In my advanced practice that I lead twice weekly, we have taken on the study of the Yogasutra of Patanjali. Each class, we discuss a sutra, pondering it, turning it over, contemplating it, dismantling it, and putting it back together in different ways. We look at it also through a Tantric lens. As the universe would have it, turns out that these past two weeks we have just hit sutras 2.28-2.31, Yama-Land. With the word on the street of speaking one’s truth and following one’s heart so publically displayed of late within the Anusara community, I was wishing today we were on sutra #2.36 on satya. That’s a really juicy one. Patanjali tells us that when the yogin becomes so established in his own truth, whatever he says becomes real–that we would be so connected to our inner truth that we would actually do what we say, as in all the time. Sounds like a superhuman capacity to manifest whatever one wants, but if we slow it down, we see that it is simply our practice working. More on satya later…
Instead of landing on 2.36, I was delighted to reside with a sutra describing the great worth and universal availability of the five yamas collectively. Because of this, I received a richer and more encompassing teaching. Mr. Iyengar translates this sutra as: “Yamas are the great, mighty, universal vows, unconditioned by place, time, and class.” In the last part of his commentary, Mr. Iyengar says something beautiful: “I believe that this universal approach should be applied to all the other component stages of yoga, without distinction of time, place or circumstances, to lay down the precepts of a universal culture.” The transliterated sanskrit is: “jaati desha kaala samaya anavacchinnaaha saarvabhaumaaha mahaavratam.”
- jati- class of birth/rank/lineage
- desha- place, spot, country
- kaala- time
- samaya- condition, circumstance
- anavacchinnaaha- not limited, not bound
- saarvabhaumaaha- relating to or consisting of the whole world, universal
- mahaavratam- mighty vow, great obligation
The yamas are ahimsaa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, and aparigrahaa. Following the yamas classically in not harming, not lying, not stealing, being celibate (or monogamous), not grasping or being greedy is a good idea, and a good place to start.
The reason that Patanjali placed the social precepts first had eluded me for many years. It is clear that this particular model of eight works from the outside in. It sounded good, but in my practice, the first movement of yoga was to soften the boundaries, to close my eyes and to turn within. To me, the yoga of the world was much more difficult than turning within to whatever flavor my inner world was offering. How could I bring my fearless exploration of the inner self to a brave vulnerability within my intimate and other relationships? I just couldn’t do it sometimes. I couldn’t be fearlessly vulnerable and so my old defenses would come up at critical moments and I would intermittently guard my heart from further wounding, or else pull out mental weapons to strike first in the guise of protection.
At first glance, the placement of the yamas is obvious. It goes without saying that it would be difficult to obtain and secure an elevated perspective if one was also engaged in any one of the following: to hurt or to want to hurt others; to lie, and to engage in the complexity and time-consuming mental processes of creating lies; to steal from others; to cheat on one’s beloved (another very energy-consuming endeavor, not to mention including the first two yamas in the act); or to grasp for what others have, or cling to what you do have (or no longer have). Perhaps there is really no more to it than that. Any one of these does harm to others, but it also creates quite a bit of mental anguish that will either press us coldly away from our core or keep us spinning in inner (and outer) conflict.
It is understandable that many who have yearned for something better, lighter, freer from this state of mind might turn to these yoga sutras. Upon finding the sutra that says that the yamas are an essential and primary step to progress on the yoga path, one may be tempted to avoid it, or skip over it entirely, in denial. But the step actually must be taken. Otherwise, the sadhaka will be barred from true and lasting progress. Okay, so don’t hurt anyone, don’t lie, don’t steal, don’t cheat, and don’t hoard; then you may proceed.
The under-appreciated genius of the yamas placement as the first of eight limbs is this: without these behaviors, any inner work has no hope of standing up. It will collapse. The way we think, see and behave socially helps strengthen the outer vessel for the inner work. But there is even more to see in this sutra. Yoga is an ever-deepening and ever-expanding path that draws us again and again to these very basic tenets. We can look again, and extrapolate the meaning. On one level, these very explicit social ethics can all be seen in the light of their reflection, nay, their inescapable impression upon our personal and inner world. I alluded earlier to the implications of what happens to us personally when we are not embodying these five things outwardly. But each yama in it’s own right has an inward sheath.
