The Practice of Yoga and the Practice of Lent: I
Cambridge, MA. It is Lent once more, and as I’ve often done in the past, I will take up a theme that I will return to every now and then between now and Easter. Since I am once again teaching my course on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – the classic synthesis of yoga theory and practice as understood some 1800 or more years ago – I thought I would return to the Sutras, on which I’ve blogged before. (See at the end of this piece links to some of my earlier blogs on yoga and the Sutras. This is surely the way you can tell that I am professor — who but the professor would remember his own immortal blogs years after posting them?)
This time I will focus on what the Yoga Sutras ask us to do, and for this, I focus on the Second Book (Pada), which begins this way: “Austerity, appropriate study, and dedication to the master comprise the yoga of action, / which is for the purpose of cultivating absorption and for the purpose of diminishing the afflictions. / Ignorance, ego-centeredness, desire, aversion, and longing for continuity are the five afflictions." (II.1-3) (Lest these blogs become too long, I modify/simplify my own translations in places. You are advised to check other translations too.)
Before I go any further, full disclosure: I am not a particularly adept practitioner of yoga, nor have I ever taught yoga. I teach the Yoga Sutras as a brilliant intellectual system, and the Sutras themselves are not a manual of how-to-do-yoga. Any practitioner who knows the Sutras will agree, I think: Patanjali clarifies what yoga is for and about, and synthesizes much older wisdom, but for the practice, even in ancient times one might go to other texts.
But Patanjali, in his Sutras, gives much wisdom on what counts as yogic practice, what the practice is for, and how the whole of a yogic practice fits together. My suggestion is that this will help us who are Christian and thinking not simply about what we do to observe Lent, but also why we do what we do. Even observing Church and community practices, such as fast on Ash Wednesday or some acts of piety or self-denial in Lent merit some thinking: ok, I am doing this — why?
The first three sutras (small verses) of YS II, as cited above, get us off to a clear start. The yoga of action involves austerity, study of one’s appropriate and assigned texts, and turning to the master (the lord). Vyasa and other early commentators do not give here a list of ascetical practices, but do point out that 'austerity' (tapas) is a matter of intensifying inner 'heat,' and this is different from doing more and more exotic and painful things to one's body and mind. Indeed, they stress that they must, as it were, follow a middle path, hard enough to make a difference but not so hard as to upset the delicate balance of the body and mind. Study, Vyasa says, might be a simple practice of reciting sacred texts assigned for this purpose, perhaps a mantra, or the reading of texts that lead to lasting freedom. Turning to the master — most often taken to mean a turning to God, one’s chosen deity — is mentioned here, and in Book I, as a salutary practice that can change one’s life. It does not mean that Patanjali’s yoga is theistic, much less Christian; but it does mean that he recognizes this “turning to” the lord as beneficial.
Why do this? It is here that Patanjali starts to get more technical, and we begin to exercise our minds in thinking about whether yoga works for a Christian in Lent. The second sutra gives two reasons: “the purpose of cultivating absorption and for the purpose of diminishing the afflictions.” Absorption — samadhi — is in the first book of the Sutras conceived of as an ultimate, utterly simple state of consciousness, in which all the fluctuations of the mind and brain come to a halt, so that there is no more observing and knowing the world around us, no more errors and fancies about that world, and not even any more of those images that float in our minds in sleep, or even in memory. (See the beginning of Book One of the Sutras). This is indeed a high state, the clear and luminous mind, at rest. In Book One he says that for this state, one might practice repeatedly, and/or become detached, and/or turn to the master (lord).
Clearing the mind for this state of simple absorption requires that we turn to the other side of this, the “diminishing of the afflictions.” This is not about inventing a life without pain, but lessening, to the point of disappearance, those distractions and upsets of mind that make it turbulent, complicated, and unable to rest quietly in itself.
What those afflictions are is given in the third sutra: “Ignorance, ego-centeredness, desire, aversion, and longing for continuity are the five afflictions.” These might serve as the material for an examination of conscience early in Lent, even if we tend to give them a moral tone: Ignorance: what are we ignorant of, that causes suffering for ourselves and others? Ego-centeredness: how destructive is my ego, insistence on seeing the world in light of myself? Desire: what do I crave, insatiably, so as to distort my view of reality? Aversion: what do I run away from, as I divide the world into the parts I can accept and like, and the parts I will not tolerate? Confronting both desire and aversion: such are the basis of indifference, that great Ignatian virtue. The last in the list requires us to look to the commentaries, since longing for continuity, which Patanjali notes in a subsequent sutra to be an affliction even of the spiritually advanced, turns out to be a deep-down and very stubborn desire to keep on living, no matter what: a fear of dying, a fear of letting go. The yogic and Lenten virtue, dying that one might live, is very hard actually to do, even for the saints.
We can see that there is much here to think about. There is common ground, things we too might be doing in Lent and for not dissimilar reasons. But just as no wholesale rejection is of any particular aspect of this yoga of action as we have thus far seen it, neither need we insist that all of this is “the same as what Christians do in Lent.” Turning to God is not just an option, one of several; nevertheless is also something we do. Metaphorically, we can speak of a deep, quiet clearing of the mind, an utter calmness in God’s presence, and all the purifying supports that go with that. As the Psalm says: “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46) Or think of Jesus: we need not imagine that his mind was very busy and his mouth very talkative during those weeks in the desert: a mind entirely empty of everything but God.
Or, if absorption and this serenity is not our goal in Lent, how would characterize what we are up to, when we pray or study or fast in this season? Why vex the body, do less of this and more of that?
I welcome particularly the feedback of those who know the Sutras and the practice of yoga well. More on the next sutras, in a week or so.