1. self-study and study of sacred scripture
2. a fun, laid-back book club through Eden Yoga in which participants discuss yoga philosophy and life
Readings for 1/17/20:
Strength to Love, Martin Luther King, Jr.; Chapters 1, 4, 7, 12
Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, B.K.S. Iyengar; II.29-II.45 (pp. 140-157)
Hello! We are kicking off this monthly book club with somewhat short notice, so if you didn’t get a chance to check out the readings above, no worries. Below are some of the main points to get our conversation started.
A summary of Sūtras II.29-45:
These seventeen sūtras (aphorisms) describe the eight disciplines that are the philosophical foundation of yoga:
1. yama (vows of abstention)
2. niyama (fixed observances)
3. āsana (poses)
4. prānāyāma (regulation of breath/energy/life force)
5. pratyāhāra (withdrawal of the senses)
6. dhāranā (concentration)
7. dhyāna (meditation)
8. samādhi (state of oneness)
The sutras then describe the five yamas:
brahamacharya (mindful direction of energy)
And the five niyamas:
Ishvara Pranidhana (surrender to God)
Here it is in a nice info-graphic:
I encourage you to read Iyengar’s accompanying commentary if you feel so inclined. However, don’t get bogged down in the details and all the new Sanskrit terminology. These are foundational concepts that we will revisit frequently. It is enough to know that a classical yoga practice is founded in these ten ideas about how to interact with others and oneself (the yamas and niyamas). It is also important to know that yoga poses (asana) comprise only 1/8th of the yogic path.
Okay, let’s begin!
There is so much that we could discuss in these few passages. I propose the questions “What is personal freedom?” and “How do we experience a greater sense of freedom?” as starting points for our conversation.
First, a suggested definition of freedom: “the political, economic, mental, & physical ability to do what we want, when we want to.” These imply freedom from external obstacles (e.g. an oppressive government, poverty, mental illness, physical disability). What about freedom from internal obstacles? These obstacles, such as worry, ignorance, and emotional detachment are of our own creation and are fully within our control. Most of us needlessly suffer from worry or anxiety, which drains our energy. Ignorance prevents us from seeing clearly and making healthy choices. Emotional detachment walls us off from the joy of passion and connection. All three obstacles limit our opportunity for growth and decrease our enjoyment of life.
What do King and the Sutras tell us about how to eliminate internal obstacles to freedom?
In reading these sermons, it surprised me that Dr. King, who had undertaken the immense task of working to equalize legal (external) freedoms for African Americans in the United States, wrote so frequently and so passionately about what I would call “internal freedom”. He advocates working to achieve balance within oneself as a means to create more equality in society. His writings echo the succinct and powerful (albeit overused) Gandhi quote: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”
Sermon 1: “A Tough Mind and Tender Heart”
In chapter one, King writes persuasively of the necessity of cultivating both a “tough mind” and a “tender heart.” He states that soft-mindedness promotes racism through belief in falsehoods and an apathetic attitude toward bettering one’s circumstances. A tough mind is necessary to ascertain the truth and avoid forsaking one’s freedoms as a result of ignorance and gullibility. Yet, “what is more tragic than to see a person who has risen to the disciplined heights of tough-mindedness but at the same time has sunk to the passionless depths of hardheartedness?” (p. 6)
Sutra II.42: From contentment and benevolence of consciousness comes supreme happiness.
Likewise, Patañjali frequently notes the necessity of cultivating both discriminating intelligence and compassion. The first yama, ahimsa, is often translated as “compassion,” followed immediately by satya, or “truth.” How to cultivate tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness is essentially what the sutras is all about: it is a guidebook that shows us how to master the mind and access the wisdom of the heart.
One key is to avoid extremes. It requires balance. The yamas and niyamas point to a balance of opposites: We must not harm in word and deed (ahimsa), yet we must be honest (satya). Be clean (saucha), yet be content (santosha). Pursue your goals with passion (tapas) and yet surrender to forces beyond your control (Isvara Pranidhana). Practicing the yamas and niyamas requires discipline.
Wouldn’t we feel freer without all that work?
We live in a world that promotes instant gratification and hitting the “easy” button whenever possible. In my opinion, this is not a problem…except when it creates circumstances that limit our freedom. I have noticed that practicing the yamas and niyamas generates more connection…or perhaps these principles represent how we naturally behave when we are in a state of connectedness. (Kudos to Donna Farhi for that insight. More thoughts on that here.) It is a challenge to navigate a path of balance as we are continuously tempted by the exciting, dramatic extremes in life. King writes “life at its best is a creative synthesis of opposites in fruitful harmony” (p. 1).