Imagine that you hurt yourself, lie to yourself, break commitment after commitment to yourself, and cling to old ideas. As the yogin invests more into her yoga, she delves more into the mind. It is then that she sees how many negative and harmful self thoughts she has. She sees how she creates more suffering and separation through self-lies, however subtle these lies may be. She sees how she continues to break self-contracts, and so her own heart again and again. She sees how clinging to old constraining beliefs prevents her from envisioning more worthy ones. This covers four yamas. But how can you steal from yourself? Do you rob yourself of precious energetic nutrients through negative thinking, through patterns that don’t serve, through not allowing enough of your soul’s natural sunlight to come through?
Here is one way that I enjoyed looking at the sutras today. To live without desiring to cause harm (Bill Mahony’s astute and subtle translation of ahimsaa), to live our truth, to live authentically, to live from the inner depths, and to live fully without clinging. The world could use more of us living this way.
We can examine the implications of the yamas in countless ways. Think of all the ways that we may cause harm and not even realize it. When we examine the word truth, it has so many layers. To illustrate the sheer complexity of what truth itself is, Douglas Brooks likes to say: “A myth is a lie told in the service of a greater truth.” And moreover, to show even in the physical realm that truth and myth rest hand in hand, he will often say: “The ground is solid. At the molecular level, there is more space to the floor than substance.” So, it is solid, and it is space. That means that at one level of reality one thing is true, but at another level it is opposite, or something different is true. “The truth” or “your truth” or “my truth” is and will always be relative and co-existing with contradiction. It is this paradox that presses us to grow our truth. It is this paradox of how we are even here.
When it comes to speaking our truth (and now we are back to satya), I can’t help but bring up the four gates of speech. They are: Is it truthful?; Is it necessary to say?; Is it the right time to say it?; Can it be said in a kind way? These are trustworthy gatekeepers to employ. Notice that though truthfulness is first, it is by no means the only gate. There are more levels to filter through before allowing those words to actually pass through our lips. Here, truth (satya) is placed first, and intention of non-harming (ahimsaa) last.
While all gates are important, I especially appreciate the space between the first and second- truthful and necessary. First of all, we have to trust that we really are trying to make the best choices right now. So we can’t second guess ourselves, all the time wondering if we are really in denial. If we are in denial, we wouldn’t know it until we did. Then we can take on the denial, make real change, and thus progress.
Secondly, even if something is true, it may not be necessary to say. Here’s an example. When I am leading a teacher training, I choose what I view are the most essential next steps for the teacher to take their teaching to the next level. If I said everything that was “true” it could undermine their progress as a teacher. They could be inundated with simply too many details to be able to focus on one or two, and likely the truth that we really want to get at is buried more deeply under the thickness of “I will never be good enough” or another layer of such stickiness. Then “never good enough” would become even more solidified as their “truth”. It wouldn’t serve Truth. The real truth is seeing where the new teacher is shining, fluent and clear in his or her offering. They want to uncover and access that truth more skillfully, and that is what I want for them too.
Seeing in this way requires incredible discipline because the part of the mind that is so good at finding what does not “fit” or what is unique is so powerful. It can pull us into seeing narrowly without our even noticing it. But behind this power of the mind is another power that is able to see pattern, connections and the big picture. The beauty of training ourselves to listen first to this more spacious part of our minds is that the details-oriented part then gets the chance to entrain itself to the big picture. This magic combination is called discernment, and allows us to be razor sharp and spacious simultaneously.
