Sutra Study-why?

In the fall of 2007, the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York added to its programming a study group of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, led by Carrie Owerko and Julia Shaida. The idea of the group was to provide an opportunity for shared study of the sutras. Neither Carrie nor Julia came to this with expertise in Sanskrit or philosophy—they wished to share the study they were doing with others.

vadhyaya, literally “self-study,” is the second component of the actions of yoga as defined by Patanjali (YS II.1). It traditionally includes study of authoritative texts. In this group, we focus on one sutra at a time. We chant the sutra in Sanskrit, consult available commentaries (the foremost being Mr. Iyengar’s Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), and consider the implications of the aphorism to our practice and our life.

Four and a half years later, the initial group continues, and the institute has added a monthly philosophy study group, as well. Faculty members Naghmeh Ahi, Carolyn Christie, Marcela Clavijo, Matt Dreyfus, and Tori Milner take turns co-leading the groups with Carrie and Julia. We asked participants to describe what the group has brought them and why they make time for sutra study in their schedule.

The Great Thing
The “why” of this, for me, is about communion. It is about cultivating something the writer Parker Palmer describes as a “community of truth.” This is a place where a subject, in this case The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, becomes available for relationship. It is by this relationship, this very real encounter in the present moment, of a very old text with some very live people, that something magical and wonderful can occur. The text reveals itself in this relationship. And we reveal something of ourselves. 

Each of us has the opportunity to commune with a text and to embrace the text, or as Edwin Bryant says, “to hug the text.” These words are indicative of a type of intimacy, a willingness to enter into and listen closely to the inner life of the text and let it speak to our own. And it is the communion of our own inner life with that with which we are communing that helps us see the sacred in that thing. We can see the sacred in something like a book, or a pose, or a person.

I believe that it is important to do this in solitude, as well as in a group, because solitude supports a very special type of communion. Alone, we are able to see that the practice of yoga is about exploring, and bringing clarity to, our inner landscapes. But togetherness also brings something. By gathering around a text, especially a great one like the  Yoga Sutras, the grace of this “great thing” (to borrow words from Rilke), helps bring out the grace in ourselves and our communal landscape, and our community becomes kinder and clearer and more compassionate. The “great thing” changes us. We start to see deeper into others from a deeper and truer place from within ourselves. 

We have learned that when exploring the text within the group, it is better if we speak in the first person, from our own experience, about our observations of ourselves and about things that matter. We are exploring ourselves, our inner landscapes, and our own reactive tendencies, not the tendencies of others. In other words, we are not using this exploration to—in any way, shape, or form—judge other people or groups of people. Deeper inquiry can be difficult; that is why we have observed these boundaries when in group discussion. This has been our way of carefully cultivating a place and space for the exploration of the truth within ourselves, and for the grace of the “great thing” to reveal itself to us, whether we are studying in solitude or with each other.
—Carrie Owerko

Studying the sutras has given me an inner stability equal to the stability I work to find on my mat. 

Rub Yourself with Words
Students and teachers in the Iyengar tradition learn the Sanskrit names for poses, and, over time, the meanings of those Sanskrit names (for example, ut means “up” or “extreme,” tanu means “stretch”—thus Uttanasana is “extreme stretch pose.”) The Sanskrit name teaches us about the structure and intent of the pose. We deepen our understanding as we dwell on the name.

A college professor of mine once said, “There are no synonyms.” Each word—in any language—has its own particular resonance, its own layers of references and signifiers. In translation from one language to another, something is always altered; a new slant is given or an intonation lost.

For example, as B.K.S. Iyengar says in Light on the Yoga Sutras, “It is extremely difficult to convey the meaning of the word citta.” It is a noun that derives from the Sanskrit root cit, which means to perceive. Our words “mind” or “consciousness,” which are often used to translate citta, do not convey the word in the sense that Patanjali uses it: an aspect of nature that can attune to the smallest of all particles, open up to the largest of large, and yet not be pure awareness itself. 

If I translate citta as mind, I get boxed in when I learn the definition of yoga in YS I.2: Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah. “Yoga is the calming of the turnings of the mind.” Vrtti, which is literally a turning (from the root vrt, to turn, as in Parivrtta Trikonasana), can be considered to be a thought or a feeling. It is a movement in the citta, and it is most certainly a disturbance of citta. Yet if I understand citta to be my mind or consciousness, and if I understand my mind to be my thoughts, my consciousness to be my feelings, what is left of my mind or my consciousness if my feelings and thoughts stop? It is an existential terror. It is through the Sanskrit words themselves that I approach Patanjali’s message: even the most auspicious vrtti is a disturbance to the vast knowingness of citta.

In Tree of Yoga, Mr. Iyengar writes, “You need to rub yourself with words and works. Put the words to the test of your experience. Do not be carried away by my words or anyone else’s words. Rub yourself with each word through work and practice. Rubbing means to experience. Go with it! Find out!”

