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Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra is fantastically magical. I think today’s emphasis on bhakti yoga leaves the Yoga Sutra mostly overlooked and not well studied. In truth, this text should be studied by any and every serious yoga seeker. Although the text seems to be valued primarily by practitioners of raja yoga and jnana yoga, there’s not a single aphorism (that’s 100% not the right word, but I’m leaving it) in the entire text that won’t benefit and help develop the genuine seeker, regardless of their chosen path.

I’ve been very open about the path I feel most inclined toward, which is that of jnana yoga. However, the group or sect (or whatever you wish to call it) that I actually actively participate in adheres to the “raja” way of business. I’ve found, and been surprised to find, that raja yoga is the one yoga almost no one knows anything about and in my experienced, it’s actually quite balanced. It literally and successfully incorporates various aspects of yoga that bring out the best of the jnana approach, enable one to pursue bhakti intelligently and in a controlled / structured manner, and also mitigate the ebb and flow of one’s various karmas. That raja yoga is king, indeed!

Recently on Facebook, I saw something in my news feed posted by Yoga International, the link to which can be found by clicking here. This well-written article is, umm…. written well. The author knows her wordery and how to employ it. She has selected three of the Niyamas to focus on for the piece and what she shares is cool and helpful. To be clear, the Yamas and Niyamas can be seen by some to essentially be a bunch of “do this” “don’t do that” kind of rules. They’re not that. Simply put, they’re structured steps to help guide one on his / her way through the yogic process.

Something I’ve found interesting on more than one occasion is that these Yamas & Niyamas are not infrequently rearranged or modified to suit various temperaments, goals, and levels of development. That should stand as testament to the fact that these aren’t anything close to the Hindu “Ten Commandments” or even anything along those lines. In that spirit, the author of this article has selected three of the Niyamas: Tapas, Swadhyaya, and Ishwara Pranidhana.

Starting with tapas, she explains the importance of dedication and sticking to your guns on something you want to accomplish. There’s mention of “heat,” which is both a physical experience and an internal, driving force kind of thing. It’s like a burning fire that causes one to act and continue acting. There’s an inherent urgency in tapas – “I’m headed to this destination and I want to get there. Now.” This is the Niyama of discipline and will-power.

To guide that action, however, and keep it from getting out of control, one employs swadhyaya. This term is often translated as “self study,” but it should be made clear how encompassing that’s meant to be. The author says it’s, “…the yogic method of paying attention to what you are doing, how you are doing it, and why you are doing it.” This kind of study is meant to include not only the learning that the self does from books and from others, but also learning about the Self – a reflective and experiential responsibility of great importance. This involves looking within and putting the pieces together. How has what you observe fit with what you experience? According to the author, this is where the physicality of Hatha Yoga comes alive. With this Niyama we’re forced to call a spade what it is and keep moving forward – something possible only with the courage taken from tapas.

When these two are successfully married, we’re brought to the third Niyama discussed in the article: Ishwara Pranidhana. I’ll admit when I very first learned of this Niyama, I didn’t go very deep with it. A simple translation would be, “surrendering to the Divine.” I gagged when I first read that. When I see phrases like that I cringe because way too many people think this flatly means to be open to God’s will for their life, a notion I find questionable as it is. Those thoughts, without carrying them further, really do a disservice to the Yoga Sutra and the aspiring yogi. This is Niyama is vitally necessary because, as the author points out, the previous two alone run the risk of us becoming self-absorbed.

Ishwara pranidhana is what allows us to accept the fruits of our karmas without attachment. In the other Niyamas we’ve done the work necessary for any fruition, whatever that may be. And that’s the key with this particular Niyama – being cool with those fruits, whatever they may be. Having that kind of acceptance is crazy tough. The fruits in question here are, of course, really just the effects of any cause you create. It’s one thing to be like, “Whatever” in regard to anything that might happen. Even stoners are capable of that. But it’s a whole other thing to have developed awareness enough to not only think you have total acceptance of what may come, but also to be an active and conscious player when the causes to whatever happens are created to begin with.

It’s going with the flow – but on steroids.

