Atha Yoga Anushasanam
Swami J: Now, after having done prior preparations through life and other practices, the study and practice of Yoga begins.
Bouanchaud: Now is set forth authoritative teaching on yoga.
Atha — Here and now, at this auspicious moment
Yoga — of yoga, union, to integrate, absorption into samadhi, one of the darshanas
Anushasanam — outline, teaching, discipline, following tradition with implication of being subsequent to something else.
Atha (now). I LOVE that word. It has always been a great source of comfort and hope for me. Bouanchaud writes “Atha also refers to the preliminary step a disciple takes to study this text.” When I read this sutra, I get this clear sense of “it’s not too late, you know”. That gives me comfort. I’ve tried a lot of ways of making my way through life’s challenges. Out and out denial is frequently employed. Being bullheaded, stubborn and just pushing myself past the pain and the fatigue has been another strategy. Tactically, they both have their advantages. They’re pretty effective at resolving the immediate crisis. I can’t say I’d recommend either of them as a long term strategy. They work but with great cost. Effective but not sustainable is how I categorize them. For the long term, I just need more realistic strategies because I’m thinking that life isn’t likely to get any less challenging.
So when I read this sutra it’s like the universe is saying “Great, Kate. Glad you got all that denying and stubborn out of your system. Now that you’ve discovered the limits of it, would you like to take a look at something that has a track record? Here’s yoga”.
Bouanchaud notes in his discussion on anushasanam that yoga is “founded on living experience and continuity in the oral tradition.” For someone like me, that’s a great source of comfort. First of all, I’m not the only human being ever to have to face up to the crap the Universe can dump in our laps. It’s happened before, to other people, and they didn’t all let it make them crazy. Some of them developed sound tactics on how to work with Universal Crap™. Secondly, some of these people who didn’t let it make them crazy were kind enough to leave a few trail blazing Post-It Notes along the way for those of us who follow. And finally, Yoga isn’t all about having faith in someone else’s experience.
Yoga is very much about trying it out for yourself. I can read 10 000 descriptions of what a forward bend feels like. I can read about benefits, and contraindications and therapeutic implications and symbolism and et-afreaking-cetera until I’m purple. Until I actually put my feet on the mat and DO a forward bend, paying attention to how it feels in my body, in my mind, I don’t get forward bends.” To my mind, yoga is spirituality for science geeks. It’s experiential and experimental. What happens when I do … this? … that? … a combination of this and that? The geek rejoices.
Even if I do 10 000 forward bends, if I’m doing them right, they are each their own unique experience. They’re all the same and they’re all different. Does it get any freaking cooler than this or what? Yoga is about the now.
The other thing I really like about the “Now” of this sutra is that it keeps it fresh. You can study yoga for 2 weeks or 40 years but every time you come back to it, it is still “Now”. When I took my first yoga class, the study of it was remembering where to put my feet, how to not fall over when doing a forward bend and…Oh right…BREATHE.
Years have passed and I’ve done a lot more studying and with Yoga, I’m still having my NOW moments. Last week, I spent a lot of time with 10 wonderful women studying this very material. We went through sections of these sutras Sanskrit definition-by-definition. This my second go at trying to decipher the contents of Chapter one. The last time, two years ago now, I found myself overwhelmingly frustrated by the process. Part of the problem was I was doing it very much on my own and between you and me, there’s places where the Bouanchaud translation is enough to make you want to bounce your skull off a brick wall until it stops hurting. So I’m giving myself permission this time around to seek out other translations, and other texts. Last night, I spent a couple of quality hours delving into Mircea Eliade’s Yoga: Immortality and Freedom for a perspective on how Yoga fits into the schemata of the other Indian darshanas (schools of philosophical thought). It’s a different place than where I started in my first class, but it’s still very much a NOW moment. I feel refreshed again.
Namaste and thanks for reading,
A general note: This blog is about trying to integrate the philosophical teachings of Yoga into my daily life. I’m not an expert on Sanskrit, Yoga or Life in general. My teacher Kathryn Downton has provided an important part of my education in these matters but I read voraciously on these topics. I’ll credit her for the parts that I get right and I’ll own the parts I mess up. I try to acknowledge my sources where I can but frankly, I haven’t kept good notes over the years on where I got this stuff. These discussions are meant to be about one person’s perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Please keep in mind that this is exploration and not explanation.