Saturday Special: Sutra Soup

atmosphere of a Tibetan monastery .... Tharlam Monastery shrine room at break, light filtered by incense, with western Tibetan Buddhist student reading, Bodhisattva Vows day, Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal
Has your yoga teacher been talking about sutras and some guy named Patanjali lately? If you want to know more about the philosophy behind your yoga practice, join me on my journey through the sutras with a new reflective essay on them each week.

For example …

  • 1.1: Beginning the Journey (and beginning again)
  • 1.2: Quieting the Mind
  • 1.3: The Unchanging Self
  • 1.4: Keep Your Head On
  • 1.5 & 1.6: The Importance of Vocabulary
  • 1.7: Where’d You Learn That?
  • 1.8: Don’t Let a Misconception Ruin Your Day
  • 1.9: Be Careful What You Believe

When I started practicing yoga 14 years ago, my teacher often suggested that we read the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita. But as a beginning student, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of translations out there, not to mention most of the writing seemed pretty dry to me. I’m still a far cry from an expert on the sutras, but by sharing what I’ve learned with you, I hope to point you in the direction of wisdom.

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Yoga Sutra 1.9: Be Careful What You Believe


An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its basis] is verbal delusion.

Heaven and hell come to mind. Angels in white robes rest on cloud beds and play harps while fork-tailed devils jeer at the damned in a fiery pit for eternity. And although we have no way of confirming such a tale, many of us conduct our lives as though that were the reality that waits for us after death. So that’s verbal delusion. Someone has told us something based on no reality that we can see, and our minds have run wild with it.

Other instances of this vritti might come up in the middle of an argument. Suppose my husband says something I don’t like. I can grab hold of that statement and launch a whole domestic dispute about his choice of words — we’ll call that Road A — or I can try to figure out what he really meant. That’s Road B, which almost always works out better, but it takes practice to do that and not fly off the handle.

The vrittis are pretty straightforward stuff, once you know what they are, but that doesn’t change the fact that they continue to affect us. We spiritual types talk a big game about being “here and now,” practicing presence and awareness, but that doesn’t mean we never fall victim to our own chaotic minds. Next week, we’ll discuss the last vritti (one that might surprise you) and then we’ll move on to ways to control the vrittis rather than being controlled by them.

Just a reminder … My main source for these translations of the sutras is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
translated by Sri Swama Satchidananda. If you’re enjoying reading about the sutras from my perspective, I think you’ll find his commentary on them extraordinary.

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Yoga Sutra 1.8: Don’t Let a Misconception Ruin Your Day

A crocodile

Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.

We humans have a hard enough time of things when we’ve got our facts straight. Even knowing the truth of a situation doesn’t mean we know how to make peace with it, but even worse (and harder to correct) is when our view of the world is based on misconception.

The other day, I was opening a package of crackers, and I was alarmed because I thought there were bugs inside. I saw these little black specks, and I thought they were the first wave of an infestation. But I opened the package, and as the plastic untwisted itself, I realized the specks were just numbers printed on the package. It was some meaningless bit of manufacturing that had confused me, and the problem I foresaw was totally in my imagination.

Very often, we see something strange or unclear, and we make an assumption about what it is or what it means. If I hadn’t finished unwrapping that package, I would’ve thrown out a perfectly good pack of crackers. It’s not the world’s greatest mistake to be sure, but how often do we repeat it in other areas of life. If someone honks at you in traffic, you think, “What a jerk!”  But maybe they weren’t even honking at you. Maybe they were trying to warn the person who almost merged into them. Not knowing the cause, you go on with your day thinking people are jerks. You arrive at the office ands say, “I’m having a bad morning.” Why? Because of a misunderstanding.

So, we’ve got two options in the case of misconception.

  1. Look closer. Find out that the bugs are actually just ink. 
  2. Let it go. Realize that even if that guy in traffice was honking at you (and you can’t always know for sure), it doesn’t have to ruin your day.

