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Cultivating a Joyful Life


I just returned from a weekend of “Continuing Education”/ teacher training in Naples. It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon here in Florida. My porch plants are happily blossoming outside my door beneath the sunshine of the growing daylight. As I watered them before sitting down to write, I couldn’t help but think of the metaphor that comes so easily when describing what it’s like to have a yoga practice: our practice is like caring for a plant. It does best when attended to daily, even if just for a few minutes. We pay attention and offer the sustenance it needs to thrive. (Universal, basic rules of life!) The more love we put into it, the more it grows.

Tricia first introduced me to her mentor in Naples, Suzie Muchnick of Postures Yoga, exactly one year ago. I’d just broken up with my fiancè, leaving behind our house and dog and dreams of family. I couldn’t deny or hide any longer the abuse. Suddenly on my own again, I found myself opened up to all this freedom to create my life and rebuild my dreams… And naturally I found myself spending most of my free time at Iyengar Yoga St. Pete. (I’d already witnessed the profound heart-mending that transpired through a persistent asana practice after my sister passed away 8 months prior… and now my heart needed help staying open more than ever!)

As the year has passed, and I’ve devoted more and more time to studying yoga with my teachers, I’ve noticed a deepening understanding of the practice beyond just the pursuit of physical wisdom. The text for yoga philosophy, ​The Yoga Sutras,​ has been on my bookshelf for years, but always seemed out of reach. But with Tricia and Peentz both offering sutra studies, and weaving the messages of the sutras into their classes, the other elements of yoga beyond merely the physical practice have become more familiar — and accessible.

There are 196 ​sutras​ (which means “threads” in Sanskrit), transcribed by Patanjali some 2,500 years ago, which categorize and outline the process of cultivating an enlightened way of being. And within these ​sutras, ​only 3 of them make any mention of ​asana​! Most of what people envision as being yoga in the west is the physical practice… but the reality is, it’s just one of the limbs that comprises the tree of the yogic path.

This past weekend in Naples, our homework assignment was to choose a ​sutra​ to reference in our demonstrated teaching. So as a way of deepening my own understanding, I’d like to share with you what I learned . . .

The ​sutra​ I chose was ​sutra​ 2.1 (< — ….the 196 ​sutras​ are divided into 4 chapters, or ​padas​, and thesecond​pada​isdedicatedtodescribingyoga​sadhana,​ or“​meansofaccomplishing something​.”) So the first ​sutra​ of the second p​ ada​ goes like this:

tapah svadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya-yogah

तपःवायायेवरणधानान यायोगः॥१॥


○ tapah = austerity

○ svadhyaya = self-study

○ ishvara (ishwara) = supreme being, God, Divine

○ pranidhana = acceptance, surrender

○ kriya-yogah = action yoga​ ​(1)

This ​sutra​ describes the foundational aspects of the “yoga of action,” ​kriya yoga​, or preliminary yoga. Before the deeper parts of the yogic path can be undertaken by the aspirant (​sadhaka​), here Patanjali outlines the three main aspects that will prepare the groundwork for a life of spiritual fulfillment.

The first is “​tapas​.” This can mean “discipline,” but is also translated as “heat.” Here we are called to stoke our inner fire. We are called to purify our senses through steadfast dedication. The light of divinity within us must be kindled — with similar attention like caring for a growing, floweringplant. Ifwedonotnourishourinnerlightthroughourpracticeof​asana,pranayama,​ meditation, contemplation, self-care, mindfulness, etc. — all infused with the awareness and intention that we are doing these things for our spiritual growth — then our ​tapas ​is diminished and our divine flame is obstructed from view. With ​tapas, ​we are polishing the sheaths of our being to let our inner light shine out. Our divine light is always within (for our innermost sheath — our bliss body — never dies); rather, it is the distractions of the external world that obscure our inner truth. The purification that results from ​tapas ​scrubs away the outer layers of illusion so that we may connect with our innermost being, our true Self.

The second call-to-action of kriya yoga is ​svadyaya​. This is “self-study.” The Greek philosopher Socrates said, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom,” and also, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” From east to west, the great thinkers and meditators of history recognized the value of turning inward to discover the source of wisdom. It is like the quest for the Holy Grail, a great exploration of unexplored terrain in search of buried treasure, this sense of seeking and seeking for… what? Answers? Approval? Happiness? Completion? Perhaps our yogic quest begins in pursuit of such things, but ultimately, it will lead us to liberation: freedom from the bind of suffering that comes from attachment, confusion, contraction, distraction, grasping. Ironically, as practitioners we might observe ourselves reaching and striving for more depth, more fulfillment within our practice. The diligence of our ​tapas ​could verge on the edge of attachment (such as when we “beat ourselves up” for not practicing, or pushing ourselves to an unhealthy point in hopes of making our body look better from the outside.) The practice of ​svadyaya allows us to be an observer of ourselves from a place of non-attachment. We can notice patterns in our movements and behaviors, and simply observe, “Hmm, that’s interesting…” Through this practice we can then learn to discern right action — right action in ​asana​, right action in society, right action within our relationships, etc. (This is where teachers come in handy, to help show us the way to correct doing.)

Finally, the yoga of action presents to us a third task: ​ishvara pranidhana​. Meaning, “surrender to God.” Many people might feel strong reactions to the word “God,” or even to the concept of surrendering. “God” conjures up a wide range of images and ideas, but within yoga philosophy, the word “God” stands to represent the Divine, the Source of all Creation, ultimate intelligence. “God” is not male or female; “God” is not attached to any religion; “God” does not judge or condemn. If we experience a sense of hell on earth, it is not because of damnation; it is because we’ve lost sight of the truth — that God is within us. ​Ishvara pranidhana​ saves us from the burden of trying to figure it all out on our own. Dedicating our practice in a devotional way to the Divine instills us with faith when the going gets tough. It reminds us of why we’re doing this in the first place. We find a sense of purpose and contentment despite external circumstances. We find joy in the beauty of the flowering Divine within ourselves, when we choose to notice it… For it’s always there, just waiting for us to be still long enough to say, “Hello.”

And so ​sutra 2.1​ has shown us how to till the soil for cultivating a joyful life. The more we can put these theories into practice, the more we discover our ability to be our own healers. Antsiness and dissatisfaction begin to dissipate. Feelings of longing for “something more” are quenched. The search for the Holy Grail, we discover, is an inward quest. We don’t have to go anywhere or be anything in order to begin. And once we’ve begun, we realize the unfolding of this blossoming, inner Divine flower is infinite (because of course we know, “as above, so below.”) There is an infinite universe within us, waiting and ready to be explored.

This all being said, I am no stranger to the disheartened feeling that can arise when one realizes how much work there is to be done. (The path of yoga is a humbling one indeed.) But being surrounded by seasoned practitioners at our teacher trainings shows me the potential for self-exploration, and how the fruits of keen observation can be used to serve others within the community. Seeing the devotion of my teachers to their students reminds me that as we experience the benefits of our hard work, we musn’t squander our vitality and wisdom on worldly gain. Always we must continue returning to ​ishvara pranidhana, s​ o that our egos bow down to our hearts.

With gratitude to the yoga practice, and to my teachers…

💗Courtney Graham

1 Sutra translation from ​http://yoginisadhaka.wordpress.com

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