Adventures with the Yoga Sutras

Published on April 25, 2011 by      Print
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By Bianca Piccillo

Editor’s note: We met Bianca back in our yoga days, while working for a popular East Coast mastah teachah. During one of our certification tribulations, we were asked to read and comment on the Yoga Sutras, the age-old canon of yogic wisdom. Bianca is a highly literate yogi with a sharp wit. Here was her take.

……………………………

 

It physically pains me to speak my truth on the following subject. As a former yoga teacher and (self envisioned) intellectual it is perhaps my dirtiest little secret. As a bibliophile it is a deepest shame. Nevertheless, no matter how I look at things, from top to bottom, front to back, sideways and crossways, I have come to the following conclusion:

The Yoga Sutras is the most boring book ever written.

It’s not that I have an aversion to old books. I happily dove into the pages of Beowulf and Gilgamesh, and I liked them. I REALLY liked them! And let’s face it, Beowulf was not written to be loved. It’s not that I have a problem with Indian literature—even the stuff that creaks. I practically devoured the Mahabaratha and I loved the Ramayana so much I read it twice in succession. I also find it quite pleasurable to revisit favorites like Midnight’s Children and The God of Small Things—even though it’s well known that Arundjati Roy is anti- American—if you can possibly imagine that! Not to mind, I take things on their merits.

Which is why, God help me, I can’t get out from under the Yoga Sutras. It is a book that for all intents and purposes destroys the logical connection of writing and reading. At first attempt (and second, third, and so on) I could only conclude that Patanjali and his subsequent translators were intent on eliminating written communication entirely through the use of leaden prose. They must have needed something that would last for posterity—but not for actual consumption.

I made an honest effort in my endeavors to discover the secrets of the Sutras. I left my New Yorker at home and cracked the Sutras on the subway. The rocking of the train puts me into a meditative state, the better for maximum concentration and comprehension. But things were problematic. The Sutras are dry. They are dry like the forests in California that wait for a strike of lightning, a spark to set the thing ablaze. But despite their dry nature, the Sutras are so dense that the application of a blowtorch would have no effect—you’d need oxygen to feed a fire, and in this case, the air has been squeezed out. In the end, I had to abandon my attempts to read the Sutras on the T. I had become so morose at their sheer density and circular reasoning that the oncoming trains seemed like invitations to bring it all to an end.

Reading in bed or on the couch didn’t prove to be very effective either, with obvious conclusions. Somehow I made it through to the other side. Like any survivor, I have a story; there are some nominal fruits from my labors. I don’t mean to be glib, or coy. I love to read—not just books, but ingredient lists, foreign language signs, prescription medication information. I’m not picky, just put it in front of me and I will read it. Not so the Yoga Sutras. They threatened to be my undoing.

It does not help that the Yoga Sutras are presented so unattractively.

Unadulterated philosophy in little bits that look easy to digest—it’s a trick. Halfway through, you’re buried alive and praying for mercy. Within the pages of the Yoga Sutras you will find little beauty, rhythm, or melody, just unrelenting information in a highly obfuscated form. Reading the Sutras, I found myself in the unexpected position of longing for my organic chemistry textbooks. At least they had illustrations every so often to leaven the dough.

I must admit that I’m not a huge fan of philosophy.

It seems to me that philosophers spend a lot of time talking and very little time doing. With no offence to Socrates and Kant (and the Romantics who drove the backlash), I’d say that maybe 40% of philosophers are full of shit. It bothers me that a bunch of longwinded blowhards (I know some of them personally; the rest are French) pontificate pointlessly, and yet they still find an audience of empty-headed nodders who can’t think for themselves. Ah, I digress; back to the subject at hand (even now I try to run.)

The truth is, I can’t escape the Yoga Sutras. So I’ll fess up and admit that there are bits that appeal to me.

Book Two, Sadhana Pada, sutra 44 reads (in translation):

“By study of spiritual books comes communion with one’s chosen deity.”

