The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are a book of short teachings (sutra means thread) that, when read together, provide the way of practice for a yogi. I was once told that the Sutras were written for the yogi in ancient times (approx. 2000 years ago) who left society to live and meditate and reach liberation (ending the cycle of rebirth). Today, it is studied even by those of us who want to live in society, but are looking for more meaning in our yoga practice. Some of the sutras are tangible and apply to everyday life, kind of like the Christian Ten Commandments, and some are really wacky and exciting (like attaining the strength of elephants, levitating, or becoming invisible). Book 1, Sutra 14 is one of my favorite and I think everyone, no matter what your "practice" is (prayer, running, painting, taking long walks, loving your family), can relate to. It says:
Practice becomes firmly grounded
when well attended to for a long time,
and in all earnestness.
In one translation of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, the translator and commentator, Sri Swami Satchidananda, tells a story from Hindu scriptures.
There was this great maharishi named Narada, who traveled around to see how earth bound yogi’s were doing. As he was on his way to Heaven for a visit to Lord Shiva, he came across a yoga student who had been meditating for so long, ants had built an anthill around him.
The Yogi asked Narada where he was going. When Narada told him he was on his way to Heaven to visit Lord Shiva, the Yogi asked him to inquire about how many more lifetimes he would have to spend meditating before becoming liberated. Narada agreed to do this.
Next, Narada saw another man. This man was not meditating; he was dancing and singing to Krishna with pure joy. He, too, asked Narada to inquire about how many more lifetimes he would have to sing and dance for Krishna before reaching liberation. Narada agreed to do this, also.
Many years passed before Narada returned. He found the meditating Yogi first and told him Shiva’s reply. Shiva said the Yogi must take four more births before liberation. The Yogi was exasperated! “FOUR MORE”, he exclaimed! “Haven’t I waited long enough?!”
Next, Narada found the singing and dancing man. He told him that Shiva gave him a reply.
“Do you see that tree there? Can you count the leaves on it?”
“Sure”, said the man. “I have the patience to do that. Shall I do it right away?”
“No”, Narada replied. “Take your time. Lord Shiva said you will have as many births as the number of leaves on that tree”.
“Oh!”, said the man. “Is that all?! One tree? At least he didn’t say the whole forest!”
Just then, a messenger from Shiva came. Shiva was ready for the man now.
“You were ready and willing to wait and work and take many more births. If you are ready and willing to do that, why should you have to wait?”
I want to think that Satchidananda tells this story to tell us that, instead of sitting around meditating all the time, we should sing and dance all the time to reach liberation faster. (This would be SO much more fun!) But I know this is not what he means. I know he means to tell us that if we are willing to be dedicated and committed to our practice, any practice, we can attain what we desire sooner than we think.
If you are that patient, your mind is more settled, and what you do will be more perfect. If you are unsettled and anxious to get the result, you are already disturbed; nothing done with that disturbed mind will have quality. So, it is not only how long you practice, but with what patience, what earnestness and what quality also.
I’ve always been a destination over journey kind of person. More product over process. I’m not one to take a wandering stroll. I need to know that I’ll stop at the cute little cafe 10 blocks away. I’ll sit at my favorite corner table, read a few chapters while I’m there so I can finish this book and get on to the next one. I’ll get a cappuccino and a cookie. And I’ll probably walk there as fast as I can and forget to look around. This is the kind of journey I go on- the kind that I know for sure will end with a cappuccino and cookie.
I do the same thing with knowledge. I have a dear friend who, when things are challenging me for, always says “it’s all information Amy. That irritation with your colleague? Just information. That broken heart? Just information. Your endless struggle with marichyasana D? Just information.” Just like the Yogi in the Hindu scripture, I am always left exasperated, thinking OK, great, it’s information. Now, what does it MEAN and what do I DO with it?
When people ask me why I practice yoga, my answer often changes. I vary it based on who is asking. Sometimes I answer that it is about staying healthy. Sometimes I answer that it is about spiritual understanding. Sometimes I answer that it is about grace or beauty or just simple pleasure. But the truth is, I don’t know why.
With asana, there is no clear destination. No final product. Just when I thought I had gotten bhujapidasana, Barbara told me to put my head on the floor. Just when I thought I had a totally solid tadasana, a teacher told me to lift my butt off my thighs and “give it a home of its own”. Likewise, just when I thought I’d never be able to hold my headstand, there I was one day, upside down.
I don’t know exactly why I’ve committed to a yoga practice. I only know that I get on my mat and work as hard as each day will allow me. I go through each practice, as if counting the leaves on the trees. Collecting moments. Collecting breaths. Collecting information and waiting, patiently and earnestly, for it to make sense.