Hi, my name is Kate Holcombe and I founded the nonprofit Healing Yoga Foundation in 2006 as a way to help people from all kinds of communities and backgrounds gain access to the tools of yoga for support.
During these challenging times, I was thinking of how I could be helpful, and I immediately thought of this incredible text: the Yogasūtra of Patanjali.
It’s the philosophical basis of yoga and was codified around 350 CE, so it’s been around a LONG time, (though, in practice it’s been around even long before that).
I was first introduced to this text by my teacher, Sri TKV Desikachar, in 1991 when I was a college student studying social work in South India, and as I tell my students, I was “lucky enough” to have been hit by a motorcycle while riding my bike. While I wouldn’t have wished that accident on myself or anyone else, it ended up being a HUGE turning point in my life, as it opened the door to studying this incredible philosophy with Mr. Desikachar, who is regarded as one of the true yoga masters of our time.
More importantly – and why I want to share it with you – is that the practical tools and strategies presented in the text helped me recover from that accident so long ago, AND helped me through countless challenges over the years including:
- getting sober in 1992
- overcoming childhood trauma and abuse
- pregnancy and adoption losses
- parenting four amazing children
- most recently, being my lifeline through an aggressive cancer diagnosis four and half years ago. In short,
I credit this text with truly saving my life more than once, and if it can help me through all that, I’m pretty hopeful it can help you.
The Yogasūtra is not Hinduism, or a religion at all (though it has been confused with Hinduism for some very understandable reasons, which we may cover one day). It’s a practical philosophy, written in the ancient language of Sanskrit with the goal of helping us reduce our experience of suffering so that we feel better, no matter what the circumstance. It’s nothing esoteric or fancy — it’s just an incredibly practical book of tools and strategies that can help us FEEL BETTER right now.
So how do we do that? Well, the goal we’re working toward, which results in us feeling better, is stated in the second chapter of the text in Sūtra 2.25. It’s a Sanskrit word called kaivalyam that my teacher translates as “independence.” What he means is that your mood, your state of mind, your happiness is not dependent on outside factors such as whether you’re liked or not, whether you get a promotion, whether you get a cupcake, or whether you’re stuck at home. I explain it to my students as being empowered to consciously CHOOSE your response (instead of unconsciously reacting, which in my case, almost always increases my suffering). As a result of being able to choose your response, you’re able to influence your experience, no matter what your circumstance is. When we’re empowered to choose our response and influence our own experience, we generally experience less suffering and feel better as a result. Think about that for a second.
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we can change our circumstance, and that’s great when we can, for example: We could potentially change our living situation by moving to another apartment or city, or change jobs if we’re unhappy, but there are some circumstances in life that we can’t change, no matter how much we wish to. So the Yogasūtra says that the one and only thing we can always change, no matter what, is our outlook, our attitude, our state of mind. Easier said than done, right?
I know, it takes time, effort, lots of patience, and being really gentle with ourselves throughout this process, because that’s what it is — a process. And it looks different for each of us, so we don’t need to compare ourselves to anyone else.
All the practices and strategies in this text help us understand what we can change and what we can’t. By doing so, it helps us connect with our best SELF so we can CHOOSE our response and influence our experience.
In fact, if I could distill the Yogasūtra down to one word it would be CHOOSE.
Right now, we’re all facing a global health crisis that is impacting all areas of our lives. There are lots of really smart people working hard on resolving it, and so many amazing, dedicated and hard-working people on the front lines trying to help us through it, but the bottom line is that it’s happening. Each of us is likely experiencing a range of emotions and responses, and at this moment now, we can’t change the circumstance we’re in (as much as we’d like to).
The Yogasūtra teaches that every single one of us CAN influence our experience of this world crisis, even though the challenge and hardship is REAL. We get to CHOOSE how we respond to it and, ideally, find a way to move forward positively with what we’ve got, without increasing our own suffering.
