceptance of different perspectives, different ways of doing things

  • Surrender -  and the fact that letting go - exhibits strength not weakness

  • Ability to learn - a child-like curiosity and eagerness to learn something new points to a flexible mind.

 

I remember one classmate at my yoga institute proclaiming how she couldn't change her food habits. Our teacher went out into the garden brought back a dry stick and asked my classmate to come to the front of the class. “Bend this stick,” our teacher said to my classmate handing the stick to her. She did and the stick broke immediately. “You see,” the teacher said, “when we are no longer able to accept or learn new ideas it means we are as dry as this stick.” It was such a novel way of explaining a mind that was dead: a mind that had stopped growing, learning, and had lost its flexibility. Therefore, flexibility means many things in a righteous, divine manner. My favorite example of flexibility is that of the lotus stalk.

 

The Lotus Stalk

Growing beneath the surface of the water, the lotus stalk is slim yet strong and resilient. It moves this way and that when winds and water currents disturb the lotus beds. It accommodates the fish that swim in, around, and through the lotus beds. With great humility and generosity it raises the flower up above the water for the whole world to admire. True beauty in a person is compared to the lotus stalk. It is a person who is flexible, strong, dependable, generous, forgiving, humble, and empowering. As a woman in her mid-fifties, in spite of my yoga background, I had become quite rigid about my world view: what kind of wife, mother, friend, I am and how people should behave. As a housewife my world had shrunk considerably and I eventually became a giant pain in the house for my wonderful kids and handsome hubby. Now the children no longer need my constant attention, it is time I went back to looking after myself. I want to become as beautiful as that lotus stalk as possible.

 

The Eightfold Path

Patanjali's Yoga Sutras elaborate upon the asanas which are a rather healthy away of exercising. Anybody at any age can do the asanas and will find them quite soothing. Yoga however is not only about asanas. While asanas help us to attain a level of physical fitness which will enable us to achieve physical health, we also need the Yamas and Niyamas. In order to do this, all the ancient practices of yoga were collected into one treatise by the sage Patanjali and it came to be known as Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

 

There are 8 stages in Raja Yoga also called Ashtanga Yoga or the Eightfold Path. Here, we need to mention that the distinction between Kriya Yoga and Raja Yoga is not subtle: the former is more dynamic while the latter is more intellectual. Both make use of asanas (yoga postures), kriyas, bandhas, mudras, shatkriyas, and the like but Raja Yoga advocates involving the mind in these physical body exercises. Thus, Raja Yoga Meditation manages to achieve more than any other yoga practice. The 8 stages are as follows:

 

I. Yamas

What are Yamas? It will be obvious from the following:

1. Ahimsa (Non-Violence): Physical violence makes us degenerate into the animal world. Harboring violent thoughts is no better. Violence is the last resort of the freeze, flee, fight instinct and therefore one has to avoid it. This does not mean you should tolerate injustice or ot defend yourself. If you have no choice and have to get physical, then do so without any hatred. That is what Krishna asked Arjuna to do in the Mahabharata.

2. Satya (Truth): Honesty is the best policy! There are no white lies here! And there are no half-truths! This Yama also extends to seeking the truth.

3. Asteya (Non-Stealing): Don't steal because you are worried about getting caught but because you know for yourself that it is wrong.

4. Brahmacharya (Abstinence from Sex): Some people take this to extremes and you can see this even in other religions where people of the Holy Orders abstain from sex all their life. This is NOT Brahmacharya! This Yama is meant to simply inform you that if you overdo it, you may get bored! That's all! So don't believe rubbish that says you need to divert your sexual energy into something higher. Let's not forget that tantric sex or Vama Marga advocate many forms of sexual practices to achieve liberation.

5. Aparigraha (Detachment): One can get pathologically attached to material things, ideas, and other people. This Yama simply warns against it. If losing something or someone makes you want to kill yourself, then this Yama is for you. However, you also need to seek professional help!

