I’m excited to officially introduce you to this wonderful text: the Yogasūtra of Patanjali. For some background on why I’m here and what we’re working toward, please view the first post in this series. In short, the Yogasūtra is full of practices and strategies to help us feel better and find a way forward when things don’t go our way.
In the middle of this global pandemic I think it’s fair to say that, right now, life is certainly not going the way most of us want it to. So every few days, I’ll post a new sūtra and its practical relevance to where we are right now in the world, along with some practices for you to do wherever you are. My hope is that these practices will support you through this challenging time, and in fact, any challenges you may be facing, and help you to move forward as positively as you can, while still allowing you to feel whatever you may be authentically feeling.
As I said in the first post, the goal of yoga philosophy is to feel empowered to consciously choose your response and therefore influence your experience, no matter what your circumstances are. As the great Viktor Frankl stated, everything can be taken from us except the freedom to choose our attitude. We are always in choice. Thank you, dear Dr. Frankl, and thank you, Yogasūtra. When we can consciously choose our response (instead of unconsciously reacting in a way that potentially causes more suffering), we feel better! You may be raising an eyebrow, but it is definitely possible. So let’s get started.
The very first word of this text—atha—also happens to be the very first practice and tool offered. It’s often translated as “now” but means so much more. It’s considered an auspicious beginning to any undertaking, almost like a blessing, in a very neutral way (without any religious affiliation). More importantly, it implies a turning point, and a readiness and willingness to learn. If we think about this in relation to the word “now,” it means something has shifted from whatever you were doing before, or your perception has changed, and now you’ve made a conscious decision to be here in this moment, watching this video.
The beauty of this word is that it acknowledges YOU. You have made a conscious choice to be here right now with me, and you’ve opened yourself to this practice and what is to come. The text is acknowledging and appreciating whatever effort you’ve made to be here, and NOW, you’re focused on this. You’re beginning to undertake the practice of yoga philosophy.
The second word in this sūtra is yoga, which will be defined in the very next sūtra, so hang on— we’ll get there in the next post.
The third word, anuśāsanam* means an ongoing, experiential practice. In the introductory video, I talked about how one of the characteristics of a sūtra is that it’s experiential, meaning that the tools offered are meant to be put into practice. But here, the text makes sure we know this right out of the gate: No one can do this work for you. It’s not always easy to see clearly, especially when we’re trying to see ourselves honestly. It’s certainly not easy to change the old patterns and habits that are no longer serving us, and trying to act from our best self, but as my teacher TKV Desikachar used to say, “We will try. Something may happen.”
This is the fine print or disclaimer of the text, acknowledging you for all you are giving up to be here, and the effort you are making as you continue this practice, and it is exactly that, a practice. So be gentle with yourself. This is important to remember, as it reminds us that we aren’t expected to be perfect or to get it right every time. (I mean, thank goodness for that one, because, as my kids will attest, I am far from perfect!) You will likely make some mistakes along the way, and that’s expected and perfectly OK. In fact, it’s actually the best way we learn. As I often tell my students, it is process, not perfection. For many of us, it’s a lifelong process that looks different for each of us. Because we have our own unique work to do, it’s a different path, practice, and timeline for each of us, so there’s no need to compare ourselves to others or to some conceptualized ideal in our heads.
We show up where we are, and where we are is just right, no matter how ill-equipped or down-and-out we might feel. The strategies in the text are meant to serve us right now, just as we are.
There are no prerequisites: You don’t have to be better, smarter, or somehow different to begin. In the introduction video, I said this text helped me get sober in 1992. I’m particularly grateful that there are no prerequisites, given the fact that I was a bit of a mess when I was first introduced to the Yogasūtra in 1991. I was a pretty fun-loving and high functioning alcoholic, but an addict nonetheless. If I had been told that I had to be different, or even sober, to begin, I wouldn’t be here with you today. This is the beginning of a journey of self-discovery and ultimately living your best life. You start right where you are.
The great thing about so many of the practices in Yogasūtra is that you can do them anywhere, any time of day or night. In fact, I do most of my sutra practices in the car (I have four kids, so you can imagine that I drive quite a bit) and honestly, I often mull over and muse on sutras in the shower. In both cases, I generally remind myself of my capacity to choose my response instead of react. I also engage in other practices that I hope to share in future videos. Trust me, you can do these practices literally anywhere.
