Yogah Chittavrutti Nirodhah
—Verse 1.2, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Union (yoga) is the cessation of fluctuations in consciousness,” says the second verse in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The first verse, verse 1.1, is this simple statement, “Now begins Yoga instruction.” (Atha Yoganusasanam). I find it interesting that verse 1.2 reads more like the conclusion, rather than the beginning, of instruction. So what does Patanjali deal with in the remaining 194 verses of the treatise?
During our summer trip to Kerala in June, my son Joshi and I took advantage of a brief lull in the monsoon’s downpour to travel from Kollam to Trivandrum by train. During the short trip of about an hour, the railway track crosses many rivers and lakes including Lake Ashtamudi, a very large body of water with eight (ashta) branches. When it is not traversing these large bodies of water, the track is hemmed in on both sides by trees, houses and streets. So for most of the trip, the scenery rushes by at a fast pace. But when the train enters a bridge the landscape falls away abruptly and slide by so slowly that one might imagine that the train has magically slowed down or even stopped. These respites from the rushing scenery were so enchanting that the noise and rocking motion of the train, the dirt and odor of the coach, the fellow passengers crowding around you (we were travelling unreserved second class, standing room only!), all these assaults on the senses disappeared from my awareness. I was left with a calming vision of placid waters and a distant and still horizon highlighted by coconut trees.
I turned to my teenage son and asked, “Joshi, do you find this scene relaxing?”
“Yeah, sure it does” he said.
“Why so?” I probed.
“Because it is still and calm” was his ready reply.
“That’s so right”, I thought to myself, “And the expansive view holds a hint of the infinite”. The suggestion of the infinite to just one of our senses, sight in this case, was sufficient to remove the unpleasantness inflicted upon the other senses.
What does Patanjali offer those travelling on the rail tracks of Life?
What vast vistas of awareness opens up to those who manage to disconnect the mind from the rapid fluctuations of worldly life?
The Yoga Sutras discuss the blissfulness and the access to the Infinite that comes from a conscious stilling of the train of thoughts that the human mind is perpetually riding on. Since these sutras were created many millennia ago when they could be transmitted only by word of mouth, they are quite compact and cryptic. Moreover, they are in Sanskrit. So they are not easily understood by the modern reader. To make matters harder for the spiritual enthusiast, the literature on Yoga offers a bewildering variety of approaches. There is Patanjali’s own “eight limbs of Yoga” (verse 2.29) that range from moral discipline to body postures to concentration of the mind. Yogic philosophy also proposes a system of “koshas” (sheaths) that cover the Divine within the human body; these sheaths transition from the gross to the fine—Anna-maya (food body), Prana-maya (energy body), Mano-maya (mind body), Vijnana-maya (wisdom body) and Ananda-maya (Bliss body). Nowadays, yoga is often erroneously associated with stretching routines and exercise regimens, especially in the West.
Perhaps, the easiest discussions about Yoga are the ones about the four yogic paths—Karma (action), Bhakti (devotion), Jnana (knowledge) and Raja (energy) yoga with their respective emphasis on doing, feeling, learning and being. Especially for knowledge workers who thrive on hard work, the paths of Jnana and Karma have a natural appeal. A course in yoga that offers a rational approach to the essence of its practices in a secular fashion would be beneficial to urban societies immersed in modern science and technology. “Inner Engineering” offered by the Isha Foundation is one such program that launches the participants on a path to a certain awareness and a simple daily practice designed to align the four components of human existence: being, thinking, feeling and working.
As for the concluding verse of Patanjali’s sutras, it states, the lofty end that awaits the steady practitioner is the realization that the Creator is a fellow traveler on the journey of Life.
Jojy Michael is a knowledge worker in Silicon Valley. His perspectives on yoga are greatly influenced by Isha Foundation courses like Inner Engineering. Jojy has been a steady practitioner of Isha Yoga since 2008.