Clearing the Fog

We’re now on the second sūtra of the first chapter: sūtra I.2, which defines yoga as the practice of focusing the mind and, specifically, the different functions of the mind, in a direction you consciously choose. We’ll talk more about the functions of the mind a few sūtras down the road but, for today, we’re simply going to focus on focusing the mind.

In the previous video, I spoke about the word atha as a turning point, or consciously shifting your energy or focus in a positive, new direction. The practice of yoga as described in sūtra 1.2 isn’t just a shift but an effort to actively focus or direct the mind in a more sustained way. Whereas the atha moment from the previous sūtra is noticing, being present, and consciously shifting toward something more positive, this sūtra is more specifically asking us to practice focusing the mind on an object of choice.

The first sūtra is what gets us out of bed, out the door, starting a new book or beginning a new adventure. But this second sūtra, the ongoing practice of yoga, is the beginning of the actual journey. It’s the first step of moving forward positively toward personal growth and transformation.

Now, quite honestly, when I first heard about this whole sitting-quietly-and-focusing-the-mind-thing from Mr. Desikachar back in 1991, it sounded pretty boring, and I didn’t see the point. But over the years, I have come to deeply appreciate the value of this simple practice: choosing an object that speaks to me, resonates positively and feels supportive, and then simply sitting quietly and (trying!) to keep my attention focused on my object of choice for as long as I’m able to in that moment.

A couple things are important here: When I said “my object of choice,” please notice that I used the word choice and remember that our goal is to feel empowered to CHOOSE our response, no matter what the situation. Since the Yogasūtra is so open and universal, you also get to choose your object of focus. It can be quite literally anything, as long as it feels supportive for you. Whatever object you choose to focus on, the most important thing is that it be a positive support and not be agitating.

Because we are all different, what might be supportive for one person, could be agitating or disturbing for another. For example, I love the ocean. I got my advanced SCUBA certification when I was a teenager because I love the feeling of being underwater. I find the ocean calming and soothing, even when it’s stormy. But for someone who finds the ocean overwhelming, or even terrifying, choosing the ocean as an object of focus would obviously be counter-productive.

My teacher, Sri TKV Desikachar always emphasized that the practice of yoga should not be agitating—or at least the object of focus shouldn’t be. Ideally, whatever object we choose to focus our attention on should be one that helps us cultivate the qualities we’d like to have more of, for example, health, strength, peace, and compassion. This results in quieting and calming the mind and feeling more clear and more connected to our authentic or true self.

It’s not yoga when I’m intently watching a sporting event, even though all my faculties and all the functions of my mind are focused on the game. I get so passionate about the game, and so involved, that my mind is most definitely not stable or even remotely calm (further illustrated by my vehement, colorful language).

The goal of yoga is to cultivate a state of independence in which my mood and state of mind are not dependent on outside circumstances. Although watching sporting events is certainly an enjoyable and fun pastime for me, it would most definitely not be a yoga practice, despite my intense focus, given that my mood varies considerably according to the outcome of the game, and therefore I am most definitely NOT in a state of kaivalyam or independence.

Choosing an object of focus that doesn’t provoke us or cause agitation doesn’t mean the practice will be easy or that we won’t encounter difficulty or personal pain on this path. After all, the practice of seeing yourself honestly and changing old patterns that are no longer serving you can sometimes actually be quite painful. Further, each of us will likely have different goals or qualities that we hope to cultivate from our object of focus. For some, it might be feeling more calm, relaxed, and accepting, for some it might be cultivating strength and stability, and for some, it might be cultivating a stronger sense of self, a stronger voice, clearer communication, or better boundaries.

No matter what your goals are or what qualities you hope to connect with and cultivate more of, ideally, your object of focus is personalized and carefully chosen. You may even seek the guidance of a trusted teacher, loved one, or friend who knows you well in choosing an object. It’s important that you choose it carefully because, as you sustain focus, the connection and “relationship” with the object deepens so it provides a positive support for you.

Now that we know we can choose anything to focus on, let’s get to the “so what?” Meaning why should you bother with this practice?

As I tell my students, the next sūtra, which we’ll talk about in an upcoming video, is the real “So what?” But I’ll give you a sneak peek this week.

What’s the point of this focusing-the-mind stuff? Why bother with all this?

Consciously focusing the mind on an object of choice is simply one of the primary strategies to help us reach our goal of seeing more clearly, connecting with (and acting) from our true selves, experiencing more “independence,” and feeling better as a result.

Simply put, this sūtra defines yoga as the practice of consciously focusing the mind. This is the key to quieting and refining the mind so we can “see” more clearly. When you see more clearly, you understand more fully and have a better picture of your situation. In addition, as we’ll discover in the next sūtra, seeing more clearly helps you to connect with and act from your own true, authentic self.

So how does this work? I want to use one of my favorite props to illustrate the value of focusing the mind in one direction. I live in San Francisco, and when I first moved here to study Sanskrit, I used to row on the bay just over the bridge in Sausalito. Many mornings before school or work I would get up early and drive over the bridge to row, and there were many, many mornings when there was so much fog that I couldn’t see the bridge, even as I was driving over it. Although I was surrounded by and driving on tons and tons of steel, I couldn’t see it.  Of course, this reminded me of the Yogasūtra: Something can be right in front of you, in fact all around you, but you don’t see it because something is blocking your clear sight.

