I bought my first book on yoga philosophy, a translation of the yoga sutras of Patanjali How to Know God, around the time of my first yoga class back in 2000. At the time I was practicing kundalini and was longing to understand better why yoga left me feeling so good but also wanting to understand it better as an answer to my life outside of yoga. I was looking for some clear direction on what to do to know how to live my life because it felt like I was doing it wrong.
I got home and dug into my sutra book and was a mix of bored by it as much as I was perplexed by the promises of superhuman abilities in the later chapters. I set it aside and have never opened it since. I found the sutras dull and despite trying to get interested in them, my mind shut off when they came up in teacher trainings.
Then a couple years ago, I began studying with my teacher Joy Stone, who introduced me to a new way of understanding the sutras and yoga philosophy. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali codified yoga teachings through the centuries in pithy teachings. What drew me in to study with my teacher was how Joy made them applicable to my life and not in a pollyanna, life-is-only-good, way. In an interview about her workshop that led me to study with her, she defined the first sutra as essentially saying “no one is coming to save you.” The dark honesty of that, rather than a promise of never-ending bliss or superpowers, spoke to some deep part of me that felt its truth. The perspective shift that the sutras and yoga practice offer is in showing you that you are capable of your own rescue. And that you are the only one who can change your life.
Philosophy in Motion
Studying the sutras and philosophy with Joy changed my view of them, but mostly it gave me a better understanding of myself and the choices I make that, in the end, make up my life. Again and again, I return to what I’ve learned when I am struggling with something and again and again my studies turn me back to my practice, whether that’s asana or breath or meditation or a walk in the hills, to return me to a sense that beneath all my confusion and all the struggle, I am OK, I can do this. For most of my life, I believed the opposite.
I share this all for anyone who is also looking to learn more about yoga philosophy. In my upcoming workshop series, I’ll share what I’ve learned in my studies and pair them with yoga practices, which is how they make sense to me.
The sutras aren’t poetic like the stories of the Upanishads, they lack the drama of the Bhagavad Gita and the deep symbolism of the stories of the gods and goddesses. They were written sparingly, only what was necessary, and meant to be taught from teacher to student. There are many different translations and interpretations of their meaning and it changes over time as we ourselves change.¬†Out of the Upanishads, and the Gita and the Sutras, the practice of yoga, we are turned back to ourselves. Not that we control what happens in the world, but that we have power in how we choose to be in the world. That begins with setting intention, which is where we will begin this Sunday.
Come as your imperfect self where you are now and I will come as my imperfect self where I am now. We’ll go from there.