If I “rub” myself with these two untranslatable words, vrtti and citta, then I open up to the possibility that there is a knowing, a seeing, a feeling that is not a “thought,” a “concept”—that is not indeed even expressible in words. This is using words to go beyond words, to move toward the true goal, which is, to use a phrase from the Western tradition, “the peace that passeth all understanding.” —Julia Shaida

The sutras I know from memory have become the spiritual lifeline of my practice. To write a sutra on one’s heart is to wear it forever.  

Finding the Sutras of Patanjali
Carrie Owerko’s subtle use of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras to frame asana practice in her Level II class were my first moments of “sutra consciousness,” specifically: Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

As I listened on Sunday mornings, it seemed that Carrie’s involvement with the sutras and the Bhagavad Gita played out, somehow, on different levels—physical, philosophical, and spiritual. As all those things are important to me, and I am especially susceptible to philosophy, I thought, “Why not give the study group a try?”

The first four or five meetings were confusing, particularly as I tried to understand the different commentaries. Chanting felt awkward. And the subsequent sharing about how the sutras impact one’s physical practice and affect one’s life made me very uncomfortable. TMI! Do I want to know all this about
these people?

Yet I found myself going back, and going back, and becoming ever more involved. Somehow regular immersion in Pantajali’s work, under the lovely ministration of all the “facilitators,” brings out kindness, spirituality, poetry, humor, skin-crawling candor, and beauty. Also magic. A year and a half later, if I am in the city, I will do everything I can to get to the study group. I feel a loss, an emptiness, if I can’t be there. —Jim Lichtenberg

‘Rub yourself with each word through work and practice. Rubbing means to experience.’ —B.K.S. Iyengar

To Write a Sutra on One’s Heart

Attending the sutra study group is a way, for me, to refine and clarify my intentions as I develop my physical practice on the mat. It’s a constant reminder of the reasons I practice, and is often there to fill in the gaps when I feel “stuck” in my body or on my mat. It has widened my understanding of what it means to practice all of the limbs of yoga in asana.  

Studying the sutras has given me an inner stability equal to the stability I work to find on my mat. I most enjoy chanting the sutras and learning the words themselves; I do believe that by simply chanting a sutra, learning it, and repeating it, it is possible to have a visceral experience of the meaning without actually having a translation to cross check. The sutras I know from memory have become the spiritual lifeline of my practice. To write a sutra on one’s heart is to wear it forever. 
—Jennifer Roy

Like asana classes themselves, more questions seem posed than are answered in sutra study. It has taken me a while to accept that mystery. But as asana classes have helped me learn to better use my body, so has the act of unpacking the sutras furthered my efforts to see what I think and see who I am. I have had to learn, in this process, to speak from my own voice, instead of saying what others say.

I’m uncertain how it works, but chanting this week’s sutra, hearing group members’ thoughts about it, and listening for how all of that fits with my life today has made for real growth in me. Becoming more comfortable to sit with things that have long frightened me, especially aspects of my disability, is, I think, a natural outcome. What keeps me coming back most weeks is the prospect of nearing better understanding, and the attraction of more questions. It is another aspect of the gift of yoga for me.
—Marc Zarowin 

Samyama, or Integration
The weekly sutra study group has become a valued component of my practice. It provides a wonderful sense of community to the students who attend and to the teachers who facilitate. We have shared insights, concerns, and information regarding the wisdom of the sutra in relation to asana on the mat and experience in the world. 

Most recently, we have been discussing the concept of samyama, or integration. We discussed YS III.9 and its description of a state of quiet that naturally arises as a result of yoga practice. I was able to correlate that sutra with experiences I had in class that very week. My teacher asked us to pause in each pose to sense its full benefit. Clearly the ability to pause, even in the execution of complex movement, has practical resonance. In another class, the same teacher taught us a profound lesson in samyama: a cell phone went off repeatedly, but rather than making the intrusion an obstacle, it became an aid in our education when he asked us to practice being non-reactive.

He said there’s so much in life that we need to let go of—why not start now.

The communal chanting of the sutras in Sanskrit is of itself an extremely beneficial experience and has expanded my knowledge of that beautiful, sacred language.

I feel a sincere sense of gratitude to the sutra study group for guiding me toward a deeper understanding of my self and for helping me begin to integrate the ancient knowledge of the sutras into the fabric of my daily life. —Jerry Eaderesto

Robin Simmonds wrote the following poem as a reflection on YS I.43: smrtiparisuddhau svarupasunya iva arthamatranirbhasa nirvitarka. (“In nirvitarka samapatti, the difference between memory and intellectual illumination is disclosed; memory is cleansed and consciousness shines without reflection.”) 

Julia Shaida lives and teaches Iyengar Yoga in Westchester County, New York. She is certified at the Introductory II level. Carrie Owerko lives and teaches in New York City and is certified at the Intermediate Senior I level.

The Field

In this narrow field, before the
Identification of object
Seizes the mind,
There is a wedge,
Where the senses are
Fresh with dew,
And the heart is as ripe
As a fragrant peach.

Seek out these soft places:
Flowers pressed between the pages of perception.
The field will widen into
A vast tundra.   

—Robin Simmonds