Please don’t get me wrong, the Yogasūtra is NOT AT ALL about denial or adopting an attitude of “it’s all good.” While there is indeed much beauty and goodness in the world, there is also much in life that is painful and unfair. Every day, unbearable tragedies happen to innocent, undeserving people. Yoga philosophy doesn’t promise that we won’t ever feel grief, anger, pain, or hardship — no one is immune to life’s challenges. Nor should we try to avoid or repress our authentic feelings, which are a natural response to loss or difficulty.
Yoga philosophy isn’t trying to get us not to feel or to deny our feelings. It actually helps us connect with our authentic feelings and move through them, rather than avoid them. Ultimately, it helps us come to a place of balance, where we can hold the whole spectrum of feelings we may be experiencing, including grief, fear, hope, and even joy.
The key is that by helping us to see things more clearly and connect with our true SELF, we’re better able to differentiate things we CAN change, from those we can’t. For example, if my dog dies, I can’t bring her back to life, and I am understandably sad, which is the appropriate feeling response. However, for me, it was always much harder to express grief and vulnerability than anger, so instead of feeling appropriately heartbroken, it was more comfortable for me to feel angry and blame someone. The text calls this “avoidable suffering,” and I often refer to it as the “blame, shame, guilt, regret, shoulda-coulda-woulda, why me?” talk.
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was the healthiest person everybody knew. I had been a vegetarian for 25 years, had been practicing and teaching yoga and meditation for just as long, exercised every day, had been working with people with cancer at Commonweal for years, so I followed the anti-cancer diet, and so on. No one could believe I was diagnosed. After all, I had done “everything right” to prevent cancer and yet I had it. While many shook their heads in disbelief and said, “How could this happen to you?” I never once entertained the “Why me?” scenario. Why not me? Better somebody else? Absolutely not.
Going through cancer treatment was certainly not easy. I had months of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation that caused painful third-degree burns, more chemo, and ongoing medications that caused other complications. Sometimes I was afraid (my children were young, and my youngest was only a year old, so I was mostly worried I wouldn’t be around for my kids). But all of my study of the text helped me realize that, while I couldn’t change my diagnosis, I could absolutely influence how I got through it, and that helped me ENORMOUSLY. It helped me avoid the “avoidable suffering” trap of blame-shame-guilt-regret and so on. It helped me truly connect with my authentic self and feelings—I was able to actually experience what I was feeling, including fear and grief, but also quite a lot of joy, love, connection, and laughter.
We’ll talk more about all the strategies and practices that helped me get there, but before we dive into the text itself, I want to close by explaining what exactly a sūtra is.
The Yogasūtra consists of 195 sūtras or aphorisms, divided among four chapters. Sūtra is a Sanskrit word with the same root as the English verb suture, meaning “to thread.” Sūtra is something that indicates or leads us toward something, and in this case threads these concepts from one to the next, to create the whole. Much like this necklace I’m wearing, each sūtra is a gem in and of itself, but is arranged deliberately to create the whole. They are all linked.
Finally, we’ll close with the characteristics of a sūtra, as we’ll loop back to them throughout the text: the Yogasūtra has six important characteristics:
- Few words: It’s deliberately concise.
- Full of depth: It’s meant to serve you from the moment you pick it up and begin studying through the rest of your life. After almost thirty years of studying this text, teaching it, writing it, thinking about for hours a day, it is just as alive, exciting, and relevant to me—even more so—as when I started (and I’m looking forward to another forty-five years or so!)
- There is no ambiguity: Words are intentionally chosen and organized.
- It’s universal: It‘s open to anyone and everyone without conflict – there is no prerequisite. You can be atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Christian, Jain, whatever you wish. Yoga philosophy has no comment on what happened to you before you were born or what happens after you die. What we know is that you were born into this body, in this life, and the text cares about how you feel in THIS life. What you believe about what happens to you before or after this lifetime is your personal business.
- It’s experiential: You have to show up, put in the effort, and DO it.
- Finally, words are consciously chosen so that there is no offense or conflict and it can be received by whoever wishes to study it.
As my teacher says, “Teach what the hand can hold.” That is my hope: to share with you some of these helpful strategies that can be held and integrated so they can help you right now! Get ready: there is more to come. And this will be fun!