Years ago I heard a yoga teacher say, “Start yoga and your whole life will change.” Sure enough it did. My eating habits began to change, going to bed earlier to get up earlier to practice evolved, buying and wearing more comfortable clothes made more sense, and I found myself drawn to different people. These outward changes reflected a change in my thinking and what I wanted for myself.
All of us have stories of change and transformation. It’s the juicy stuff in fairy tales, love stories, and it’s what Hollywood makes movies about. Some aspect of the character (usually the star), needs, or wants or has to change and this transformation requires them to be more real, more authentic, more aligned to their true self. And that’s the happy ending!
So what brings about this transforming positive action? Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras could be called “The Guide to Transformation.” Patanjali has given us the Eight Limbs of Yoga for this very thing. It is a lofty list which includes: yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. In the second and third chapters of the Sutras he elaborates on each limb and its benefits. Interestingly, the first chapter introduces us to the mind and how it works. Given that what we think determines how we feel, and our feelings shape our behavior, our thoughts and feelings are a place to look if we want to make changes in our lives.
Most of us who start yoga begin with asana. The practice of asana steps us out of our life, onto the mat and the transformation process begins. Taking time out for a yoga practice is a “time out” for the mind. There’s a gradual letting go of the world’s hold on us. When we’re not on autopilot, our mind can be more focused and clear and we become more connected and present with ourselves. And that is what yoga is—a connection to our true self. Sutra 1.3 states it this way: “Then the seer dwells in his own true splendor”—a place of connection to our Source, our Higher Power, God. The next sutra says that all other times we identify with whatever our mind is dwelling on. Mr. Iyengar says this is citta viksepa—“a current of disturbed thoughts running like a river.” So how do you soothe the restless, busy mind?
In chapter one, after defining different types of mental states, Patanjali gives a series of Sutras as practices that help to quiet and focus the mind. Sutra 1.33 is a sutra that can be used as a transforming practice. Mr. Iyengar translates this sutra as: “Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favorably disposed, serene and benevolent.” Just as in a yoga pose we use our attention to find freedom, stability, space and unity, this sutra offers friendliness, compassion, joy and equanimity as aspects to contemplate and reflect on, to soothe our mental states. Our attention on these qualities and our desire to bring them into our daily lives, keeps us moving towards more positive and connecting relationships with ourselves and our world.
To change and be willing to do something different, we need to practice paying attention to what connects us to our highest good, a sense of openness and well-being, and what closes us down and keeps us feeling isolated and afraid. The Sutras are a guide with a variety of practices. Our practice is to be mindful of how we are feeling and recognize we have choices on where we put our attention. Where do we let our mind dwell? How does it make us feel? Our feelings will guide our choices and our choices create our path.
“And the day came when the risk it took to remain tight inside the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” – Anais Nin