The following is excerpted from an unpublished anthology of personal reflections on the Yoga Sūtras, a project begun via the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, MA (www.kripalu.org)
How do the teachings of the Yoga Sūtras influence my understanding and practice of Yoga?
One of the first tools I learned in the Kripalu Volunteer Program was the acronym "BRFWA,” which stands for: Breathe, Relax, Feel, Watch, and Allow. Practicing these awareness exercises enabled me to slow down reactivity, ground my thinking and feeling in the present moment, and maintain an embodied and emotional connection during difficult or challenging situations. BRFWA served me tremendously during that period of my life, and is a skill I continue to practice for increased mindfulness, responsiveness, relaxation, and returning to the present in the midst of psychological projection, emotional triggering, or fear-based thinking.
Patañjali, in his Yoga Sūtras, speaks to riding these waves of sensation in his definition and goal of yoga (YS 1.2) as yogascittavrttinirodha, translated as, "yoga is the stilling (cessation) of the turning (fluctuations) of the mind." Patañjali's definition is highly compact and condensed, keeping in line with the tradition in which he is writing (sutra means "thread"). Each word, therefore, not only has unique value, but also multiple meanings. Yoga means “to yoke” (yuj), to bind or bring together. Citta means "mind," and includes not only the analytical or discriminative capacity of the mind, but also the ahaṃkara (I-ness, or me-ness; our egoic sense of self), manas (sensory perception), samskaras (our personal "complexes"), and buddhi (the intellect). In other words, to Patañjali, all aspects of our mind need to go through a process of nirodha, the stilling or ceasing of the mind’s turnings, in order to see through the revolving door of anxieties, grasping, and illusory thinking. The result is the ability to identify not with the fleeting qualities of the mind and its misperceptions, but with purusa – the Spirit within. To cite the Vedantic sage and YS commentator, Ṣankaracharya, we need to first learn to see the rope as a rope, and not as a snake, which would only subject further mental harm, confusion, or pain to ourselves or when projected onto others.
My time as a Kripalu Volunteer assisted me tremendously in re-defining my yoga practice from one done physically on the mat, to an internalized and deeply relational process "off the mat." This redefinition helped me to ground my practice upon the construction of a solid emotional base for relating to myself and others, as well as a mental acuity for perceiving my environment and the world around me. Rather than focusing solely on the performance or perfection of a series of postures, my yoga practice became about relating to a power greater than myself, a Spiritual source beyond the fluctuations and illusory constructs of my mind. This is the practice I follow today: a deeply interiorized yoga informed by Patañjali's definition that assists me in cultivating more clarity, focus, heart, presence, and compassion for myself and for those I live, love, and work with. It is a relational approach that yokes all aspects of myself, my environment, and my world into a unified whole that is not compartmentalized into categories of sacred or profane, spiritual or secular, holy or depraved. To me these are the tantric dimensions of yoga. As the ancient alchemical dictum tells us, "As above, so below," Patañjali's definition of yoga reminds me of the inter-connected nature of the psyche that at its core is Sacred.