Viewed from a wide perspective, this is rich soil. It speaks to my sensibilities, which view books as inherently spiritual, regardless of aim or genre. Books extend the invitation of imagination and paths unwalked. Books are the realms of potential, of possibility.

I am also attracted to the recurring theme of personal responsibility found through the Sutras, specifically Sadhana Pada, sutra 14:

“The karmas bear fruits of pleasure and pain caused by merit and demerit.”

The Sutras seem to spend a lot of time addressing control of the mind and suppression of the body. I’m all for clarity and intensity. Those notwithstanding, this line of thinking doesn’t resonate with me. I embrace the human condition and its intrinsic physicality. I’m not sprinting toward a higher plane. I’m content in the muck of my life, the crap of my mental and physical existence. I have no interest in leaving, renouncing or transcending the borders of my physical body.

I am therefore saddened by Sadhana Pada, sutra 40, which instructs;

“By purification arises disgust for one’s own body and for contact with other bodies.”

Why disparage the physical body? The human body is amazing, beautiful, and divine in its own right. It has its own consciousness and wisdom. It is a wonder of design and function. Walt Whitman argued that rather than bypassing one to get the other, the body and soul are one and the same:

“O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other

men and women, nor the likes of the parts

of you,

I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes

of the soul (and that they are the soul,)

…Ribs, belly, backbone, joints of the backbone,

…Strong set of things, well carrying the trunk above,

…All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my

or your body or of any one’s body, male

or female,

The lung-sponges, the stomach sac, the bowels sweet and

clean,

The brain in its folds inside the skull frame,

Sympathies, heart- valves, palate- valves, sexuality, maternity,

…The voice, articulation, language, whispering, shouting aloud,

Food, drink, pulse, digestion, sweat, sleep, walking, swimming,

…The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and

the marrow in the bones,

The exquisite realization of health:

O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only,

but of the soul,

O I say now these are the soul!”

It’s an unfettered celebration, a full embrace that is awash in wonder, awe, and respect.

The Sutras, on the other hand, build sequentially toward the state of Samadhi—pure consciousness. The idea of stripping everything down to pure being doesn’t have a lot of appeal for me. My teachers—those I’ve known personally and those I just admire from a distance—are a highly flawed lot. Purity sounds good conceptually, but realistically I prefer to allow a little room for passion, pleasure and the other “base” aspects of life, even if they have the potential to cause suffering.

To always be in control, moderated, completely liberated—Samadhi, if you will—sounds suspiciously like being dead. You might be free of the drama of the karmic cycle, but you’re turned into a spectator as a result. Is there room there for the world? Is there room for opera and tragic characters, sublime music and the human voice? The narrowing of vision from which a Seurat canvas becomes a series of dots? Digging in the earth and growing food, making and drinking wine? What of books and the grace of the written word? Why on earth would anyone wish for escape from these treasures? Life is messy—so much the better! Even if it means suffering, sadness and pain, I choose to live fully, to participate, not to remove myself from it—spiritually or intellectually.

I will never argue with the benefits of stillness and meditation or the moral truth of non- violence.

That said, it is my nature to reject anything that proposes to be a universal answer or path. Despite its emphasis on personal responsibility and perception, the Sutras still lay down structure based on absolutes. The inherent warning: get on board or bear the consequences.

The notion of a “right” path favors those on it and cultivates attitudes that in their toxic forms are assumptive, smug, and superior. You can call it philosophy, or religion, or whatever you want, but in the end, it serves up free thought and inquiry with one hand and takes them away with the other.

Thanks for the insights, Yoga Sutras, but I must be on my way. I’ll remember you, and hold some of you dear, but you are too sterile to be my longtime teacher. I need the grit of reality between my teeth. A little Whitman, an afternoon of Puccini, a vision of Modigliani, the heresy of Darwin, and the lascivious writhings of Iggy Pop.

