A student of the Yoga Sutra brought this question to me: How do we extend kindness to others when we are so stressed out right now that it feels like it’s more about survival than deliberate choices around how to respond, how to be mindful of our words and actions and connect with others?
This question is a dynamic that occurs in many old yoga texts and that spiritual seekers throughout the ages have worked with.
To illustrate it most clearly, I would like to jump briefly from the Yoga Sutra to the Bhagavad Gita. Here, chapter 16 begins with a 3-verse long list of qualities of those students who are established in the Sattwa Guna.
The Blessed Lord spoke: Fearlessness, purity of being, perseverance in yoga and knowledge, giving, self-restraint and sacrifice, study of sacred texts, austerity, and uprightness, non-violence, truth, absence of anger, renunciation, serenity, absence of calumny, compassion for all beings, freedom from desire, gentleness, modesty, absence of fickleness, vigor, forgiveness, fortitude, purity, freedom from malice, freedom from pride; these are the endowment of those established in a divine destiny, Arjuna.
Bhagavad Gita Chapter 16, verses 1-3
The message is clear, if you are established in Sattwa Guna this is how you will naturally behave, this is the goal. Implied in the text is also the message: if you are not established in Sattwa Guna, act this way and you will move towards Sattwa Guna.
So, we have as a goal a set of behaviors that come from an advanced state of consciousness. Most of us are not at that stage of consciousness, but we can act as if we were as a practice and we will move towards that higher consciousness. We have an instruction to, ‘fake it until you make it.’
Now, back to the Yoga Sutra.
The author presents yoga as a developmental process. We are told to work with a truth or principle and our relationship with that principle will evolve until we find that we have developed a transcendent mastery. Yoga as a developmental process is not specific to the Yoga Sutra and Bhagavad Gita, it is ubiquitous. We find this in the beginning of the Yoga Sutra in the definition of yoga:
Yoga is stopping the Chitta Vrittis. (1.2)
Then the Seer abides in Itself, resting in its own True Nature, which is called Self-realization. (1.3)
The word ‘then’ is very important here, indicating the end of an effortful process of stopping the Vrittis. Again and again, in this text we find processes described where a goal of behavior or perception is described and a potentially long process of struggling to reach it is the given goal. Because this process can be frustrating, we are given special guidance on how to proceed:
These Vrittis are mastered through practice and non-attachment.
Yoga Sutra 1.12
We are faking it until we make it, and that can take a very long time. If we hold onto some kind of time line we are bound to become frustrated. The author’s guidance is to practice as if it were do-able, but give up attachment to the goal.
An old Kripalu teacher once said: ‘Don’t wait until your house is on fire to dig a well.’ If we have waited until we are in crisis to practice our confidence, we may feel limited and we may not see much success when we try to fake trust in compassion or another expression of higher consciousness. It can be very difficult to turn around a tidal wave of fear to behave as if we trusted Life with our well-being and the well-being of our loved ones.
The author of the Yoga Sutra says:
Also, peace of the Chitta can be achieved through serene or luminous states experienced within.
Yoga Sutra 1.36
We have all had experiences in our practice that have increased our faith in life or in practice.
Most of us have gone to the mat when we have been hurting physically or emotionally and the practice has sustained us and fed us in some mysterious ways. For every experience around you now that is threatening or scary, there is probably a peaceful morning you can remember from the past. For every uncertainty, there was an uncertainty in the past that we survived or perhaps thrived through holding on to what we hoped to be true.
There is an old saying that occurs in many religions. It goes something like this: God (spirit, nature, etc.) won’t put more on us than we can bear.
We may not feel like we have a deep well of faith to draw from, but be staying present to the difficulties, being with the terrible feelings, and making the best decisions we can even when we don’t have all the answers, we are moving towards the enlightened state.
I believe the author of the Yoga Sutra is saying to us: trust yourself and trust your practice.
About the Author:
Yoganand Michael Carroll (E-RYT 500, YACEP) founded Pranakriya Yoga in 2005. He is a Master-Level teacher in the Kripalu Yoga tradition. Through many years of intensive study and practice of Swami Kripalu’s work, Yoganand has gained a profound ability to distill and interpret esoteric yoga texts and techniques.
After studying with Kripalu Yoga masters in India and America, Yoganand taught at the Kripalu Center for more than 15 years before founding Pranakriya Yoga, which he developed from the original teachings of Swami Kripalavandaji and reconfigured to meet the needs of Western yogis in today’s world without taking away from the ancient teachings. For more information on Yoganand, click here.