In the case of the Yogasūtra, what’s keeping us from seeing clearly, or blocking our clear perception, is all the distractions in our mind, old patterns, habits, and whatnot that we’ll talk about in later sūtras. I have a wonderful San Francisco fog globe that I love to use with my students as an example because it so beautifully illustrates the value of just sitting still and focusing on one thing.

Let’s say my mind is the globe, and the fog is all the stuff in my mind, all my thoughts, ideas, emotions, and feelings. Let’s further say that my true or authentic self (as the Yogasūtra would say, the “witness”) is the Golden Gate bridge in the middle. If I’m distracted and my mind is going in all directions, all the stuff inside my mind gets stirred up, and I can’t see clearly. I can’t see what’s in front of me, nor can I see myself.

But if I sit and focus the mind on one thing, and stop running around going this way and that, the fog slowly settles, and I can see more clearly. All those ideas, feelings, and whatnot, they don’t disappear. They’re right there, but they settle on the bottom in my fog globe, and they settle in my own mind as well, so that now I can see them more clearly.

Of course, I wouldn’t want what’s in my mind to disappear or go away—or at least not all of it. Much of what’s in my mind, including memories, ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc. is wonderful. But there are other things that pop up or swirl around my mind that aren’t so useful to me anymore, even if they were useful at some point in my life.  When my thoughts have settled and my mind is more clear, I can see the situation I’m in, and I can see my thoughts, my feelings, and myself, more clearly. Ideally, I’ll be able to move forward more productively and positively in a way that brings me more happiness, stability, and joy.

So let’s get to your practice.

Today’s practice is choosing and thinking about an object that feels like a positive support for you and then trying to spend some time keeping your mind focused on it. This is cultivating the practice of mindfulness and attention so that we can quiet and calm the mind.

The object of focus can be anything symbolizing or embodying qualities you seek and/or wish to cultivate, deepen or strengthen in yourself. For example:

  • A person, alive or dead, known or unknown to you, with qualities you admire or wish to cultivate
  • A prayer, chant, hymn, song, mantra, poem, or verse
  • An inspirational word, quote, affirmation, or intention
  • An object in nature: sun, moon, ocean, mountain, flower, tree, etc.
  • An animal, spirit animal, vision from a dream, landscape, place, etc.
  • Essentially anything that provides a positive support, or it can be something neutral like your breath.

If you can’t think of a specific object or thing to focus on, the breath is a wonderful neutral focus for the mind. The breath is always with you, you don’t have to worry about forgetting it or losing it, and you don’t need any extra props, so you can practice anywhere.

Remember to keep it simple and try to have fun with it.

It can be hard to sit quietly and focus when you first start, so be gentle with yourself. Start with a small goal: Set your timer for only two to three minutes. Make sure you’re in a comfortable place, indoors or out, and begin. Once you’ve chosen your object of focus, just try to keep your attention on it, without worrying whether you’re doing it “right,” and without judgment if you get distracted.

When your mind wanders, as it does for all of us, just gently bring your focus back to your object without any judgment. That’s it.

Even the simplest and shortest practices can bring benefit. When I was in the middle of my cancer treatments, I was either so nauseous or in so much pain from various side-effects that I wasn’t able to do my regular practices without discomfort. So I developed a simple practice that I did each night right before sleep for many months. After getting ready for bed, I would sit on the edge of my bed in the dark and place one hand on my heart and the other on my head. I closed my eyes and said to myself softly, “Just rest in your heart, rest in your heart” and then breathed quietly for a few moments.

Some nights, it was probably three breaths, and other nights maybe it was three minutes. The point is: It helped me. Even that sweet, simple little practice helped me. As my teacher always said, “Yoga is a rope,” It gives you something to hold onto to help steady yourself and help you find your way back to yourself. And this little practice certainly did that for me.

Not judging yourself is actually the most important part of this. I already told you I like sports. Well, I tell my students that meditating, focusing the mind and, in fact, most practices offered in the Yogasūtra, are a lot like baseball. A really good batting average for professional baseball players who earn millions of dollars is .300, which means they actually strike out two out of three times.

Just let that sink in for a minute. These players continue to go up to the plate knowing that, statistically, they will strike out two out of three times, and even if they do get a hit and get on base, it’s usually not a home run or even a triple. It could just be a single. The point is, none of them could continue to play if they beat themselves up every time they struck out. Instead, they get up there, do their best, and get out there again and keep trying.

So to start with, your practice is just showing up at the plate and doing your best without attachment to the outcome. And then you get to try again later, or the next day.

Have fun choosing something that brings you peace, joy, strength, or whatever you most want to cultivate in yourself right now, something that helps you feel most like yourself and most like who you want to be in the world. And try to be gentle with yourself, go easy, and remember this is all a learning opportunity. It’s just a strategy to help you feel more clear and more connected with yourself, so try to stick with it, even if it’s only for two minutes a day. Eventually, you will also see yourself more clearly and start to learn something about yourself.

Remember, meditation is like baseball: You’re expected to “strike out.” The practice is just showing up without judgment: Process, not perfection!

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!


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:

  1. Few words: It’s deliberately concise.
  2. 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!)
  3. There is no ambiguity: Words are intentionally chosen and organized.
  4. 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.
  5. It’s experiential: You have to show up, put in the effort, and DO it.
  6. 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!