Aum Shri Mahaganeshaya Namaha
Aum Shanti

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The Lady at the Temple

A friend of mine told me recently that not long ago, while at temple, he’d engaged in a lengthy discussion with a woman. This discussion, as far as I can tell, centered around the question of whether one should actively help to instruct others or simply lead by example. His take on the question is that leading by example is, often enough, insufficient, while her’s was that we should never do anything aside from leading by example. You know I have an opinion…and you should know you’re about to get it. (Which in and of itself is telling, in regard to where I probably stand on this!)

I think the go-to argument for those who say leading by example is prime is something often related to tough love or learning lessons “the hard way,” and how for some people that’s the only or best way to learn. “You do best to show by your actions, following is their choice, and they may have to learn on their own.” In no way am I fighting that rationale, although it doesn’t precisely fit into this discussion. Truly, I think in any situation requiring a tie breaker, lessons learned through experience will beat out anything say by another’s mouth. In this context, one can be sure the lesson will sink in because it will likely come in the form of some kind of pain, and the typical human requires pain sufficient to warrant change – or so say the 12-steppers. But in the context of the example setter teaching through demonstration, there’s an assumption -and you know what happens when one assumes. The assumption is that one’s example is being noticed. One can lead by the best example possible, but in a room full of blind people, the example will almost certainly go unnoticed.

Humans are, however, a unique creation in the natural world (on Earth, anyway). You see, all over this planet other life forms teach primarily by example. Many lifeforms have their own “language,” and they do communicate through this, but this is essentially setting an example; the real way they learn and teach is through example, through experience. Guaranteed, a mother bird never had a chat with her chicks wherein she explained that she’s about to shove them from the nest and that they should flap their wings to avoid injury or death. Instead, what happens is that the chicks observe the parent birds coming and going by flight and anything not learned through that observation (also an experience), or not already programmed in the chick itself, is definitely learned through the experience of plummeting toward the earth.

Humans, though, have a unique ability. We not only can learn through another’s example, but also we can learn through being instructed. So what, right? Umm, no. It’s because of this, and a few other factors, that humans are at the top of the evolutionary ladder right now. Instead of each new generation learning that some snakes are poisonous by stepping on them, and many of our progeny perishing in the process, we advise them of the risk and instruct them on how to avoid it. We pass a huge, ever-increasing library on to successive generations precisely by not relying on their ability to learn by following suit (aka repeat painful experiences proven in the past). Even the most animal-istic people have higher consciousness than animals, and they also have the ability to learn through instruction. In fact, this is the basis for virtually all human learning:

  • guru/shishya, priest/parishioner
  • teacher/student
  • workplace trainer/trainee
  • parent/child, et cetera…

And it’s because of this that our evolution has progressed suchly.

My view is that to ignore this component of being human, or even to downplay it, is a disservice and a disgrace. We can learn much through watching another’s example, but relying on that is truly selling yourself short of the full human experience. Having the ability to learn a lesson fully and without the pain that is almost always inherent in learning experiences “the hard way” is an incredible boon. Similarly with those in a position to advise/instruct: through the medium of instruction we simultaneously further our own knowledge and dual-y impart that knowledge to the learner while sparing them the folly of experiencing pain.

One of Patanjali’s sutras states, “Heyam dukham anagatam.” Future pain is to be avoided. I realize I’m taking this slightly out of context, but the principle remains unaltered. I think one should live as though he’s followed by an audience of astute observers, but I also find it foolish and even careless to gamble that anyone at all is not only observing you in the first place, but also doing so mindfully. It seems a more efficient and sure way of helping to lead others on their path would be directly advising, as our gurus do.

Woe is me, but not really

A week ago today was the toughest day I’ve had in a minute. Please, allow me to bore you with the details.

I awoke with the beginning of a head cold. I arrived at the clinic and promptly arranged for my heavily sugared and heavily creamed coffee. This part is good…it’s real good…and addictively delicious. A little later that morning I found myself training a new hire. This is also something I enjoy, although a bit less so with a fledgling head cold. The whole process of training someone means everything goes half the normal pace and requires twice the energy and focus. At the end of the day, I found myself not only entirely spent, but also doing what I usually do at the end of a Thursday (the busiest, most hellish day at the clinic), which is to wrap things up as fast as possible and change into more comfortable clothes to wear to class. I make my way out to my car where I discovered the battery was dead…something the shop warned me of two weeks ago while I was in for an oil change, but otherwise would have been a total surprise. This is truly enough to send me into orbit. You see, anything car-related is a mystery to me. When I sit down into my car, and insert the key, the damned thing needs to move or I’m in fits. Additionally, as I’ve already admitted in prior posts, all things number-related are also practically mind-boggling for me, which makes perfect attendance in class more than mandatory for me. And guess what –when your car won’t start it’s REALLY tough to get to class. More stress.

