Written by Cameron Alborzian
If you’ve ever been on line at Whole Foods or another health food store, you’ve likely seen a number of magazines that feature some lithe young person contorting their body into any number of unlikely poses for the camera. Maybe you’ve even seen an image of people like me doing that very same thing. These various contortionist-like images are of course of people doing Yoga postures: the physical poses that one does to gain greater flexibility and strength in the pursuit of a higher spiritual path. This is what most people think of when they hear the word “yoga.” They think of those magazine images as well as the many people taking classes at various gyms, studios, and retreat centers across the world. And, depending on what their current physical condition is, they may think about how unlikely it is that they will ever be one of those people themselves. But is Yoga really only something for people who belong on the cover of a magazine? Is this physical discipline all there is to it? It’s probably no surprise to you to hear me say that no, these physical poses are not even close to all there is to this ancient tradition. In fact, while many of the millions of people across the country who practice Yoga almost entirely focus their efforts on this physical work, the act of pursuing posture is only one step along the way of a much larger path. Yoga as we know it today has its roots in ancient India. The ancient sages or rishis of the Indian subcontinent developed a spiritual lineage through ancient scripture such as the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. These various religious texts emerged in the Indian culture over thousands of years. Then, about 2,000 years ago, a sage named Patanjali drafted a text known as The Yoga Sutras. In this concise text of just over 200 aphorisms, Patanjali laid out a secular system for studying the practice of Yoga: the act of eliminating the suffering of the mind. The word “suffering” can of course carry with it many meanings. We might associate it with anything from a screaming two-year-old deprived of his favorite toy to the plight of the extreme impoverished. But when looked at in the context of spiritual tradition, suffering refers to the act of holding the outside world responsible for our own happiness. We suffer when we expect more money, a larger house, a fancier car, more friends, a better job, or anything else in the world around us to ensure us a sense of peace and contentment. But here’s the thing—everything that can truly help us to feel peaceful and content already lies within us. This is what Patanjali teaches us in The Yoga Sutras. He teaches us that when we train the mind to no longer suffer, we can attain a state of supreme joy. We can align ourselves with our spirit, the aspect of ourselves that is a perfect extension of the natural world around us. And much like modern self-help books take us through a step-by-step process to achieve certain goals, Patanjali did as well. In the Sutras, he outlines what he calls the Eightfold Path: an eight-step system for going from a state of suffering to a state of supreme joy. As I mentioned above, Yoga postures are very much a part of this tradition. But while most of us are introduced to Yoga through these physical poses we see on magazine covers and taking place at our gyms, Patanjali actually has us wait several steps before we even work toward the act of developing our body in this way. Yoga postures serve as an engaging and simple way for us to learn of Yoga’s powerful tools. But I encourage you to seek out everything else available in this dynamic system and hope you succeed in revealing the ultimate source of joy that sits inside of you. I also look forward to seeing you on the path along the way. Namaste.