Three Yoga Sutras for Trying Times

yoga sutra May 30, 2020

 The last few months have been difficult for so many people in so many ways. I’ve received a lot of questions from students over the past two months about maintaining a home practice, dealing with negative thoughts, and coping with isolation at home, as well as frustration with the world at large.

I try to teach with Yoga Sutras when I can, because they’re authoritative and timeless. Even though the sutras are two-thousand years old, they provide a map of the mind and the consciousness and give a greater context to our practice.

That’s why I want to attempt to discuss three that I think are very relevant right now.

YS 1.20 śraddhā-vīrya-smṛti-samādhi-prajñā-pūrvaka itareṣām

Some people are lucky and samadhi happens naturally. The rest of us need to help this practice along by relying on certain techniques:

Sraddhā - Faith in what we are doing, conviction, embodied trust.

Vīrya - Enthusiasm, energy, vitality, strength.

Smṛti - Memory. More specifically, the kind of memory that helps us grow. Learning from our mistakes and learning from our successes.

These virtues - faith, enthusiasm, and memory - will assist us in our quest for citta vritti nirodhah. These virtues will help us persist when obstacles attempt to derail us from our practice. If you are struggling to practice because of doubt, boredom, lack of motivation, or any other obstacle (Patanjali lists the obstacles to practice in YS 1.30), then dig deep and try to elevate your faith in the process, enthusiasm for practice, and memory of how you feel when you finish practice (or how you feel when you skip practice).

YS 1.33  maitrī-karunā-muditopekṣāṇāṃ sukha-duḥkha-puṇyapuṇya viṣayaṇaṃ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam

This yoga sutra presents us with two corresponding lists. In the first list, there are four attitudes one can cultivate: friendship, compassion, joy, and equanimity. The second list is four situations we might find another person in: happiness, pain, virtue, and non-virtue.

Patanjali suggests that when we meet someone who is happy, the appropriate response is friendship; when someone is suffering, the appropriate response is compassion; when we meet someone who is on the dharmic path, the appropriate response is joy; when we meet someone who is non-virtuous or negative, the appropriate response is to meet that person with indifference. If we cultivate these same qualities and attitudes when faced with situations, we will stop our citta vrittis.

This sutra is important not only for what it teaches us, but also because it discusses the yoga practitioner’s relationship to other people. It suggests that relationships are important to our spiritual development. This sutra gives us suggestions as to how to act in the world with other people, way beyond the limitation of a mat or a yoga cushion. Right now is a hard time for a lot of people - this sutra gives us a guideline for how to interact with other people, and to instinctively know how to meet them where they’re at.

Y.S. 2.33 vitarka-bādhane pratipakṣa-bhāvanam

When one is harassed by negative thought, one should cultivate the opposite thought.

Fed up with the current situation? Cultivate the opposite thought - think about the situation as an opportunity for something new to arise. Think wearing a mask is annoying? Cultivate the opposite thought - think about how glad you are to be able to keep yourself and others safe, and appreciate the fresh air when you get the chance to breathe it. Having self-sabotaging thoughts about practice? Cultivate the opposite thought - think about how you’ll feel that much more satisfied in your practice because you overcame those qualms.

The more a thought pattern recurs, the deeper a groove it makes in the mind. Thoughts become patterns, and patterns become habits, and habits become personality. The next time you feel yourself getting frustrated, sad, or scared, try to change the pattern in your mind by thinking the opposite.

Oh, and I decided to throw in one more sutra to end the list on a high note.

Y.S. 2.42 santoṣād anuttamaḥ sukh-lābhaḥ

Happiness is obtainable - even right now. The sutras teach us that happiness does not depend on external objects, but rather it comes naturally when the mind is content.

All things are within you. All the negativity you’re capable of experiencing, but also all the positivity and happiness and serenity you’ve ever known. Carry this with you, meet others where they’re at, and do your best. And, as always, just keep going.


Second Series for All Virtual Workshop June 20th. Save your spot now.

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