Upon opening the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the very first statement we read is: Now the teachings of yoga. Like many sutras, there is more than meets the eye here. A sutra is a succinct statement or aphorism that was deliberately created to be short so that it may be easily memorized and so that its meaning might be dissected through study, reflection, and chanting. Much like a bullet point in a lecture, the sutra itself is the tip of the iceberg of a larger point being made. Sutras are a lot like poetry; there is a lot packed into a limited space. As a result, every word is intentional–every word matters. The brevity of each sutra is purposefully done to facilitate unpacking this meaning.
When the Yoga Sutras were first written down (prior to being written down they were part of a rich oral tradition), many other philosophical texts already existed. As a means to clearly differentiate the subject of a particular text, it was common for treatises like the Yoga Sutras to open with a definitive statement that addressed the topic at hand. In this case, we are dealing with the subject of yoga.
Yoga, as I mentioned in the opening article of this series, is a word that etymologically most resembles our English word for to “yoke.” As such, the subject of what we are about to delve into is the yoking/joining/uniting. This begs the question: What then is apart/disjointed/separate?
This is where the philosophy becomes relevant and tangible. The sensation of precariousness in modern life is clearly evident. Both national and international news are filled with stories of pain, anger, and anguish. In my own social circles I’ve heard many voice fear and anxiety about recent events that seem to highlight the darker aspects of the human condition. Even the very basis of our political structure––a two-party system––is demonstrative of precisely what the sutras are referring to here: separation. Said simply, we all tend to abide in a space of separateness, and this is true on many levels. The degree of separation we experience within ourselves is then reflected by our actions and behavior. As a result, the state of separation on a large scale is most obvious in the current social upheaval––the internal reflects externally, or as the aphorism goes: As within, so without. This means, necessarily, that the greater social suffering we are experiencing is only possible as a result of smaller, more personal suffering or separation. We are, after all, a part of a greater canopy, a stitch on a larger quilt of humanity, and our actions as well as our internal states have an effect on the whole quilt. There is a deep and relevant truth here and we can see it clearly when we take a look at any of the perpetrators of recent tragedies--their actions, which affected many, many people, were all based on one fundamental and ultimately flawed assumption: separation. We cannot hate or attack that which is united, that which is ourselves; we can only harm that which we believe is different from us, that which we believe is separate. The recent tragedies we’re seeing are a result of the separation mindset.
The Yoga Sutras, then, are a text about the space within our consciousness which we are all very familiar with, and how to yoke, unite, and bring it back together. Or, more accurately, how to recognize the falsehood of separation. As such, the wisdom and techniques presented by the yogic wisdom are not a religious or prescriptive code to follow blindly, but rather a guide into ourselves, our experience, and our consciousness. In using them, we aim to create real, palpable change, and live more cohesive lives, so that our experience of the world is more united, and less separate. As a result, we create bonds instead of weapons; we heal, instead of harm.
The Sutras, as a manual of self-knowledge made of an organized system of techniques, gives us the first clue into creating that unity in the most simple of places––the first word of the first sutra, “now.” The first place where separation seeps in is in the here and now; our first line of disconnection is in the present. We live in a world of texting-while-doing just about anything. We reach for our smartphones the second we feel bored. We are rarely whole-mindedly, whole-bodily, wholeheartedly here for ourselves or for each other.
The first homework of the Yoga Sutras in the very opening line is simple: practice presence now. This begins by noticing our degree of presence at any given moment. Notice the times you are tempted to reach for a phone when you are engaging in another activity. Notice the times when you are tempted to disconnect from a conversation mentally. If we can commit to deepening our presence even slightly, we are committing to taking the first step into the realization of a deeper existential truth we will continue to explore––the truth of our underlying unity.