Yoga is the goal; Yoga is the path…

Yoga is the goal, Yoga is the pathIf you had asked me what yoga was after my first year of taking weekly classes, most likely I would have said it was doing special poses so you felt good, relaxed and stronger, and were healthier. Later, after I had started reading a little about yoga, I might have added something like, “finding your true self” (whatever that was).

Even though my understanding was very limited at that time, I was getting the idea of yoga – yoga meant we were achieving something and yoga was how we got there.

In the beginning of the most important text on yoga, The Yoga Sutra, we learn that the state of yoga is what is to be achieved. While the translations vary slightly, they are all about the quieting of the movements (vrittis) of the mind (chitta) so we can see ourselves and all our relationships, choices, and actions with absolute clarity. But this is not easy.

The mind is in motion most of the time, moving from thought to thought. This is true for all of us. Our attention may be totally focused on our yoga practice or a project or an instrument we are playing. Then we smell coffee or bread baking, the dog starts barking, a childhood memory pops up, or an unpleasant conversation is remembered, and our mind deserts our yoga practice, the project, or the music. It almost seems as if the mind’s job is rumination as it falls into it so naturally, making us feel anxious and a bit crazed when thoughts start racing like squirrels in the attic. Then the state of yoga is far off in the distance.

Yet, Patanjali, compiler of the Yoga Sutra does not leave us with this difficult goal of yoga, an unruly mind, and no directions. He gives us a path. And the path is the activity of yoga.

In the first sutra of the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali offers the path of kriya yoga. The three components of kriya yoga help us to deal with mental and emotional afflictions keeping us stuck and suffering, as well as helping us to arrive at the state of yoga.

  • The practice of postures and breathwork is often connected with the first component – tapas, or fire, heat, the goal of which is purification of our system to create positive change.
  • The second component is svadhyaya or self-observation. We practice svadhyaya as we observe ourselves in postures, pranayama, meditation, in relationships. We study major texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or other important works, using them as mirrors to gain clarity about who we are.
  • The third component of kriya yoga is isvara pranidhana, recognizing a power greater than ourselves to which we surrender the fruits of our actions.

Each of the practices comprising kriya yoga apply to the eight limbs of yoga, which Patanjali describes later in this chapter: ethical principles (yamas), attitudes toward ourselves (niyamas), postures (asana), breathing practices (pranayama), tuning out sensory input (pratyahara), concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), total and complete attention without sense of ego. This last is called samadhi, which is the state of yoga.

By applying tapas, svadhyaya, isvara pranidhana as we practice the tools given us in the eight limbs, we have a path. It is certainly not an easy or smooth path. But, it is a path, nevertheless, that with patient and consistent practice over time can quiet the movements of the mind so our vision becomes clear.


Surviving the Klesas

Yoga class imageMy last five blogs focused on the klesas or afflictions. Knowing what they are, being able to recognize them in our lives, and having tools to deal with them are key to a sense of peace in our lives. My certainty about this comes not just from the teachings I have received, but also from my own experience.

Recently, for example, two of the klesas, raga (attachment) and abhinivesa (fear), have created unhappiness in my own life. When I looked in the mirror, I expected to see myself as I looked 10 or even 20 years ago and felt a sense of disquietude as I tried making my outsides match my mental image of myself. Along with the attachment to a past reality, I experienced fear about the changes occurring as I aged. I kept having the feeling something was wrong. And, it was. What was wrong was the avidya (misapprehension) I was having about where I was in my life.

Yoga teaches that within each one of us there is something that does not change and has the ability to see clearly. This is called purusa or the seer. When our mind is clouded with erroneous thoughts and attitudes, that is, with avidya such as my misunderstanding of my stage of life, purusa cannot shine forth. We have no clarity, and so are prone to act in ways bringing about unhappiness or suffering.

The state of yoga is about coming to clarity so purusa shines forth and there is no avidya, asmita, raga, dvesa, or abhinivesa. Our practice of yoga helps us to develop awareness. With awareness we can recognize when the klesas are active. Then we can be extra vigilant and take action so they do not loom large, causing distress. The possibility of one of the klesas emerging is always within us. Our job is to be able to recognize them when they are acorns, so they don’t grow to be oaks.

In The Heart of Yoga, T.K.V. Desikachar maintains “the recognition and conquest of avidya and its effects is the only ladder by which we can climb upward.” He explains that we climb this ladder using the tools of kriya yoga – the yoga of action. Patanjali describes three aspects of kriya yoga in Yoga Sutra II.1.

The first is tapas, which comes from a Sanskrit word meaning “to heat” or “to cleanse.” We create this cleansing through the discipline of our yoga practice.

The second aspect of kriya yoga is svadhyaya or self-observation, self-study. Our work in a yoga practice can help us develop this skill as we constantly ask ourselves how our postures, our breath work, our chanting, visualization, and meditation are affecting us. We also can study important texts, such as the Yoga Sutra, the Bible, or Koran, that can offer us a mirror for ourselves. Through self-observation we come to know ourselves and see ourselves in our relationships.