So, I call my male spousal equivalent and instruct him to bypass his usual stop at the gym as he’s leaving work and come instead, immediately, to pick me up because he’s now my ride to and from school. Even though anything on his schedule that night was neither mandatory or nor something anyone else depended on him for, it was very clear by his demeanor that he was far from thrilled to be called to aid someone like myself. Truth be told, this actually hurt my feelings more than a little. I pride myself on rarely asking for anything from anyone, and growing up it was taught to my brothers and I that you should always be more than willing to help someone else, and never guilt them for it. In defense of my beloved, he didn’t actively guilt me and he didn’t argue with anything I said I needed, but my ego was still bruised, I suppose, because my perception was that he was pissed because he had to give up an evening of doing nothing in favor of an evening of helping me. But whatever, it’s entirely unimportant and inconsequential, but at the time stung pretty badly when I already wasn’t at my best.

So he gets me to school. While I’m in class he’s kind enough to run around and buy a new battery, although it wasn’t able to be installed. He did also manage to get my car to start on the old “dead” battery. So class ends, he picks me up to take me to my car to that we can figure something out… and it starts raining.

That was just about icing on the cake.    

At the beginning of this post, I requested you, dear reader, to allow me to bore you with the details of my miserable day. I used the verb “to bore” intentionally. By virtually every comparative standard, my life is a walk in the park. I find myself, as I age, increasingly self-guilted at thoughts and complaints that arise during my moments of struggle. Days like this one, while painful and frustrating at the time, unfailingly remind me of concepts like Maya, gratitude, and perspective. I’ve said before that even the poor in American are richer than the poor in India. Conversely, even a really crummy day in Josh’s World is still better than a normal day in a lot of folks’ lives. I really shouldn’t complain.

But the reality here is that suffering is universal and applies to all –even a soul as advanced as a Rshi. In the same way that concepts like karma and Brahman are universal, impartial, and impersonal, so is suffering. Everyone suffers, and that fact is what sets such an easy stage for compassion toward those who’re suffering (in their own way).

While suffering shares some pretty big similarities with the likes of karma and Brahman, unlike them it isn’t ultimate. (There’s actually a quasi-loophole that technically makes karma not ultimate either, but it’s a very small loophole indeed!) The biggest aspect of suffering that keeps it from ever being ultimate is that, while few very people indeed have a choice in the suffering that may already be on its way to them, each of us has a ton of control in regard to controlling that suffering once it arrives. What I mean is that no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, you will always, always, always have a choice in how you decide to react to that pain.

Patanjali wrote extensively on this. In Sanskrit, the word for suffering is dukham. According to Patanjali, none in the phenomenal world is exempt from experiencing dukham. None. Many people ask, “Why me?” Patanjali answers, “Why not you?” There simply is no hierarchy in suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering… and every living thing will know it. He explains that not only is dukham inescapable, but also that its existence cannot be denied, and neither can it be denied that it causes pain. The good news, according to this sage, is that anyone and everyone can change their reaction or response to dukham and a great way to start this process is to avoid responses like blame, guilt, or regret. In the Yoga Sutras, 2.15 & 16 teach a valuable lesson applicable here. In 2.16, Patanjali wrote, “Heyam dukham anagatam,” which translates in some cases as “Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.” This should serve as a tremendous source of hope for those on the path of Dharma. We know that pain is often a part of existing. We know that the cyclical nature of karma means it’s likely we’re due at some point or another for pain. But we are in control over whether we perpetuate suffering in our own lives, and we also have the ability to control how miserable our experience of pain might be.  

In retrospect, for me the hidden benefit found in my miserable Thursday a week ago is that I don’t need to regret that I waited too long to get my battery changed. Nor should I feel guilt for asking someone to help me. And I shouldn’t blame my spouse for reacting as he did. After all, whatever was on his schedule or not, in his own way he suffered that day too and I shouldn’t place my own suffering above another’s.

Just sayin’.

Om shanti