My yoga practice began in the Ashtanga system of Pattabhi Jois, with its prescribed sequence of poses, focus on the breath, and steady gaze. The postural sequences are incredibly demanding, and as I began to practice the primary series nearly every day, I found I could focus more on my breath, with an inward gaze. What I experienced was this: as I struggled, sweated, breathed, tried, floundered, and felt a multitude of different sensations and emotions, I realized there was some part of me that was quiet and watching the struggle. There was a still point inside watching all of the whirling thoughts, feelings and sensations unfold.
I was intrigued, and I began to explore the philosophical foundations of yoga, turning to one of the most-translated philosophical texts on yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. In modern times, Patanjali has been much maligned, and sometimes dismissed as a renunciate path inappropriate for contemporary yogis. And as well the text can seem impenetrable and inapplicable to practitioners focused on the physical aspects of yoga. Yet my practice had given me hints of a profound way of being that the text was describing.
At the beginning of the Yoga Sutra, we find the famous aphorism defining yoga as “chitta vritti nirodhah.” Chitta is your awareness, and vritti means fluctuation or movement, so the chitta vrittis are all the thoughts and emotions moving through your awareness. Nirodha means to calm or quiet, so the aphorism can mean: yoga is the calming or quieting of the fluctuations of awareness. That made sense to me, as I’d already tasted a quieter place in my practice, but as I explored the text, I learned that very little of it referred to the yoga that was commonly popular in studios.
So what does Patanjali mean by yoga? Well of course the whole text is the answer to that question, but generally speaking Patanjali is talking about meditation: how meditation helps us quiet our awareness and what happens along the path.
Patanjali says that when we are able to quiet our awareness, the Seer abides in its true nature. Otherwise, we tend to identify with the content of what is in our awareness, all the chitta vrittis, all the movements of our mind. We take on the identity of who we are in our bodies, all of the roles we inhabit, all of our actions, thoughts and feelings. We get pulled away from our core and find ourselves sucked into the drama of our lives, like we’re watching a movie. We forget that part of us that sits in the center, the Seer, which Patanjali indicates is the wisest part of ourselves, and can therefore be a great resource and guide.
The text teaches us that yoga can help bring clarity to awareness so that we access an essential part of our self, this Seer, the place of wisdom that can guide us in our lives. The practice helps us break out of our habitual patterns of behavior that block us from experiencing our true nature. This is the promise of yoga.
My postural practice had provided glimpses of the promise of yoga. I had observed the misaligned patterns in my body, how some of my actions created injury, and my patterns of reaction to the challenges of the practice. I even had a taste of the Seer, but I didn’t know how to shift my habitual patterns, or how to become fully established in that centered place. It seemed my postural practice opened a doorway, but I needed a guide to help me move further.
So I found an experienced teacher who systematically introduced me to meditation. As he guided me further onto the path of yoga, I began to understand and experience more fully the promise of yoga from the Yoga Sutras. I have slowly created more access to my center, the source awareness, which now guides everything I do.
So many people are flocking to yoga to enjoy its physical benefits. But the promise of yoga is so much more. The practice of meditation moves us to a deeper understanding and experience of yoga. Through it we learn to traverse the many layers of our being, accessing that calm and wise core to guide us, fulfilling the promise of yoga.
Cindy Lusk, Ph.D., has been a student of yoga for 30 years. She has studied and taught both Ashtanga and Anusara yogas. Her teaching reflects her love of tantric yoga philosophy and meditation, grounded in her many years of practice and study. Her students report that her teaching is authentic, accessible and applicable, allowing them to deepen their understanding of yoga, and of themselves, transforming their practice and their lives. Cindy currently teaches in Boulder, CO, offers online courses in yoga philosophy, and is studying to teach meditation with Paul Muller-Ortega of Blue Throat Yoga. You may find out more about her at: www.cindylusk.com