by Marian Thornley
In last month’s article I mentioned a famous yoga text called the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali. This is the main text we have today to help us answer the question “just what is yoga?”
So who was this great yogi called Patanjali? The answer is that nobody really knows, we do not even know if he was one person or a group of people who all collaborated on the work. We do not know when it was written, although there are many different estimates.
The word “sutra” means thread. The work is tersely written, the words hanging like pearls on a thread. Therefore, we have to delve deeply into the text to understand and interpret the many layers of meaning.
The first chapter starts by telling us that only when the mind is totally focussed are we in a state of yoga, and that when we are in this state we can reconnect with the real self.
There are many words in Sanskrit for the concept of the real self. In English it is sometimes called the consciousness, although it is important not to confuse this term in this context with that used today in Western psychology. The ancient yogis were referring to that which is permanent, unchanging and which exists in all matter in the Universe. They believed the real self to be pure, clean and a source of continual bliss. Much of the sutra-s are taken up with clarifying and explaining this concept and how to attain it, so I will leave further explanation until later articles.
Patanjali then explains that there are different aspects to the activities of the mind and he defines these as correct understanding, delusion, sleep, imagination and memory. Each of these, he says, can be helpful in having peace of mind, or unhelpful. To me initially this idea seemed very strange and I wondered how being in a state of delusion could give rise to peace whereas having correct understanding could lead to suffering.
A short story from my husband’s experiences in India illustrates this concept well. He was in a rural village and met two twins. They were young women in their early twenties: one was beautiful and the other had a facial deformity. The girls asked him to take a photo with his digital camera and stood together, smiling broadly. But when they saw the picture the less attractive girl was distraught. Having never seen her own image she had imagined she looked like her sister. The other girl was shocked and seemingly rather pleased; she too had assumed she looked like her twin.
So in this case, ignorance really was bliss for the girl with the deformity whereas for the other girl it caused pain.