This way of seeing is merely one example of Anusara’s breathtaking beauty. We “look for the good,” which I like to explain in the following way. We look for where the energy (Shakti) is flowing–because when we see that, we simultaneously see where it is not flowing. We see beauty. How could we not see beauty when we are seeing where energy is flowing! That in itself is so powerful. Add that to the ability to instantaneously see where the energy is off, misaligned, not flowing, sluggish, blocked, tangled, locked up, etc, and voila–you have your next step to greater flow. That’s the yoga. It is all just energy.
So the “truth” is energy. It is energy flowing (or not). In order to speak “our” truth, we must search for the depths of truth itself. In order to know one’s own truth, one must plumb the depths of one’s own heart. When one plumbs the depths, everyone is compelled to their own hearts, again. Everyone’s heart yearns to be open. Open hearts transmit this irresistible desire to restless hearts, so that they too may open.
The word “sat” also translates as “Reality”. In the intro of his translation of the Pratyabhijna Hrdyam, Jaideva Singh discusses the synonymous identity of sat and cit. Reality and Consciousness are one in the same, and so are not distinguished in the tantra. Consciousness is the foundation of everything- that is it’s definition. So it is also the foundation for everyone’s truth. The question then is “Do you realize that?” May Reality-consciousness or Truth-consciousness then be the recognized base for our individual truth. Reality is also related to Dharma, including the structural support of the cosmos, universe, world. Dharma is also how we ourselves choose to live our path, including ethics, and so the yamas, and more.
Truth itself matures within us if we are dharmic and vigilant on our path. Anusara is maturing. The whole yoga community is maturing. Anusara is growing up, and so are its core teachers. Our beloved Darren, Christina and Elena are all following their hearts. Equally so are the many esteemed teachers who remain at the core of Anusara. And, we will all go to a deeper level of heart for it. We are a growing community of heart-followers.
I am deeply grateful for John’s bravery and for his reaching deep within himself to bring more harmony to life itself. I felt this in his recent interview with Waylon Lewis from Elephant Journal. My heart swells with love for Darren, Christina and Elena. I have the highest respect for each of them. Darren for his disarming humility and true open-creativity, Christina for her stellar crystal-clearness and solid dedication, and Elena for being juicily passionate about connecting with people, and each of them for countless other reasons. I was deeply sad when I first heard the news that they were leaving our community. Yet, a larger part of me knew that it would actually serve each of them, the Anusara community, the yoga community, and ultimately help to raise planetary consciousness.
But what I felt was undeniably a sadness. I will truly miss their presence in our kula, and what they offered to every single person in our kula. Even those they didn’t know personally have been uplifted for their contributions. In honoring that sadness for several days, the feeling began to give way to a distinct excitement of what these teachers will continue to bring to our world. I believe they will each leap to several new heights in quick succession in their teaching, and will continue to raise the bar for the world yoga conversation. I am excited to continue the conversation with them. I honor them each for following their hearts.
Also, I honor those teachers within the core of the Anusara community, who because they are also following their hearts are refreshing their commitment to teaching Anusara Yoga. I cannot overstate how very fortunate we are to keep such magnificent company within this community.
I have come to know over these years that life-affirming tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness is truly saying yes to the full spectrum of life. It is not always easy. It is often more challenging than anything I ever could have imagined upon initial hearing. I contemplate daily how best to serve. I commit myself to radically loving my self, my beloved, my children, my family, my friends and community, my students, my teachers, Anusara, the greater yoga community, and the world.
There is incredible diversity and delight in receiving, carving, and being imprinted by the contours of yogic life. One question has been simmering on the altar of my heart for some time now: How can I bring the teachings of yoga to people who are uninterested in or intimidated by asana? The principles of Anusara yoga work so well that we have the potential to serve so many more people. As we grow, let’s take on the greatest enemies and challenges we can identify. I believe in my heart that this is precisely what we are about to do.
There are infinite ways to follow the heart. May we all follow it. And not only may we follow our hearts, may we lead with them.
To borrow the words of Mr. Iyengar, may we all and together “lay down the precepts of a universal culture.” Let any who wish to make the saarvabhaumaaha mahaavratam, the great universal vow.
Always and All Ways Love, Sarah