Book One, Verse 1: Atha Yoganusasanam.
When teaching from the Yoga Sutras in the past, I always skipped this first line to get to the more juicy second verse.
The first sutra’s translation – “Now the yoga instruction begins” – is so simple that it reads like a title page. At best, it’s a basic prologue that sets the stage. I’m reminded of the Chorus that begins Romeo & Juliet, whose dry couplets give no hint of the daggers, the galloping fiery-footed steeds, and the loving-black browed nights that are to follow.
Just like a good Shakespearean play, the sutras reveal deep truths in our human behavior. But unlike Shakespeare, these verses are not so metered. Think of them as the primer of yoga – the ABC’s, really, of a philosophy that’s said to be thousands of years old. Sutra literally translates as “thread,” and many of the sutras are not sentences with subjects and verbs, but collections of words thought to have first been written down as shorthand by the students of Patanjali while they listened to his teachings.
I’m not alone in my suspicion that the sutras are deliberately vague, and that like a good work of art, they provide room for personal interpretation.
Take this first verse. Recently, I began an advanced yoga teacher training program. I took the bold step of leaving my roles of teacher and manager behind to sit again as a student, away from my home studio. As we rounded the circle of training teachers that first day, we each shared one of our favorite chants. Now, contrary to some patcholi-soaked comedic portrayals, most yoga teachers don’t sit around and chant, so this opening was disconcerting to many of us. But we all got by, repeating the “greatest hits” of yoga.
Then one young teacher named Marie led us in the first sutra. She said she loved it because to her, it meant that the yoga began again every time you hit your mat or meditation seat. No matter how long you’d been away, no matter how unfaithful you felt for that third glass of Pinot or that nasty thought, the practice of yoga was forgiving, and would begin again every time you came back.
I felt myself pass through a few shadow feelings of comparison – initially judging this teacher as less advanced in age or career, and so probably less advanced in her teaching. But I wasn’t on my soapbox at the top of the class anymore. And I wasn’t in a position of power as a manager. I was in a circle, where such comparisons were only detrimental, and revealed a defensiveness in me that could keep me from learning. What’s more, such a comparison is the antithesis of yoga – as it presumes that another person has a character that is less than their essential, divine self. In yoga, their is no “young teacher” or “master teacher” or any of that, really – since everyone is the guru. It seemed that though I’d been working in a yoga studio some 50-60 hours each week for over a year, my mental state had wandered far from that of a receptive student.
But that night, we put our hands together in prayer, and repeated after Marie in a three-note song, “Atha Yoganusasanam.”
And the yoga instruction began again.