02 Jan The Traditional Beginning of Practice
Inspired by the start of the year, I’d like to share with you the beginning of the chapter on practice, Sadhana Pada, of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
What are the Yoga Sutras?
As a brief introduction, the Yoga Sutras are a Sanskrit text dating back about 1,500 years that represent the first time Yoga was systematized and written down. The practice of Yoga had been in existence for thousands of years, passed down orally from teacher to student, before Patanjali wrote the Sutras. Patanjali gathered, organized, and codified all the existing information about Yoga. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is one of the primary foundational texts many students of Yoga study in their practice.
Sadhana Pada is the second chapter in the Yoga Sutras, and the one most relevant to a beginning student. It’s written for those that cannot easily control the mind, for those whose minds are oriented externally towards the world around them, towards desire and sense gratification, and for those that do not find it easy to turn the mind inwards in quiet meditation. Sadhana Pada begins by telling us of kriya-yoga, or the Yoga of action. Remember, Yoga is a spiritual practice.
Translated: Kriya-yoga, the path of action, consists of self-discipline (tapas), study (svadhyaya), and dedication to the Supreme Being (Isvara pranidhana).
Tapas, or self-discipline, can be understood as mindful self-control. Reigning in the desires of the senses and pleasure seeking in order to focus action on uplifting and beneficial practice. Tapas is about accepting pain as purification. Pain that comes from early mornings waking to take care of your body and mind instead of spending another hour in the coziness of a warm bed. Pain that comes from interactions with others and the discipline it requires to remain equanimous, to not cause pain back in return. To put it in modern parlance, the pain of FOMO when you turn towards a choice that supports your spiritual goals rather than your temporary satisfaction. These pains burn off physical and mental afflictions that cause turmoil and chaos in the mind. Yoga is all about calming the mind.
Svadhyaya, or Self-study, means to study spiritual texts. Beyond a psychological understanding of the self, svadhyaha is about seeking the spiritual Self. Self with a capital ‘S’. Whether your text is the Yoga Sutras, or the Bible or Quran, or the Tao Te Ching or any other foundational source of spiritual practice, svadhyaya is about returning to these words again and again, seeking to understand them deeper every time. Svadhyaya also includes learning from qualified spiritual teachers, reading traditional commentaries on the texts, and all the efforts made to deeply understand what is said about the nature of the true Self. Svadhyaya helps uplift and inspire the mind to continue with tapas and remain fixed on the spiritual path.
Isvara pranidhana, or dedication to the Supreme Being, means to take all action in service to something larger than yourself, be it God or humanity or the well-being of the Earth. We’re told that action done out of self-interest, even positive action, bears fruits of karma and attachment, binding us to the painful cycles and worked up minds that we are practicing to purify, settle, and transcend. Isvara pranidhana is about doing your work and surrendering the outcome, about remembering it’s not about what you receive in return. It’s about dedicating all your efforts to something greater than yourself.
Context is important, regardless of your beliefs
Whether your personal Yoga practice is aimed towards spiritual development or not, it’s important to understand the context of this ancient discipline that brings all of us Yoga practitioners some sense of well-being and peace. I share this context in gratitude to the ancient sages and Yogis that developed this practice that seems to essentially work, helping us towards our goals, regardless of personal belief or initial intention. And I end this blog post in gratitude to you for practicing your Yoga. Regardless of why you do it, the practice unites us with our Selves and with each other.
Yoga Sutra translation recommendations
For those of you that want to dig deeper, I primarily use two translations of the Yoga Sutras in my studies. For a more academic, deeper dive into context and traditional commentaries, I use Edwin Bryant’s translation. For a more accessible, often more inspiring experience, I use Sri Swami Satchidananda’s translation.
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