Yoga seems to be full of contradictions. For instance, in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a text that codifies the path of Raja Yoga, Sage Patanjali lists running from pain/aversion as a Klesha/obstacle to yoga but then says “Pain, that has not yet come should be avoided”.
Patanjali says that we should practice non-attachment but we also should maintain a daily practice for a long time, without stopping and with faith and devotion. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, a text that explains the path of Hatha Yoga, says that the yogi should follow no rules but then says you need a Guru and you should follow his/her rules.
What is a yogi to do?
Patanjali states that everything exists for our soul’s sake. We are either here to experience the world or to liberate ourselves from the world. Everything in existence has characteristics that bind us or liberate us. Everything has both/and. You choose how to work with the universe/God’s creation/nature’s creation.
At the very beginning of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali introduces the concept of both/and. He lists thought patterns that can be both harmless and/or harmful. For example, one of the thought patterns mentioned is memory. Without memory, we cannot do basic functions like drive a car or make breakfast. However, dwelling on events from our past can cause pain in our futures. Remembering why we come to our mats can help us maintain a consistent practice but clinging to our past physical accomplishments on the mat results in comparison and suffering. Our memories can be both a blessing and a curse all at the same time.
To get a deeper understanding of working with paradox on the spiritual path, let’s go back to the examples in the first paragraph. Should we or should we not avoid pain? In order to change, grow and evolve, we often must become uncomfortable. For example, if you want to become more physically fit, you must endure the pain of sore muscles. This is good pain. If you use improper form during your workout and become injured, this is the pain that should and could have been avoided. Another type of pain, that may be beneficial to work with and not avoid, is emotional pain that keeps you yoked to fear, shame, anger, guilt and hate. This type of pain keeps you locked in the Klesha of Avidya, ignorance of your true nature. Avidya is an obstacle to yoga. On the flip side, if you had an unhealthy relationship with your ex that you healed from and they ask you on a date, that may be a type of pain that you would want to avoid.
Now let’s look at yogic practices. If you have a mental tug of war whenever you miss practice, you are most likely attached to it. This is not all bad. Sometimes, we have to baby step change. Going straight from stressed out mess to enlightenment may be too much of a stretch. A daily practice provides a systematized way of gradually working with our neurosis. As we slowly create new healthy patterns, it is important to occasionally reevaluate our practice and ask ourselves if our practice is leading us to freedom of bondage. The practice, when done properly, should create more freedom in your heart, soul and mind. As you become freer, you grow less attached to yogic techniques. Eventually, the yogi can keep his heart and mind light without the use of yogic techniques.
Our last example will be Swami Svatmarama’s, the author of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, declaration that yogis should not follow rules, however they should follow their teacher’s rules. While there have definitely been sages that didn’t make rules or honestly, even want students, who managed to teach students, yogic practices generally come with rules. Even if a teacher shows many different variations of Down Dog, there is still some idea of the general shape or purpose of a Down Dog which means there are rules for Down Dog.
We cannot get around rules. The universe has rules. If you jump off your roof, you will not float up…unless you have super powers. We also will most likely always need someone else to teach us about rules. Our parents or care givers were our first teachers. They taught us that, even with a cape, if we jump off the roof, we will not fly but fall straight down.
Though yoga is ultimately an individual journey, a yoga teacher ensures that the yogi has a good map for their journey. So, when do we not follow rules? Swami Muktibodhananda, a teacher and commentator on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika says, “As far as social rituals and religious doctrines are concerned, it is unnecessary that they be maintained for spiritual progress. Sadhana (practice) is not dependent on social morals nor are its effects promoted by religious practices. Adhering to rules makes one narrow minded. Yoga is meant to expand the consciousness, not to limit it. A yogi should have a free and open mind.”
As we practice, we get to know ourselves. Discernment grows and we understand what actions lead us further on the yogic journey, which ones are inconsequential and which ones stop progress. Any rules that don’t serve the yogi or the greater good are questioned and possibly cast aside. A great example of this is Gandhi, who used civil disobedience to protest British colonial rule.
The quote, “A yogi does not do what is right. A yogi does what is appropriate” by Sadhguru is a really beautiful way of looking at paradox in the spiritual world. Every moment calls for a new and different action. What is right for one moment, may not be appropriate for another. Within every moment or person there lies the seeds of good and evil, death and life, growth and stagnation and/or liberation and bondage. Traversing the slope of paradox calls for a strong heart, a willingness to stay open and the ability to forgive. We are human and flawed. Because we hold the possibility for both/and, sometimes we will not do what is appropriate and we will not do what is right. Luckily, we can find our way back on the spiritual path as many times as we need. No effort is wasted and no one is ever permanently lost.
By Shanna Small
Shanna Small is the mind behind, The Ashtanga Yoga Project, a website and home for information on how to use the wisdom of Ashtanga Yoga in Modern life. Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch.
Photo credit: Wanda Koch Photography.