 

II. Niyamas

Personal routines help save time on a daily basis. Once again, the following are self-explanatory:

1. Shaucha (Cleanliness)

2. Santosha (Satisfaction)

3. Tapas (Austerity) - Don't overdo it!

4. Swadhyaya (Introspection) - Have awareness of your own mind!

5. Ishwara Pranidhana (Surrender) - There is tremendous misinterpretation regarding this Niyama. This does not refer to surrendering to God but to a higher form of yourself. Consider what Christopher Wallis states in Tantra Illuminated:

 

TATTVA #4: THE LORD (Īśvara)

This is the level of the personal God, God as a being with specific qualities, that is, the Deity that can be named in various languages (whether the name be Krishna, Allah, Avalokitesvara, YHWH, etc.) This is the level of reality that most monotheistic religions presume to be the highest.

Isvara is a generic, nonsectarian term for God (also found in Patanjali's Yoga-sutra).

...

In Saiva Tantra, it is not only God who exists at this level; so do any beings who have reached that same awareness. Thus the difference between Isvara and other beings abiding at tattva #4 is one of office, not of nature.

 

When god becomes a synonym for every higher ideal, then it takes away the true meaning of words like Ishwara Pranidhana. Thus, this Niyama really means surrender to one's own higher consciousness. Please note that this Isvara/Ishwara (God) is still 3 levels below than what we can really be!

 

III. Asanas

Yogic postures and exercises help create a flexibility in our body and "tune" it for meditation. One should never practice pranayama without first doing the asanas, and one should never meditate without doing pranayama.

 

IV. Pranayama

This is often understood as breath control or breathing exercises. However, one should not think of the breath simply as air but as energy or life-force. Prana means life, so controling the prana is the basic idea behind any form of Pranayama. It also helps the Yogi to concentrate during the the initial stages of meditation.

 

V. Pratyahara

This refers to a "withdrawal of senses" wherein we are not always - compulsively or normally - engaged in our five senses. It's almost as if we're saying to ourselves, "There is more to life than what is experienced through our senses."

Practicing this kind of withdrawal is easy through meditation and also facilitates more advanced forms of meditation. It enables comprehension of our true nature by increasing introspection.

 

VI. Dharana

If the body has been primed by asanas and pranayamas, then focus or concentration (dharana) will come easily. There will be no physical disturbance as you maintain your posture and keep still. There will be no distractions from thoughts and memories. And you will be able to maintain focus on a singular idea or image for as long as you please. It's not unusual to get into a trance in such situations.

Sometimes Dharana can be achieved spontaneously when you're watching an interesting movie or reading an interesting book. This is meditation in action!

VII. Dhyana

Dhyana is the natural consequence of Dharana. This is when your contemplative state turns into a meditative state. From a neurobiological standpoint, one can say that more and more neurons are firing on a single idea or the object of concentration. One is no longer distracted - not even by one's own thoughts!

 

VIII. Samadhi

Samadhi is the zenith of Dhyana and it's not something that you achieve only when you die after practicing a yogic life. As a climax of your meditation exercise, it can be achieved over and over again leading to Ananda (loosely translated as "happiness"). However, one needs to understand the levels within this stage. They are follows:

 

1. Consciousness of the Object as object (Observer and Object)

2. Consciousness of the Essence of the Object (Observer and essence of the object)

3. Observer observing himself/herself (Being aware of oneself as having an experience)

4. Complete identification with the experience (No separation between, object, observer, and the act of observation)

 

Consider this example:

1. I see a four-legged, wooden thing.

2. I recognize it as a chair.

3. I think of myself using it.

 

Till now it is simple.

  • But if I want to use the chair as a weapon, will I stop to ponder whether the essence of the chair is also it's function?

  • A cushion serves the same purpose, but it's not 4-legged or wooden, so what is the essence of a thing?

  • Is the essence manifest in form or in function?

  • When I sit on the chair, do I become a part of it or does the chair become an extension of my body?

 

For the last question, replace chair with a car and it will become clear that our awareness has extended to the car to such an extent that we easily maneuver it while driving without hitting things or people. A meditation practice can be analytical in this manner. And the quest for answers is not in the answers themselves but in enjoying the contentment that such meditative analyses provide. Well, I definitely need a lot of peace and joy, and, as I pick up the practice of yoga again, I will continue to share the steps with you.