Is this “creative synthesis” different than striking a balance between two opposites?
Sermon 4: “Love in Action”
This sermon is a call for radical forgiveness. King invokes the image of Jesus on the cross, pleading “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” King asserts that a person who harms others does so as a result of “intellectual and moral blindness” and a “failure to use his mind to its fullest capacity” (p.40).
Even so, if we offer this level of forgiveness, does that leave us vulnerable? Make us gullible? If we open our hearts to those who have harmed us, can we still effectively protect our safety and freedom?
King tells us that “Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude” (p. 33). If forgiveness is an “attitude” what attitude results from carrying anger and resentment?
Perhaps we should “forgive but never forget”. What do we hold on to as we “never forget”?
Sermon 7: “The Man Who Was a Fool”
In this sermon, King tells the parable of a rich man whose freedom (his life) was taken from him by God because he had mistaken the means of living (the external, i.e. material goods) for the ends (the internal, i.e. a spiritual life).
What is a spiritual life?
According to King “The internal is that realm of spiritual ends expressed in art, literature, morals, and religion” (p. 66). He goes on to describe the beautiful aspects of life (“love and affection…great books…great music…majestic splendor of the skies”) that this rich man became disconnected from as his focus turned exclusively to material possessions. So we can infer that a spiritual life involves appreciation and gratitude for riches of the heart. King tells us that this man’s loss of freedom was also because he took full credit for his success–he forgot our inherent interdependence.
In a real sense all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly…This is the interrelated structure of reality.
King, p. 69
This “network of mutuality” represents something greater than the individual. Does it also transcend the sum of its parts?
King then echoes the final niyama, Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to God), as critical to living a spiritual life. He lauds the advances of science yet warns of the lure of materialism. “We have learned to fly in the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit” (p. 72).
Is it necessary to believe in something that transcends the material world to prevent falling into the trap of materialism?
for example, sutra II.33 states: “Principles which run contrary to yama and niyama are to be countered with knowledge of discrimination.”
Sermon 12: “Antidotes for Fear”
King begins by distinguishing between “normal” (rational) and “abnormal” (irrational) fears. He writes “Normal fear motivates us to improve our individual and collective welfare; abnormal fear constantly poisons and distorts our inner lives. Our problem is not to be rid of fear but rather to harness and master it” (p. 121). Yes! This is the same goal of mental mastery that IS the path of yoga! King offers four ways:
I. Face fear. “Unflinchingly face our fears and honestly ask ourselves why we are afraid.”
—>This is the practice of satya (truth) and svadyaya (self-study)
II. Be courageous. “Courage, the determination not to be overwhelmed by any object, however frightful, enables us to stand up to any fear.”
—>This is the practice of tapas (perseverance, burning inner zeal)
III. Love. “Envy, jealousy, a lack of self-confidence, a feeling of insecurity, and a haunting sense of inferiority are all rooted in fear…Is there a cure for these annoying fears that pervert our personal lives? Yes, a deep and abiding commitment to the way of love.”
—>The principles of love interdependence underlie all of the yamas and niyamas, but especially ahimsa (non-violence, compassion).
IV. Faith. “Fear of death, non-being, and nothingness, expressed in existential anxiety, may be cured only by a positive religious faith.”
—>This is the practice of Isvara Pranidhana (surrender to God). Is surrender the same thing as faith? Perhaps not exactly, but when all seems lost (i.e. things are not going according to our plans, desires, or expectations) we have two choices: suffer or let go. Yes, we can continue to take action to move in the direction of our goals, but this is never a guarantee that the outcome will be as expected. At that moment we can choose to rail at God, life, loved ones, or innocent passersby. Or we can beat ourselves up for our pathetic lack of omnipotence. Or…we can let go of expectations. When we have a worldview, religious or otherwise, that reassures us that ultimately everything will be ok, it is so much easier to let go.
So…is faith necessary to experience transcendent freedom? Is faith in a “network of mutuality” adequate, or is the element of a higher power required?
I can’t wait to hear everyone’s ideas! Please do not hesitate to offer any other topics of discussion that these readings inspired!
Thank you for reading. All sincere thoughts and inquiries are welcome.