So get ready for the ongoing, experiential adventure with Yogasūtra and let’s get started with your first practice. You can do this every day, and even throughout the day, if you like.
First, take a moment to notice and acknowledge what has shifted in you to get you here: perhaps it was the recommendation of a friend, or feeling stuck and wanting a change, or a lucky intervention of sorts that led you to explore this and try something new. Either way, you made the choice. We are living during an especially stressful time right now with many unknowns and we are all doing our best. It’s not easy, so take a moment to appreciate yourself, whatever brought you here, and what you are working toward. You are here and ready to begin.
Your practice—the atha—is choosing to show up for yourself anytime you feel agitated, frustrated, or worried or are quite simply not feeling like yourself. Even if you make a mistake, lose your temper, or react in a way you don’t like—whatever it is—try to notice the agitation or discomfort. Try to name it, or dig a little at the underlying feeling: maybe you just yelled at your kids or your partner but you’re actually really worried or scared (I’m particularly good at that one!). Even if you just made the most colossal mistake of your life (and trust me, I’m an expert at that, too!), your turning point is noticing and then shifting—not denial—but consciously shifting so that you don’t go down the road of “avoidable suffering” we talked about last time, you know, the whole blame, shame, guilt, regret, shoulda-coulda-woulda, why me? stuff. Even if you do start to go down that road, as soon as you notice, try to consciously shift to something that is supportive and helps you feel like your best self.
Here’s an example. Like many of you, we’ve been sheltering in place, adapting to having all four kids (and my husband) at home. On top of all my usual work, I’ve had to become a kindergarten teacher for my five-year-old, support our fifth-grader with his math and grammar worksheets, and make sure our high schoolers are keeping track of all of their Zoom classes.
I’m usually up for a good challenge, and my kids are wonderfully adaptable, so we’ve been doing pretty well. I don’t typically experience anxiety, but in the last week, I noticed a few times when I felt really anxious. That was usually followed by me barking at my kids to wash their hands or furiously wiping down every surface in my house (again). When my husband commented that I shouldn’t worry so much because we were such a “low-risk” group, it hit me. Those were exactly the words I had been told over and over again when I was diagnosed with cancer. I was “so low-risk,” I was “so fit and healthy.” I was “doing everything right.” My nurses asked me more than once whether I was an “elite athlete” and yet, none of that protected me from a life-threatening illness. Despite being “low-risk,” I ended up with aggressive breast cancer at 44. So I don’t take anything for granted or kid myself into thinking I’m somehow protected or immune from anything.
I realized that the pandemic was triggering a PTSD response in me resulting from my cancer treatment. I chose not to bite my husband’s head off (and increase my suffering!) and shared my insight with him instead. I told him that I was happy he had never feared for his life or worried that he might not be around for our kids. I know we could all get hit by a bus or an asteroid at any moment, but there is something very different about being told you have a disease that could kill you. To me, it felt like I was staring down the barrel of a gun.
I realized, with this pandemic, that I’m not immune, and it triggered all that fear of potentially dying if I do get it, even though the risk may be technically low. So, what I’ve been doing when I’m hit with that anxiety, is to gently remind myself that there’s a good reason for it, given what I’ve been through. I’m gentle with myself and acknowledge the feelings. I name my anxiety for what it is, and then tell myself something that is true and positive so that the anxiety doesn’t spin out. I sort of mentally pat myself on the back, with understanding of where the anxiousness is coming from, and then I remind myself that I am healthy today. Today I am not sick (in fact, this has also helped with fears around recurrence that sometimes come up). I am doing everything I can to stay healthy and keep my family healthy. I can control only so much, and the rest is out of my hands. If I do get the virus, I’ll do my very best to heal, just as I did with cancer. And I try to focus on all the good things that have come from this pandemic so far: My older kids are enjoying reliving their own kindergarten experience with their sister (even my 18-year-old) as we bake bread with honey butter and watch her delightful puppet shows each day. We’re enjoying playing music together and working on puzzles, and two of my kids and I are learning American Sign Language. We’re lucky we enjoy each other, and I’m so grateful that I get to do meaningful work that I love and the fact that I can do most of it from home.
