Most of us come to Yoga looking for something. Initially we come to get in shape or to calm down. With time, however, we start to experience something blossoming within us that is powerful and we start to wonder what it is all about. That’s where studying texts can often come in handy. Unfortunately, Yoga philosophy is given tacit mention in many Yoga rooms around the world. Classes, teachers, and methods are often so preoccupied with teaching physical techniques that the deeper philosophy of Yoga often gets sidelined. My teacher often used to say: “Yoga is 99% practice and 1% theory.” What he was implying was that you could read all sorts of books about Yoga, but until you actually put it into practice, you could not know what Yoga was. Unfortunately my teacher’s statement has been taken too literally in most Ashtanga schools. Instead, mastery of asanas has become overemphasized. Not many teachers encourage us to stop and ask ourselves what Yoga is all about.
Translations that Don't Make Sense
Admittedly, I fell into the same trap. Up until a few years ago, I ignored those peers of mine who raved about studying Yoga philosophy. I stuck hard to my 99% practice and gave little to no thought to that 1% theory. I was too busy trying to perform advanced asana sequences to have time for high philosophy. To me it seemed like my friends interested in sutras and Sanskrit were all too proud of their knowledge. I never knew much about Yoga philosophy beside the bits and pieces I would hear from teachers or need to parrot off in Yoga classes, like the names of the eight limbs of Yoga.
One thing always sort of plagued me about Yoga philosophy. It was the definition of Yoga I'd heard from my first teacher:
Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind stuff.
That definition is one of many interpretations of the second verse of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Yoga’s seminal text. The problem I had with the above translation was that in the many years I had been practicing yoga, I had never achieved an ounce of the definition. No matter how far I had advanced in my asana practice, I never stopped thinking altogether. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get rid of that little voice inside that yammers away at me.
I used to test myself to see how long I could go without thinking a thought. As soon as the test began, I had already failed. It was like trying not to think of the pink elephant in the room. Using this interpretation as a benchmark for my success on the path of Yoga doomed me to utter failure, so I simply chose to ignore it and keep plugging away at my practice in hopes that one day, maybe in a very advanced posture, I would get it.
The Importance of Translation that Do
Only a few years ago, I found an access to Yoga philosophy. As I was preparing for a workshop, I ran across a translation of The Yoga Sutras that not only seemed somewhat manageable for me to achieve, but it illuminated a vision of the practice that reached far beyond the mat and into my life. It came from T.K.V. Desikachar’s The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice (Inner Traditions; Revised Edition. March 1, 1999). Desikachar interpreted the second verse of The Yoga Sutras as: “Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.” In other words, Yoga is the ability to concentrate.
What a relief! Instead of ceasing to think, Desikachar's definition of Yoga was something I knew. Granted, it wasn't always easy to focus for a sustained period of time, but it was possible and something I was familiar with. I'd had the experience of being focused on something before. I hadn't had the experience in which I stopped thinking altogether. But I’d had the experience in which ancillary thoughts sort of diminished the more I focused on one thing. In short, Desikachar's interpretation personally helped me find a human, down-to-earth way of relating to the philosophy of The Practice.
A Definition of Yoga That's Wide Enough to Include All of Life
What also fascinated me was that this translation did not say, “Yoga means doing a yoga posture with mastery." In fact, I’ve never come across a translation of The Sutras that says this. The Sutras, in fact, say very little about yoga postures. Instead, it said that Yoga is concentrating on an object. The object could be anything. One could perform Yoga on something as simple as the breath, a sound, or an image. The object could be a concept, like love, change, or life.
It is so easy to get stuck in the perspective that one life exists in Yoga class and another exists while having a drink with a friend, behind the desk at work, or while taking out the trash. According to this definition, they are all opportunities to achieve Yoga. We misunderstand when we think that we are better yogis if we can teach a Yoga class or perform advanced asanas. If that were the case, then all Yoga gurus would be great circus performers. How come we do not tend to consider mechanics, musicians, or designers yogis? By this definition, the work they do, if concentrated, is, indeed, Yoga.
Seeing Things As They Are, Not As We Hope, Wish, or Imagine
What is the benefit of concentration, anyway? The next two verses of The Yoga Sutras clarify this. Once we have achieved concentration on a particular object, we come to know the object as it is. When we don’t concentrate, when we are not really present with what we're doing, we see what we want to see, hope to see, or think we should see. In the end, we don't really see. We project something from our imagination, and as a result misinterpret what we see.
Romantic relationships are a great and probably the most challenging example of this. The moment of falling in love is a beautiful experience. All too often the experience causes us to imagine that our beloved is the answer to all our suffering. Such a projection is disastrous for any relationship. It puts undo pressure on the other and the relationship. But if we stay present to what the true experience is and not the Cinderella story, falling in love can be extremely transformative.
The point of practice is to get the hang of seeing clearly. If we narrow the definition of Yoga to a set of exercises that when achieved masterfully will somehow bring about tranquility, we totally miss the point. The exercises practiced on the mat are simply metaphors for our lives. We come to the mat to develop the skill of seeing, feeling, and sensing ourselves from moment-to-moment, breath-to-breath, vinyasa-to-vinyasa, asana-to-asana. We’re often confronted by the fact that we’re stiffer than we were the day before. That’s a great opportunity to just see this without guilt, fear, or judgment. Using our practice as a discipline for getting the hang of things as they are on a bodily, kinesthetic level can have vast ramifications throughout our lives.
Certainly, asanas practiced with the correct attitude can teach us a lot about ourselves; however, if we do not find an access to the rich philosophical framework on which the practice rests, we risk getting caught in learning a bunch of circus tricks that only prevent us from seeing things as they are. One of the reasons we come to the mat is to learn how to wake up. Source texts are an integral part of that awakening process. They must speak to us, though, on our terms so that we can derive meaning that makes sense in our own lives. Sometimes we have to struggle with those texts in order to get at that meaning. But once we do, getting on the mat has the potential to be an enlightening experience.
 Essentially The Yoga Sutras are an ancient practitioner’s manual for Yoga practice and philosophy. They were written as a grouping of 195 brief statements, or sutras, that express a principal. The brevity of the each sutra, lends it to being interpreted in a wide variety of ways.