four locks and keys

Four Locks and Keys

I wonder if you’ve noticed any differences in your life from before you were practicing yoga to now. Has your practice changed things for you in any way? Does it show up for you outside of the time you spend on your mat? 

Is Yoga a Personal Practice?

I often hear it said that yoga is an individual practice. In many ways, this is true. Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self. However, that’s not all yoga is. Yoga is also a practice that prepares us to show up in the world in self-controlled, compassionate, and prosocial ways.  

Four Locks and Keys

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali give us four locks and keys to this end. Sutra I.33 reads: 

By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind. 

What is the guidance here? 

  • When people are happy, be friendly toward them. 
  • When people are in distress, be compassionate toward them.  
  • When people act morally (virtuous), be joyful toward them.  
  • When people act poorly (nonvirtuous), have equanimity toward them.  



  • For a clear mind. A lucid mind.  


How many of your worrisome ruminations might be cleared up by practicing this sutra? 

Let’s think about it.

Friendship toward those who are happy

Starting with the first one, what does an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy really mean? Consider the opposite response: jealousy. A friend has some success and that makes you feel worse about yourself. Their happiness is like a heavy weight reminding you of all you don’t have. These thoughts surely clutter the mind and bring more remorse than clarity. What to do? Be friendly toward them instead.  

Compassion toward those in distress

Let’s stick with the opposite game. What’s the opposite of compassion toward those in distress? Contempt, perhaps. Blame. Lack of concern. Mind muddiers, to be sure. The guidance embedded in this lock and key is to have empathy. To feel alongside the person who is suffering, to wish to unburden them just as you’d wish to unburden yourself.  

Joy toward those who are virtuous

Joy toward those who are virtuous, what’s the opposite of this? Pretend that you’re working on giving up gossiping and some old friends stop by for a visit. They get to talking about so-and-so and you stop them to say you’d rather not whisper. They look at you, roll their eyes, and generally act annoyed and put out by your holier-than-thou attitude. Or, they act joyful. They take great pleasure in your ethical stance, and consider perhaps trying the same. Lucidity of mind can be catching.

Equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous

Finally, we’re told to have equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous. Equanimity meaning evenness of temper. The opposite might be ire, a real desire to give a piece of your mind to that person acting so ugly. There’s a German word, schadenfreude, that defines the opposite of “equanimity toward the nonvirtuous” well.

From Wikipedia, schadenfreude is the experience of pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction that comes from learning of or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliations of another. I can imagine this to be common in our polarized political and public health reality today. I can’t imagine this leading to a clear mental state, which is where our yoga is meant to bring us. To find more clarity, this key is to act with calm composure, with equanimity. 

In Practice for the Greater Good

Yoga is a practice ultimately for the mind. A still, calm, and focused mind can invent solutions, deepen connections, support communities, and make choices that benefit ourselves and our world in the long-term.

We need clarity of mind for our own wellbeing and for that of those around us for generations to come. Perhaps the four locks and keys can help guide us toward that end.  

I hope to see you in class on Zoom this week!