The anxiety and fear sometimes creep in again, but acknowledging it and then focusing on other positive things in my life that are true helps me feel better. I’m choosing what to focus on: I can focus on the possibility of me getting sick or on my present reality, which is actually quite wonderful. Both are true, but I feel better choosing to keep my focus on what is positive and good in my life.
If you can’t think of a positive support or focus at first, start by physically shifting something, even if it means walking to the next room. Or, if you notice what you’re doing is starting to increase your agitation, put it down, or walk away and do something else. For example, while it’s important to stay informed, sometimes, if I spend too much time on the news, I end up feeling my stress levels rise. Noticing that and limiting my time on the news has helped a lot. If you can’t think of what to do next, go wash some dishes (which offers the double benefit of washing your hands and getting some chores done. While you’re spending time in the warm, sudsy water, think about something supportive that brings you joy or ease or that feels good. You could even remember a time when you felt most supported or like your best self. What you do to shift and try to come back to yourself is one of the most important practices of yoga philosophy.
The practice you choose to shift your state of mind could be literally anything: crafting, quilting, calling a friend, writing in a journal or writing a letter, looking at old pictures of yourself or loved ones, dancing, singing, whatever helps you feel most like yourself. One of my friends recently made a video of herself and her son jumping around in costumes for exercise that she called “fool’s delight.” Another friend sent me a video of her daughter sitting on their back deck singing and playing guitar (and taking requests) for their neighbors over the fence. This counts as practice! Even sitting quietly and reading a favorite book or poem. Your atha is your moment to shift something in you, even if it’s calling up a friend or checking in on your parents or grandparents by phone or video.
You may wonder what the difference is between this and good old distraction, for example, digging into a bottle of wine, a bar of chocolate or binge-watching your favorite TV shows.
Here lies a subtle but important distinction. The main difference is whether it’s a conscious choice versus an unconscious habit or reaction. Ideally, whatever you choose is something that’s a positive support for you or that helps you feel more clear, more present, and more connected to yourself. Please don’t mistake me here: I’m not at all implying that enjoying a bar of chocolate isn’t a heavenly experience. Yoga philosophy isn’t about renouncing or giving up the things we love. It’s about being in the world completely, and that includes loving and enjoying the things and people that make life rich and wonderful. When we’re talking about connecting to our best self and reducing our experience of suffering, we want to make choices, as much as we’re able, that support us. If my choice is actually causing harm to myself or others—or is destructive, such as an addiction—I’ll end up eventually increasing my suffering, and that’s not what we’re going for. Even binge-watching can be a perfectly fine distraction as long as you’re making a conscious choice and are aware of and comfortable with the consequences (for example, you might be a little tired the next day). It’s also fine to indulge in things that bring us comfort and joy, as long as we do it with awareness, so it doesn’t end up causing harm down the road.
This is the first step to connecting with the part of you that you want to strengthen and cultivate: it could be your creativity, your kindness, your compassion. It could be stability, calm, joy, love.
The practice is consciously shifting direction and doing something else that feels more nourishing. You get to choose. Whatever that is for you, it can be different every day and even throughout the day, depending on your needs and what you’re feeling.
So, to review, your first practice is:
- Acknowledging your efforts, and whatever you’re doing to show up for yourself every day
- Consciously choosing to move forward as positively as you can, no matter what your situation (while still acknowledging the reality and difficulty of the situation), And…
- When you feel agitated or upset, consciously trying to shift toward any kind of positive focus that helps you connect with what you want more of in yourself and your life
- And finally, but most importantly, remembering to be gentle with yourself. Remember this is a process, so be forgiving with yourself along the way.
We are all in this together, and as the text says, the practices are ongoing, so take it easy on yourself. As I tell my students, yoga practice is a fine line of holding ourselves accountable and also being gentle with ourselves and our process along the way.
Thanks for watching, have fun with the practice and share your experience in the comments. If you’d like to stay informed of future videos, please be sure to subscribe, and check out our website for additional resources and upcoming programs. Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you next time!
*my apologies to all you linguists out there, I’m not very techy and haven’t figured out the Sanskrit transliteration font yet, but I’m working on it!