The ancient yogis were pretty much like we are – minus all the technology. They got angry and frustrated, they suffered when in pain and craved stuff they didn’t have. They built their lives around eating and procreating and staying safe. They laughed and loved, and they learned a whole lot of life involved suffering. To lower the suffering side of the equation and add more tranquillity and joy, they experimented with what they all had: a body and a mind.
From the beginning, yoga has been profoundly basic. You use what you’ve got.
Yogic techniques were designed to yoke body, mind and spirit in the service of an integrated, happier life. Somewhere around 400 CE a sage name Patanjalis wrote what is the oldest text we know of on yoga philosophy and practice. Patanjalis’ Yoga Sutras – 196 aphorisms in four chapters – captures yoga as he and his contemporaries knew it. Right up front in Sutra 1.2 he says: “yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought.”*
The ancients discovered this “yoga” could control the madness going on in our heads all day. The English poet John Milton wrote in the 1600s that: “The mind has its own place and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.” Our minds, like Milton’s and the ancient yogis’ minds, are still in that place – central and dominant and creating heavenly or hellish dramas in every day.
The mind twists itself around and around the same fears and concerns over and again. It veers from thought to thought like a go cart on a grease track. It is stamped with prejudices and preferences that come in cultural and familial shapes. It decides whether experiences are welcome or loathsome before they even happen.
In the yogis’ search for a little freedom from the mind’s domination and dogma – for some equanimity and tranquility in there – they practiced meditation and mantra, breathing exercises, cleansing practices and physical postures. And some of it got pretty whacky.
As William J Broad says in The Science of Yoga, for a few centuries: “Yoga . . . was an obscure cult steeped in magic and eroticism.” It attracted its fair share of charlatans and rogues – and still does. In the last few centuries, however, Broad says western science itself helped bring yoga into the mainstream “as investigators began to show how the ostensible wonders of yoga had natural explanations.”
Broad presents ample the evidence for yoga’s positive impact on “health and healing, sex and longevity, moods and creativity.”
While we think of yoga as just making shapes with our bodies on a sticky mat, spend time in any class with a well-trained teacher you’ll be exposed to the philosophy of yoga as well.
Patanjalis only mentioned one posture: the posture for seated meditation. That asana, he said, should be taken with sthira and sukha: with comfort and ease. It was another thousand years before Swatmarama wrote the oldest existing text on yoga postures, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika.
Modern yoga is a whole series of practices that evolved from The Hatha Yoga Pradipika.Since yoga was first snipped from its sub-continental roots and grafted onto western culture, it has been fertilised by equal parts commercial and spiritual energy and has spawned many non-Indian gurus. Our culture is individualistic, materialistic and competitive – it suits us to start with the solid reality of our physical bodies.And it suits many of us to go no deeper than skin and bone. There are plenty of benefits right there.
But the philosophy behind all those twists and balances goes way back to Patanjalis and to the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The tool for finding a little freedom from the storm of thoughts in our minds is meditation. Many of us who turn up for yoga class don’t realise it, but we start to learn meditation as soon as we begin to feel into our bodies on the mat, or when we learn to follow our breath in savasana or corpse pose at the end of class. We use the body as our first object of meditation.
Patanjalis said pain and suffering that has not yet occurred can and should be avoided (Sutra 2.16) and yoga is designed to do it. Nanna thinks avoiding future pain and suffering is not a bad reason to get your butt on a mat.
Patanjalis also talks about the things that make it hard to practice: illness, doubts, fatigue, overindulgence and lack of perseverance. He talks about the problems caused by our attachments and aversions, about the things that trigger our egos and insecurities – he outlines the whole catastrophe of being a human being. There is nothing new in these body/minds we are schlepping about in.
As Ralph Waldo Emerson said of another of the ancient Indian texts that modern yogis love: “I owed a magnificent day to the Bhagavad Gita. It was the first of books: it was as if an empire spoke to us, nothing small or unworthy, but large, serene, consistent, the voice of an old intelligence which in another age and climate had pondered and thus disposed of the same questions which exercise us.”
Nanna sees a lot of yoga’s “old intelligence” seeping into the everyday moments of life. The LIVING section of our website captures examples of yoga’s philosophy of the ordinary.
*Translation by Barbara Stoler Miller