About Bianca Piccillo

Bianca grew up in Buffalo, New York and has always been an East Coast kinda girl, although her academic travels and her sense of adventure have taken her far and wide over these years. She spent a large chunk of her life in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Boston’s bohemian sister) and that is where she was introduced to the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute, the foundation of her many years in the yoga trenches. As a teacher and assistant for BPYI, she mentored many aspiring teachers and went through the rigorous certification process that birthed this soliloquy on the Sutras. She has since migrated to Brooklyn with her husband, Mark—who she met in her parallel life in the restaurant industry—and they are hard at work founding a sustainable seafood consulting business. Bianca loves the ocean, literature, the culinary arts, and a good laugh.

 

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19 Comments !

  1. Leslie says:


    Bianca, Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying what I wish I could have said. Brilliant! At the time that I was asked to compare the Yoga Sutras to another religious text for the same certification, I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t stand to read one sutra, much less a slew of sutras. After reading your article, I now know why. Although back then, I thought it was because I sucked at being a yogi.

  2. Shawn says:


    I spend entire weekends in workshops studying the Yoga Sutras. We average about 1 sutra every hour, slower if we are going uphill. And I have learned the secret to being able to make it through the Yoga Sutras: A funny teacher!

    Maybe Patanjali wasn’t funny. Or maybe it’s because there are no Sanksrit emoticons to throw at the end of a line. Or maybe focus is attained by beating you senseless with incomprehensible sutras.

  3. Joslyn Hamilton says:


    I totally pulled rank with my certification and got away with never reading that. Sshh don’t tell! By the by, I don’t read self-help books. I get all my life lessons from novels.

  4. Erik says:


    Dear Bianca,

    You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
    But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
    And filter and fibre your blood.

    Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
    Missing me one place search another,
    I stop somewhere waiting for you.

    Compassionately,

    Patanjali

  5. vanessafiola says:


    Bianca, I motherscratchin’ love you. Your piece is so spot on. Thanks.

  6. Alice Riccardi says:


    Fabulous! Incredibly well-written, sophisticated in its expression, and also very funny. Well done Bianca!

  7. Eric R. says:


    TL;DR – Drop the Satchitananda; find the right translation *and a teacher* who will read it with you.

    To some yoga people I say, “Yoga Sutra is for people who get something from books (jnana yoga) – you might have other strengths, go with those instead (bhakti, karma, mantra, etc.)

    But you – you’re a book person – yay!

    Here’s the solution: ==> Get A Different Translation <==

    You're using Satchitananda's … hey, he's an old Indian Hindu guy, of course that makes a difference. You are *very* different, you need something different – go get it!

    How about Mukunda Stiles (poetic) or Nischala Joy Devi or Desichakar or Hartranft or … you get the idea. It's the elephant and the blind people – nobody has the whole picture – and the YS is designed that way!! Aphoristic, the sutras are like a whole book of chapter titles for a much larger work, requiring our outer and inner teachers to write the chapters.

    Second, reading it on one's own without a teacher is *not* how it was meant to be used – it's a jump-off point for a conversation.

    One example: II.44, Hartranft: "Self-study deepens communion with one's personal deity." See – nothing about books! Self-observation is a widely taught principle in yoga, so this makes more sense to me. The business about books was stuck on later by the Hindus IMO, maybe because they've got the Vedas and the Gita.

    There are lots more examples like that and they make a huge difference.

    If your first yoga practice didn't click, does that mean yoga isn't for you? (That's rhetorical :-) ) This is the equivalent experience. There is hope!

    P.S. What Ramayana translation did you read twice? I haven't found one that works for me yet …

  8. Confessions of a yoga festival rookie (or, what NOT to do at Wanderlust) says:


    [...] by a really lovely, sweet man, I concluded I would be better off to first smoke some opium and then try to read through the sutras. Maybe then I would finally come to that cosmic understanding of the universal truth — where you [...]

  9. Adventures with the Yoga Sutras. ~ Bianca Piccillo | elephant journal says:


    [...] with the Yoga Sutras. ~ Bianca Piccillo  Originally published by our elephriends over at Recovering Yogi on April 25, 2011.  [...]


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