Yoga Sutra Conversations 1:32 "In order to prevent these obstacles from arising, you should habituate yourself to meditation upon a single principle."

So far in the Sutras we have been told that conscious awareness, or awareness of Being in the present moment,  is the key to yoga, or as I’m choosing to term it for this conversation: listening. The obstacles that precipitate during the process of yoga are things that scatter the mind and lead to suffering. We encounter suffering as the obstacles transmute.

One way to steady the mind is to repeat the sound of “Aum“, and Patanjali has told us that this actually makes the obstacles disappear. But there are two handles we can use to turn the mind: obstacles present as a result of former states of consciousness, and obstacles we create with our current state of consciousness.

Pema Chodron in one of her stunningly loving & peircing dharma talks (I can’t remember which or I’d tell you… it might be “Getting Unstuck”) refers to this process with the metaphor of a potter’s wheel. The turning of the wheel creates the pottery, and the turning is perpetuated by the motion of the potter. There is an inherent momentum which drives the wheel, but we can choose to kick it every so often to keep it going.

The obstacles, or causes of suffering, are a consequence of the container we form on the wheel. As long as the wheel, our mind, turns the container is being created. Some call this process karma. You can also call it ego. It has an inherent momentum, actions and reactions that grow from what it is, which in turn is a result of what we have done and been. We can mold it by kicking the wheel to keep it turning. Even if we’ve taken our hands off the clay – “Look ma! No hands!” – if we keep kicking the wheel we’re unwittingly creating our container. And unwitting doesn’t mean un-responsible. It just means we’re not paying attention.

So how do we keep from kicking the wheel, from encouraging the momentum of our habits? How do we keep from building onto our container? And how do we abide its dissolution when we still our minds? First, by remembering we are not any of our things, roles, thoughts or conditions. And we can support that present moment consciousness, in which we know we are not this or that, through meditation on a single principle. Is that the same as repetition on the sound of “Aum” or concentration on the breath? That all depends.

On the path, we don’t just awaken all at once, stop our vices, extricate ourselves from our histories, cease desiring all that we’ve built our facades around. Our hopes, dreams, pleasures and pains transmute. We don’t simply become non-attached from the whole world in a moment. In fact, I’d be mighty suspect of someone who claimed to do so. I don’t know about you, but there’s a very fine distinction in my life between attachment and joyful duty. In fact, I’d say I’m attached to my most joyful duties, my husband, my dogs, my practice and my patients. I’m downright in love with them. But that’s another post.

For now, it’s enough to say that as we ponder and navigate the meaning of non-attachment, of how not to muddy the river after the distractions have precipitated during a given days’ practice, steadiness is a virtue. Given that all objects arise from the same source, it doesn’t ultimately matter which you choose. What matters is the steadiness and clarity of your focus upon it.

Which is not to say that any and every image, feeling or idea is equivalent. Some objects aren’t conducive to steady concentration. Some objects foster the depression, frustration and dissipation we looked at in the previous sutra. So, for instance, focusing on being frustrated wouldn’t be particularly helpful. However, becoming aware of where you feel that in your body, what sensations arise for you in a moment you feel as frustration, that might be a practice that returns you to your present moment awareness. Or chanting “Aum”, or “One”, or picturing a waterfall or praying in your tradition… the possibilities are endless, but not unbounded.

In the end, I’m reminded of one of Kerouac’s “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose“: #5 Something that you feel will find its own form.

Yoga Sutra Intro..

Since we’re joining a conversation in progress, I thought I’d give you a cheap and dirty blow by blow of what’s been covered so far, like the beginning of a TV show. Patanjali begins Chapter 1 – or Samadhi Pada (on Being Absorbed in Spirit) – with the formulaic “Hatha Yoga Nusasanam”: Now yoga instruction. (btw: if you ever want to hear or learn the chanting of the Sutras, I recommend Sonja Nelson’s 4 CD set, guarunteed to plant the seeds in your soul).

I use Mukunda Stile’s translation because I like the gentleness and power of his poetry, but I reference four others: Sri Swami Satchindananda (his commentary bores through the distractions of my vascillating mind), Charles Johnston (very dualistic, but often a brilliant turn of phrase), Desikachar (because he’s Desikachar, mais non?!), Georg Feuerstein (see prior + historical interreference).

So, Now Yoga Instruction. Which I often think of re-arranged as “Yoga Instruction leads us to Now.” As in “The Now”, the ever present but never changing moment of consciousness. The very next sentence (or sutra: they’re arranged as sutras, or threads – aphorisms such as Wittgenstein and the Old Testament have used) tells us that yoga happens in the mind that listens, or Yoga Citta Vrtti Nirodaha: “Yoga is experienced in the mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.” Whoa. Yeah. But this is a montage for under the opening credits, so we’ll move on.

When the mind settles, the Self is revealed as the ever-present witness. The way to settle the mind is through practice and non-attachment. Knowledge is required because it guides what & how we practice and reminds us why attachment is distraction: the things we usually desire and go after are not the same as what we think we’ll get from them. If we actually pursue what we want our lives to embody, we might not go after some things that we like, but we will create something that encompasses them all the same.

One of the very practical things about the Sutras is that it introduces on level ground many methods of listening, or yoga. If you are depressed or distracted or sick or lethargic, Patanjali has a list of things you could try or consider. Such a plan is very modern, I think, acknowledging the diversity of our histories, places and conditions – even over the course of our own lives, let alone across people and countries.  (Fade out to opening scene for this episode: Relief of Suffering, not just for Buddhas any more….)

Yoga Sutra Conversations with Jenni & Kate

Picking up in the middle is the fate of all humanity. We always wake up, when we awaken, in the midst of a life, a breath, a sentence and the trick (which is the opposite of a trick) is to continue being awakened for whatever we find. Well, I’ve been blessed to awaken to a conversation among yoga teachers on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a foundational text for yoga practice in which Patanjali gives instruction and advice primarily on preparing your character & your mind for the transformation that yoga brings about. He wrote sometime between 2 centuries before the common era (200 BC or BCE) and 2 centuries after (AD OR CE).

The only thing he has to say about physical postures is that Yoga pose is steady and sweet, which is sometimes translated as comfortable. Like the Buddha, to whom he is sometimes compared, he emphasized the importance of preparing ourselves through reflection on our everyday life & actions & gave really practical suggestions and encouragement on how to sweep away the obstacles to clarity, discipline & enlightenment. He even tells us that we can change the world in contemplating our own heart’s true light… but more on that in a later post 🙂

Please meet Jenni & Kate, if you haven’t already. You’ll be glad you made their acquaintances 🙂 Kate is a yoga teacher in the ViniYoga tradition who teaches and practices in New Brunswick, Canada. We also share our careers & histories in Emergency Services – she dispatches for Emergency Services in her area. Jenni is also a ViniYoga teacher who practices and teaches in Denmark. Every weekend we’ll each post a reflection on the Sutra, working our way through all four books. I’m excited & priviledged to part of this beautiful experiment!