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Yoga Sutra 1.4: Keep Your Head On

Big Beautiful Face Statue in Tenerife

At other times [the self appears to] assume the forms of the mental modifications.

Ok, so we know that yoga means union and that (theoretically), when we quiet the mind, we access the pure, unchanging, eternal self. If you’ve meditated a little bit, maybe you’ve begun to have glimpses of that. In that meditative state, our physical boundaries feel like they melt away as we let go of all those false identities and changeable factors. We begin to feel that we truly are all one. Hooray, yoga! We’ve reached enlightenment, and now we can stop meditating and go about our life as actualized beings, right?

Maybe not quite. For most of us, the moment we rejoin the world, we’re brought back into a game of rules and boundaries. It would be foolish not to recognize the separation between ourselves and others. One of the dangers yogis face (and fail to acknowledge too often) is thinking that because we’ve had a few glimpses of something bigger than ourselves that we are now enlightened. Sometimes, yogis are just like evangelicals, going around spouting off about their experience as though it applies to everyone. After all, if we’re all one, then I should be able to understand and speak for anyone, right? Wrong again.

On a grand scale, yes, we’re all one, all made of the same stuff, all the same energy, all from the same source — no matter what name you assign to that source. But in our day-to-day lives, we all have different experiences. We have different lives, histories, knowledge and understandings. Think of it like a card game — I can’t see your cards and you can’t see mine. If I make an incorrect assumption about the cards in your hand, I lose the game. Sure, all the cards come from the same deck, but it’s a pretty extensive deck, and there’s just no way for us to know all the cards in play.

In other words, try to keep a sane perspective. Know in your heart that you are indeed connected to everyone and everything in the universe, but keep your head on and your eyes open.

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Spiritual Anarchy and Fallen Gurus

Anarchy Flower (detail)
Yep, we’re going there.
The yoga community has seen an awful lot of corruption in the past few years, and I know I’m not the only one who’s noticed.

Bikram Choudhury was recently accused of rape, and his teachings in general have long been a source of conflict in the yoga community. Kausthub Desikachar has been revealed as an abusive sociopath and disavowed by his teachers. John Friend has apparently committed fraud and alienated most of his students. Some would say these are sad times we live in, but I say: Welcome to reality.

Yoga teachers or any other type of teachers are not enlightened beings sent to earth to show you the way. We experience lust, fear, confusion, and all those other complicated human emotions. And we can be corrupted. Absolutely anyone with any amount of power or influence over others is capable of becoming too comfortable and too greedy.

We know that the practice of yoga can give people incredible mental and physical benefits, that we feel more peaceful when we practice and so on, but that doesn’t mean we become perfect. Never assume that anyone, even the most saintly teacher, is perfect. Never blindly follow. Open your eyes and consider what you are being told and reject what doesn’t ring true.

Lots of leaders and teachers in every field (politics, religion, and even science) try to boost their own authority by essentially invalidating your perceptions. They say, “I know better than you, and you should listen to me without question.” That way of teaching is dangerous because while it may impart some valuable ideas, it also invalidates the student’s primary source of knowledge — herself.

The Catholic church says if you don’t accept all the official beliefs of the church you’re not really Catholic. Of course, I know plenty Catholics who pick and choose which of the church’s teachings are most helpful and applicable in their lives, and I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for them to do. They practice birth control. They accept their gay children. They don’t go to church every Sunday. That’s ok in my mind. It’s their religion, and they get to practice it the way they want.

Yoga is the same way. You get to decide what you believe and how to practice it. If a teacher tells you some philosophy that doesn’t jive with your reality, ignore it. If you’re asked to do a pose that doesn’t work in your body, simply decline. This is your life, and you get to live it.

I guess you could say I believe in a certain kind of anarchy. We participate in society to prevent mob rule, but it’s essential that we do not become sheep, too easily lead to slaughter. There is no person who has real moral authority over you. No teacher, preacher or political leader has any moral authority that you cannot have over yourself. All of them can be wrong and should be subject to frequent questioning.

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