Isvara pranidhana, the last aspect of kriya yoga – the yoga of action – focuses on the quality of our actions. We can never know for certain the outcome of any action we take. By focusing on the action itself, rather than the outcome, we have a better chance of being clear about what we are doing. Once we complete the action, then we must let go and observe the results.

In the case of my avidya regarding stage of life, I was fortunate that my yoga teacher helped me to see where I was stuck and offered a practice to help me move toward acceptance and a positive vision of what lay ahead.

The teachings in the Yoga Sutra on the klesas help us to understand and recognize the causes of much of our suffering. Our work with kriya yoga develops awareness so we can see the avidya causing our distress. Then, yoga offers many strategies so we may move away from the unhappiness avidya creates toward a clearer, more positive vision of life.


What Causes Suffering?
Part Five

The Path of the Yoga SutrasMy kids were 12 and 9 when we rented a rowboat at Burke Lake in Northern Virginia. The day was warm and sunny as I rowed us into the heart of the lake, the kids seated at opposite ends of the boat. My daughter sat sunning herself, and my son and I sat observing the sun on the water, the shoreline, and the other boats in the distance. I enjoyed the peacefulness of the day until my son started screaming and pointing at my legs and feet. Startled, I look down to see a snake slithering behind my legs on the seat where I sat.

No thought crossed my mind. Casting the oars aside, I stood and jumped overboard into the lake, yes, leaving my children in the boat with the snake. For me that was a fight or flight moment, and I chose flight. The response was automatic. I perceived the snake as an immediate threat to my well-being and

We come into this world with a deeply held survival mechanism. Even the greatest and wisest suffer from the fear of death, the fifth klesa, known as abhinivesa. Unlike raga and dvesa, which are about our relationships to what is outside of us, abhinivesa is an internal experience. TKV Desikachar describes abhinivesa in this way: “Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety about what is to come.” He also maintains this klesa is the most difficult to overcome.

If we think about Desikachar’s definition of abhinivesa, we can see that worry, anxiety, phobias, panic attacks resulft from fear about what will happen. It is fear of the unknown. The fight or flight response – that biological response to assure survival – then triggers a cascade of physiological responses in the body which create further stress. Whether our worry is about having enough food, eeling we cannot change an unpleasant or dangerous situation, or believing we are about to be bitten by a poisonous snake, all are about fear with its resulting physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral effects.

In the case of the snake in the boat, my response may have saved me from snakebite. Of course, if I had simply swum away leaving my kids in the boat with the snake, I would have caused a great deal of suffering. But, I didn’t. I climbed back in the rowboat and yelled for help. We all were rescued, and the snake restored to the lake.

We suffer when we feel fear, and the greater the attachment to what may be lost, the greater the fear and suffering. But Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra does not leave us without tools. In my next blogs, I will talk about some of these tools and how we might use them to support peace of mind.


What Causes Suffering?
Part Four

Image for 11.11.13 blogWhen I taught English Composition, students would come to me now and then to tell me they couldn’t write, or they hated writing. Their aversion to the course sometimes led them to avoid taking the class or dropping out or giving up, convinced they would fail no matter what. This decision had serious consequences. Without passing the required English classes, they could not receive an Associate Degree or transfer to a four year college.

Often these students had struggled in English class in high school. The difficulty they had experienced and the sense of failure they felt caused pain, anger, and frustration for them. Fearing a repetition of this same discomfort in college, they had an aversion to English class and writing.

If you recall the last blog on “What Causes Suffering”, you may remember that extreme desire for something – raga – cases suffering as we intensely wish to re-experience a previous enjoyed pleasurable experience.

Aversion, called dvesa in the Yoga Sutra, is the other side of this coin. When we are caught up with dvesa, we are trying to avoid an experience that had caused us discomfort or pain in the past. This makes sense in many ways as the fear acts a protective mechanism to keep us from emotional pain.

When we experience an event or trauma creating a strong emotional response, such as anger, resentment, disgust, or fear, our consciousness is negatively affected. It is imprinted, creating what is known as a samskara. That samskara leads us to react almost without thinking. So the student with the painful experience with high school English is not thinking about how his college English experience may help him to succeed, or the support he might find, or how he may be adversely affected by dropping out. He sees the experience of college English through the glasses of his previous experience and feels fear of another bout of pain and failure. Fear keeps him from seeing the reality and possibility of the present.

While primarily the student will feel the negative consequences of avoiding college English, dvesa can manifest in ways that have far-reaching consequences. Hatred and xenophobia are extreme manifestations of dvesa, serving as the source of some anti-social and violent behavior around us. Additionally, it is important to remember that hatred and xenophobia as aspects of dvesa are both fear-driven, resulting from previous suffering.

Developing our ability to observe ourselves, svadhyaya, can help us to identify when we are experiencing dvesa. Practicing self-observation, we can notice when a feeling of aversion arises and begin asking ourselves why we are feeling as we do? What in our past may be triggering the feelings? Asking ourselves these questions can create a space between the experience and an automatic negative response. In that space we may find freedom from the bonds of our samskara so we are able to choose how we might respond.