Sutra 13, Pada One
For Lent I gave up watching Hulu, an online-TV service. With a bit of irony, I note that Lent offers me a way to practice yoga when I am off the mat.
The 13th sutra of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a manual for the study and practice of yoga, tells us essentially that yoga is a full-time occupation. Yoga’s ultimate goal is to achieve awareness, or isvara, by stilling the whirling kaleidoscope of thoughts we call consciousness, or cita vritti. We still our minds to attain isvara through practice (abhyasa) and nonattachment (vairgya).
I live on a farm, a large, uncluttered piece of cultivated wilderness 30-miles outside Washington, DC. The plate-glass window of my study overlooks a field and a tree where cardinals, blue jays and orioles perch like large-petaled flowers. I spend much of each day at my desk writing and reading and am blessed to have happiness close at hand. I left the city six months ago to gain some distance from the clatter of the streets and the busy boutiques of my former, up-scale neighborhood. Happiness is now as close as a walk up the rough hills outside or as easy as unrolling my yoga mat by the window. But off my mat, away from the forgiving lifestyle, how do I live my yoga? How do I practice yoga all day?
Lent takes place during the 40 days prior to Easter, and for Catholics and many Protestants it represents the period toward the end of Jesus’ life when he retreated to the desert to pray and meditate. The number 40 resonates in Judaism and Christianity with associations to devotion, discipline and preparation – Noah waited 40 days for the floods to recede, the Israelites traveled 40 years in the desert, Moses fasted for 40 days on Mount Sinai, and of course, Jesus prepared himself for his final sacrifice for 40 days, with no food or companion other than the barren cliffs of the Judean Desert and the temptations of Satan.
Many Christians fast during Lent, avoiding meat and chicken especially – the idea being to suffer, to a very small degree, the sting of sacrifice experienced by Jesus. The sensation of nagging desire is also unavoidable, and important, during Lent. A craving for a bacon burger jockeys for power with a desire for spiritual self-discipline – and sometimes self-knowledge is the result. People observing Lent are momentarily halted in the daily rush of work and family by physical desire – perhaps passing a hot dog stand or inhaling the scent of a co-worker’s sandwich. During these few seconds of longing the Lenten observer knows herself better – recognizes within herself the stark warfare of desire and self-discipline and can connect to something larger: Jesus’ torment or the joined, communal sacrifice of all Catholics over Lent.
This is part of the work of yoga: to balance the thrust of desire, for a pose or a stretch, with the softening experience of the pose itself. Abstaining from Hulu was an obvious choice for me for Lent – Hulu is my favorite crutch. It allows me to snuggle up to my iPad under the bed covers and watch TV shows late at night. It’s also like a shot of sugar to my emotional bloodstream and my brain becomes so excited sleep is a long time in coming.
There’s a larger problem with Hulu. Watching hours of TV on my iPad keeps me from God: There is a shift of life energy away from the soul’s center to the external, excitable nerve cells of the brain. And the next morning I wake exhausted, past the morning hour I’ve allotted to prayer and meditation.
tatra sthitau yatno ‘bhyâsaï
tatra = in that
sthitau = stability, steadiness
yatnaï = sustained effort
abhyâsaï = practice, action, method
Practice is the sustained effort to rest in that stillness.
Patanjali says we must sustain our practice over time, on the mat and off.
“You always have to be at it,”
writes Sri Swami Satchidananda in his translation of the Sutras.
“Not just for a few minutes a day, then allowing the mind to have its own free time all the other hours. It means you become eternally watchful, scrutinizing every thought, every word and every action.”
If I were a novice nun within a monastery or an initiate at an ashram, this might be easier. I would undergo a period of formation during which I would learn the rules, prayers, ways of life, and most important be given tools to form myself as a nun or yogi. I would put all other thoughts aside, and many of the normal temptations and interruptions that bombard us in secular life would not disturb me.
Perhaps of even greater value would be a community surrounding me of like-minded seekers following a spiritual path together, creating a shared environment conducive to the right action of the soul. This formation would form me, contain me, give me direction. Within loving containment and structure the soul, like a sapling planted in a protective tube, puts down roots, grows strong, and finds a straight path to the sun.
But I am not in a monastery or ashram, so I begin slowly, with the 13th of Patanjali’s sutras in chapter one.
I begin yoga off the mat by giving up Hulu for 40 days, and gently observe my cravings for an emotional sugar high. One night I have a glass of wine and turn on Hulu, scroll the menu of available TV shows and then turn Hulu back off.
I am kind to myself and forgive myself for momentarily giving in. I learn from yoga poses how to balance strength with forgiveness. Self-forgiveness is the return to center that brings will and determination into balance in the self.
Five days left, and then I move on to sutra 15, vairagyam:
As for nonreaction, one can recognize
that it has been fully achieved when no attachment
arises in regard to anything at all, whether perceived directly or learned.