Books and Words that Inspire Me

August 12th

Yoga Sutras Book 2

47. Prayatna saithilyananta samapattibhyam

By lessening the natural tendency for restlessness and by meditating on the infinite, posture is mastered. IMG_2447

I was struck by two aspects of this sutra. Firstly, this sutra connects the physical practice of asana and stilling the mind. This is the genius of yoga, that an entire system of complex and interesting physical poses was created, with the sole purpose of stilling the mind. Most sports were created because they were fun, or a good challenge, or for competition’s sake, and while these are all great reasons to enjoy sport, yoga took the idea of using physical activity for another purpose.

When I first started to practice yoga, I was immediately interested in the feeling I took home after yoga class. I was practicing astanga-based yoga back then and liked the poses, or rather found them challenging and interesting enough. However, it was the feeling of calm and peace that I experienced after class that kept me coming back. I don’t think I was aware of the connection before I started, but I could not deny the results from the start.

Later, my boyfriend at the time who was not interested in practicing yoga, noted how it was interesting that yogis practice the poses in order to prepare for meditation. Indeed, the asana are not the main focus of yoga, but merely one of the eight limbs. For me, I didn’t even really know or care about meditation when I started yoga. I also found chanting weird and uncomfortable and didn’t see the connection with MY yoga practice. Perhaps it was just exposure, or perhaps the practice of yoga changed me slowly, but later I began to seek out yoga classes that included a meditative, spiritual aspect. My practice of yoga has been an evolution of my mental state; it has traced the transition from being a material and physical being, to one more aware of and interested in the spiritual aspects of life.

The other aspect of this sutra that I would like to discuss is the explanation of taking a vow and sticking to it to achieve union with the infinite. The two examples given of the King who is devoted to Lord Shiva, and Hindu wives who are devoted to their degenerate husbands are so foreign to our contemporary world, and my “open” mind which has been shaped by it. I can see the beauty, and the stillness, in the thought. I can understand that one who devotes their body, mind and soul to a vow, who possesses unwavering faith, will be assured bliss, no matter what the outcome is in this world. It is an acceptance of fate combined with absolute faith in the Universe to guide one’s soul. It is surrender, which sounds a little scary. I suppose I should not simply compare myself to 2000 year old standards, in the literal sense.

Maybe we need the modern version of these “vows”, that have evolved after millennia of human experience, and the development of psychology. I suppose it’s important to make intelligent vows, that are truly indicative of your goals. For example, “I vow to always be honest with my heart.”, “I vow to check-in with my husband and other family members daily.” What would be my vow, if I could only make one to live my life by?

August 5th

Yoga Sutras Book 1

30. Vyadhi styana samsaya pramadalasyavirati bhrantidarsanalabdha-bhumikatvanavasthitatvani cittaviksepaste’ntarayah.

Disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground and slipping from the ground gained- these distractions of the mind-stuff are the obstacles. IMG_2130

Many yogis say how the practice of yoga is a metaphor for life, with the life cycle, or how the problems that arise during our yoga practice – negative self-talk, getting distracted, laziness – are the same problems that we deal with off the mat. This sutra illustrates an even larger metaphor, because the obstacles to our yoga practice are the same obstacles that stand in the way of any goal or path. This sutra describes the universality of yoga, or rather that striving on a path. Yoga is simply one kind of path, which will be beset with obstacles, like any other path.

This concept is very depressing and at the same time very empowering. It names so many things from everyday life that stand in the way on our path to Samadhi, which seems like a noble goal. Because it is a noble goal, a ‘good’ goal, people may assume that the path should be easy. All one needs to do is decide that they want Samadhi, and the Heavens shall open to guide them with safe passage. However, as with anything worth doing, it will take some struggle to be able to appreciate the bliss that awaits. This sutra reminds us how hard it is to stay on that path, how we will be side-tracked and derailed over and over on our quest. However, we are told that this is normal, that we are not worse off that any other.  If we have faith that we are on a path, and we know what is awaiting us, then we will be able to find the strength to perservere. This reminder that we can achieve our goals, despite any and all setbacks, gives us the strength and hope to keep going.

The line in the commentary ‘We seem to need to be tested and challenged to know our own strength’ is particularly noteworthy. We somehow feel most confident when we are undergoing a test of that strength. For example, doing an arm balance makes me feel so strong and able, regardless of whether or not I do it really well. Or take for example, the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a marathon, or a masters’ thesis. Through these tests, we learn our true potential, feeding our confidence.

But I wonder, do I need to be tested? Is it ever possible to really know my own capabilities without being tested? Could a human be born so genuinely sure of their abilities, without ever experiencing obstacles, and be able to reach Samadhi?

My own personal story of an obstacle on the path illustrates this sutra well. I participated in a yoga training 9 months ago, and on my way I faced some major setbacks – a volcano erupted, causing the airport to be closed for 2 days, completely derailing my travel plans. At that point, I considered flying into a Jakarta and hiring a driver to drive all night, for 12 hours, to finally arrive on Bali. So determined was I to make it to that training. Ultimately, I spent two days and night in the airport, hoping that a plane would fly in the morning. There were moments when I did consider returning, when I questioned if these obstacles were put in place to force me to question my participation. Perhaps  I was not ready for it? Perhaps I had more work to do back at home? Ultimately, I realised that if had I decided to turn back, it would have proven that I was not ready for the training. Finally, I joined 2 days late, but felt truly transformed for having participated. It was a challenging 8 days, full of physical and mental pain, but I developed myself more in those 8 days than in a typical year. I saw the obstacles that lay on my way as tests, rather than annoying obstacles that become amusing stories. The interesting thing was how many of us were tested on our journey there – delays, accidents – and yet showed up, and really showed up.

This sutra reminds to be expect adversity, or rather not be surprised or discouraged by it. Each challenge, each roadblock along the path is an opportunity to come up with a creative way to overcome it, whether it be physical, mental, or emotional. And as the song lyric goes, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

July 13th, 2016


My favourite daily read of the moment, 1日5分の朝の『禅のことば』練習帳