The Urban Yoga Den

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Peace Tools: Raja Yoga August 14, 2012

(Note: Much of this is adapted from my May 2010 post on “Transition & Balance.”)

According to my teachers, the ancients invented Hatha Yoga so people could sit longer during a specific task.

Back then, yogis were sages who were meditating toward the highest state of harmony, otherwise known as Samadhi.  In his commentary on The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Integral Yoga Hatha founder Swami Satchidananda describes physical yoga as a process created for practitioners to eliminate physical distractions such as body aches and digestive imbalances through Asana (poses); enhance detoxification and energize the body using Pranayama (breathing exercises); reach Pratyahara (softening of the senses) as a result; then, settle comfortably into long periods of contemplation via Dharana (concentration) and Dhyana (meditation).  These are just five of yoga’s Eight Limbs – an eight-step system for reaching Samadhi – which are thoroughly explored within Patanjali’s ancient Sutras.  The Yama andNiyama (ethical considerations) comprise the 1st two limbs; and Samadhi is the 8th limb.

Today, yogis are regular-old-people who are sitting through work days, concentrating on family affairs, digesting world crises and seeking peace in daily challenges.  Our contemporary version of reaching Samadhi might be fulfilling our highest intentions for living mindfully on any given day.  Personally, the Eight Limbs have taught me tools for addressing all of this and more.  Their physical and ideological recommendations have been the greatest gift of my life.  Thus far.

Contemporary commentary on the Sutras has become progressive and expansive, enhancing what used to be mere physical exercise for many modern yogis.  Thankfully, there are more and more writings on Raja Yoga – the philosophy and ethics behind yoga’s “spiritual” side, or values-based practices.

When I say “spiritual,” I generally mean ethical, mindful and service-oriented; to me, a spiritual life maintains these qualities.  To achieve this intention for a values-based life, I focus on the tangible benefits of Hatha Yoga; and, I also contemplate the “spiritual” foundations for cultivating emotional and psychological balance within myself in order to share it with the world.

In my understanding, Patanjali’s Sutras are recognized as the most comprehensive treatment of Raja Yoga.  I have been most influenced by the following explorations of the Sutras:

  • The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – translation and commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda (www.YogaHealthBooks.com)
  • Raja Yoga – by Swami Vivekananda (www.YogaHealthBooks.com)
  • Why We Fight: Practices for Lasting Peace – by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (www.HimalayanInstitute.org)
  • Yoga Journal, May 2010 Issue – “Love In Full Bloom” by Frank Jude Boccio; “Journey to the Light” by Kate Holcombe (www.YogaJournal.com)
  • Integral Yoga Magazine, Spring 2010 Issue – “Yoga Sutras Unveiled” section with multiple authors (www.IYMagazine.org)
  • And numerous teachers’ blogs.

In my personal Raja Yoga studies, I turn to four favorite Sutras for nurturing balance in the midst of life’s twists and turns.  I think of them as Peace Tools.

*  *  *

HOLLY’S FAVORITE SUTRAS FOR CULTIVATING INNER PEACE

1 – A PROMISE

Early in Book One, Sutra 1.2 says, “Yogas Citta Vrtti Nerodhah” or “Yoga restrains the disturbances of the mind.”  We’ve probably experienced a bit of this at the end of a luscious yoga class!  That remarkable liberation of the mind, free of worry and forgetful of fear, glowing with presence and brimming with confidence.  So in the very beginning of Patanjali’s aphorisms, we are assured: using yoga as described in the Sutras, we can still the mind and show up for life with serenity and peace.  We don’t have to force our mind into restraint – YOGA does it for us.

2 – A PRACTICAL TOOL

Sometimes I need more than my regular Asana practice to restrain disturbances of my mind.  If I sneak forward to Book Two, I find the remedy.  Sutra 2.33 says, “Vitarka Badhane Pratipaksha Bhavanam” or “When disturbed by negative thoughts, contrary thoughts should be employed.”  There are days when I find myself repeating “Pratipaksha Bhavana!” like a mantra, in order to snap out of negativity.  My Uncle Bill was the king of replacing negative with positive.  I remember one conversation in particular.  I was feeling hopeless and believed I’d made too many mistakes during my early adult life to ever repair the damage and pursue my dreams.  I’d been swimming in self-pity and doubt for a while.  As I defended my despair, Uncle Bill interrupted – “Well, Holly,” he said with his soothing Tennessee twang and churchgoers’ faith, “I believe you sort of lived your life backwards – when you were younger, you made all of your mistakes and somehow survived all of your trials.  Now you get to move forward based on what you’ve learned and live a better life!”  And you know what?  Since learning to replace negativity with positive or constructive thoughts, many of my dreams and intentions have been realized!  Pratipaksha Bhavana, indeed!

3 – THE FOUR LOCKS AND KEYS

To further pacify the citta (mind), we backtrack to Book One.  Sutra 1.33 says, “Maitri Karuna Muditopeksanam Sukha Duhkha Punyapunya Visayanam Bavanatas Citta Prasadanam.” The many lengthy translations and commentaries on this aphorism offer an overall belief that there are four locks in our own minds and in the character of other people: happy, unhappy, virtuous and non-virtuous.  To confront these attitudes – whether ours or others’ – Patanjali suggests: “Befriend the happy; have compassion for the unhappy; delight in the virtuous; be indifferent toward the non-virtuous.”  To properly discuss this Sutra would take many blog entries.  I refer you to the Yoga Journal articles and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait book cited above for my inspirations to have mercy toward unhappy mindsets (i.e. being compassionate with myself when feeling low) and to compassionately detach from non-virtuous acts (i.e. the violence of murder – see my November 2009 “Compassion for Killers” post).

The previous Sutras offer immense assurance.  If we practice yoga in this way, we can count on these results.  When we show up for our practice in this way, we give back to the world with these offerings.

And then comes…

4 – THE ULTIMATE PROMISE OF ALL PROMISES

Sutra 2.16 is my most favorite idea in the whole-wide-world.  “Heyam Duhkham Anagatam.” “The misery which has not yet come is to be avoided.”  By using yoga’s tools on and off the mat, we can avoid future suffering!  Yea!  Not only can we decrease physical injuries by practicing Asana with respect for our bodies, we can also decrease mental anguish by embracing Raja Yoga’s ideas.  This doesn’t mean that we can avoid bad experiences, because life will deal us whatever cards we are meant to hold.  But we can decrease and abbreviate misery and suffering while going through any difficulties by utilizing yoga’s resources.

*  *  *

For me, the most beautiful thing about these promises and suggestions is that, at any time of the day or night, no matter what is happening, I can reach into my Peace Toolbox to deepen my practice, my inner peace and my connections among others.

I don’t ever want to take this for granted.

OM Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.

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