Putting Philosophy into Practice

First published in Manchester and District Iyengar Yoga Institute Newsletter

You may not think the Yoga Sutras are your cup of tea but….

People come to practice yoga for all kinds of different reasons. Some do it for exercise, some do it to enhance flexibility, perhaps as part of a sports training regime, some come to it because of a health problem, such as back or shoulder pain, some want to learn to relax and a few because they are interested in the possibilities of yoga as an aid to spiritual development.

Others, like me, don’t really know why they started yoga. The only reason I have is I could sort of put my legs in the lotus and a girlfriend said I was spiritual and should do yoga! Of course it wasn’t at all what I expected – I thought I would be sitting around meditating but when it turned out to be painful, unglamorous and unspiritual somehow it completely captured me and turned me into an enthusiastic follower. I used to go along every week and do the exercises and whatever my vague reasons for starting, it began to fit in well with my growing obsession with fitness.

I started yoga with Lilian Biggs who was a wonderful, inspiring teacher, but she was largely physical in her approach to teaching yoga and didn’t talk much about the philosophy behind it. That didn’t bother me at all as I enjoyed the buzz I got from doing it, but as I continued going along to yoga eventually I started to find out there was more to it: I did my teacher training for which I was required to read the introduction to Light on Yoga, then shortly afterwards I made my first trip to India. Believe me, three gruelling weeks with Mr Iyengar didn’t leave a lot of space for nuanced speculation on the finer points of the Yoga Sutras, but he taught in such a way that a flavour of them seeped in. I learned a little and over-confidence being something of a character trait, thought I knew a lot. Puffed up with my newly acquired and somewhat limited spiritual knowledge, I made it my mission to bring the wisdom of yoga philosophy back to the physically minded yogis of the North of England.

My first attempts at imparting the wisdom of the Yoga Sutras consisted mainly of reading them out. They do this in India, chanting them in Sanskrit, which sounds wonderfully mystical and auspicious, but in English to an English audience it results mostly in boredom and puzzlement. I knew I had to try to make more sense of it and put it across in a better way.

You will see yoga is defined in the second of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras as ‘the stilling of the movements of consciousness’. The first sutra says ‘Now the teaching of yoga’, which I used to pass over thinking it was just by way of introduction. I suppose in a way it is, but it imparts a lesson because we are so rarely in the now – being always away in the past with our memories or off in the future with our dreams and plans. It took me a long time to realise that anything important was being said. Instead I used to ponder, with a busy brain, on the stilling of the movements of consciousness.

I juggled the sutras about in my head like an intellectual game for quite a while before it dawned on me that they were not dry abstract concepts but were actually talking about real life. Even more importantly I realised that when I was doing what I called yoga – the exercises – I could apply the sutras to that. They were like pointers to what I should be doing and I started to think not only about positioning my body in the right way but also about me, about how my mind wandered. It didn’t stop it wandering but at least I had realised what the ‘movements of consciousness’ were and that I had them.

The ‘now is the teaching of yoga’ was such a revelation because it made me realise that my thoughts wandered into the past and the future most of the time and my attention was rarely very strongly fixed on what I was doing. If I could only keep my attention my mind would be stiller. In this way I started to get a handle on the Yoga Sutras and became able to explain them to others in terms of my own experience, just as you can explain to somebody how to place their leg to get a good effect because, through experimentation and experience, you know what happens to your own leg. So as well as teaching the technicalities of how to place the body I started to think more about the state of mind of the people I taught and how that manifested in the way they performed their asanas. As well as telling them what to do with their legs, I could perhaps find ways of teaching them better concentration.

So my talks on the Yoga Sutras started to evolve.  I began to understand that rather than reading through them like verses of poetry, I needed to slow down and think about what was actually being said, line by line and even word by word, some sense began to appear and my interest grew. I found I could illustrate them with examples from real life situations that people would be able to relate to and might find interesting. For example, in sutra number 4 it says that when consciousness is not stilled I identify with its movements, which in simple terms means that when a thought pops up in my head I think of it as me. Its not the thought that wants a cup of tea – its me!

But when I should be getting on with my yoga practice why is this thought telling me I want a cup of tea? The impulse is so strong that its not even the thought telling me I want a cup of tea, its me telling me I want a cup of tea! Feeling helpless before such an overpowering desire what can I do? After flipping through a few more sutras which don’t seem to offer any obvious answers I come eventually to sutra number 12 which says that practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness. Practice it says, should be long and uninterrupted.

A few minutes later I find myself in the kitchen where I’d just popped down for something (I can’t remember what) and I am waiting for the kettle to boil. How on earth did I come to put the kettle on when I was going to do my practice? But oh well, now I’m here I may as well have a quick cuppa since I’ve boiled the water…

…and so you can see how these movements of consciousness have stopped me from doing the very practice the Yoga Sutras say I need to do to in order to quieten them down – and as for detachment it seems like the desire for a cup of tea almost has a life of its own – it’s as if it makes and drinks itself without me having any say in the matter!

I have found though, that through practice, not always long or uninterrupted but certainly undertaken regularly over many years, I have gained more ability to observe my thoughts and identify a little less with them. I am more aware of the tricks my mind plays and can usually detach myself from the desire for a cup of tea, or whatever other form the distraction takes, for long enough to get onto my yoga mat and begin to practice – then my interest in yoga takes over.

A little less wandering, a little more ability to stay focussed, to be present and to remain objective in amongst the tumult of physical sensations, emotional reactions and mental distractions that arise during the practice of asanas will, the yoga sutras seem to say, eventually help us to break out of the vicious circle of automatic responses and bad habits which form much of the pattern of our lives.

After the sutras on practice and detachment the next sutra says ‘The ultimate renunciation is when one transcends the qualities of nature and perceives the soul’ So all I have to do is transcend the qualities of nature? That sounds like it might take a while, so perhaps now would be a good moment to go and make a cup of tea….or then again, maybe I should go upstairs and get on my mat!

Alan Brown

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