Cultivating awareness. Simple ideas such as those found in the philosophy of yoga can be explored through practical experience and support us to refine what we do and understand ourselves better. Here I am going to present some ideas underpinning the practice of yoga which are taken from a text called Patanjali's Yoga Sutras which was compiled around 400CE. In the opening part of this text we are invited to practise cultivating good awareness through yoga in order to become more present, more stable, grounded and centred in ourselves and in our actions. This concept is embedded throughout the teachings of yoga.
Atha Yoganusasanam is the opening sutra presented in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and sets the tone for the whole text. I have translated it to mean that “the authentic and direct experience of yoga brings us back into the present moment,” Atha means now, a call to become more in-tune with ourselves and more established in the present moment. Yoga means to join, to yolk or to unite and can be seen as both a state of being and a practice, the process of bringing things together and creating a healthy state of unity. Anusasanam means living or direct experience taken from the root sastra, which means authentic. And so anything we do which focusses our attention back into the present moment can be seen as a process of yoga
The focussed mind. Instability tends to arise when our attention is pulled away from the present. When we are distracted or overwhelmed, we can't think straight and we become disconnected. When we are busy looking ahead or preoccupied with past events our mind is pulled away from the present and our thought patterns and actions become blurred or unsteady as a result.
Yoga teaches that if we lack good awareness and we are not present in the moment we are vulnerable to misinterpretation, mistakes, misunderstanding, ill health or injury. However, through regular practice yoga also teaches us that we can put our house in order and bring stability back into the body and the mind by becoming more established in the present moment, cultivating good awareness and clarity in order to avoid instability
The authentic practice of yoga brings us back into the present moment:
How can we practice cultivating awareness?
Working with the breath: One of the key tools in cultivating good awareness through yoga practice is working with the breath. The breath holds and focusses our attention and brings awareness to the more subtle aspects of our being. If we practise without the support of the breath it is easy for the mind to wander. If we use the breath as an anchor it holds us in the practice and in doing so brings us back into the moment so we can inhabit the practice rather than just going through the motions. We become more aware of the relationship between each part of the body as a whole and our mind stays steady and focussed when the breath is long, smooth and fine.
Practicing steadily without rushing: It is easy to practise anything, including yoga, on autopilot without good awareness; just going through the motions, slave to our usual habit patterns. This is why I would personally advocate a slow practice, working steadily with the breath as a means to cultivate good awareness, without rushing. Working slowly gives us the time to really notice what is going on, to constantly refine and deepen our experiences as we go. Working slowly does not mean we are not working as hard., when we approach a yoga practice slowly we are challenged to really focus on the quality of our movements, the quality of the moment and to maximise our potential without rushing and skipping vital steps or losing the foundations of our practice.
Exploring different ideas creatively to maintain focus and to push the boundaries of our understanding: We can explore all sorts of ideas or themes through Yoga practice. The study of texts such as the Yoga sutras are often used to inspire and provide stability in yoga practice. In trying to find as many subtle ways to embody an idea in practice our experience, understanding and perception continues to evolve.
The ideas presented in the philosophy of yoga, are generally very simple and can help us to keep our feet on the ground without feeling overwhelmed. Each time we revisit ideas such as the sutra above we can explore them in slightly different ways and experience them in a different light to meet our current situation and needs; in this way the philosophy of yoga continues to evolve, to stay relevant and current. The ideas presented remain universal in the same way as Shakespeare or Aristotle. They capture something of the essence of human behaviour and psychology and act as a logical support which can inspire us to refine what we do and provide the space and awareness we need to work out what is important. My view of these teachings is that they provide a stable backdrop for the practise of yoga and act as a reflective tool for practitioners to maintain a grounded and logical approach. The longevity of the yoga sutras is inspiring and it is always humbling to me to think that these ancient ideas are still so current and steeped in logic and clarity.