And now the teaching of yoga begins.
– Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, verse 1 of chapter 1
As far as opening lines go, this one is pretty sneaky
For a long time, I regarded this opening line of the ancient yoga text with which I am most familiar as a stage-setting along the lines of “once upon a time” or “it was a dark and stormy night.” And in some ways, as any teacher worth their salt knows is a good idea, Patanjali is telling us what he’s going to tell us.
Because there are only 196 verses in the sutras and a whole lot to tell us about yoga, it should perhaps have been obvious to me that Patanjali is not going to waste a single word simply setting the stage. Once this dawned on me, I took a second look at his opening line and realized, in fact, that there is more going on here than first meets the eye.
When I first read the line, it is easy to assume that the most important word is “yoga.” But when I read it again with the understanding that Patanjali is assuming that anyone reading his work is a yogi wanting to know more about yoga, it shifts. Suddenly the most important word is no longer yoga.
What do you think it is?
The best part of teaching is when a student teaches me
I throw this question out to my university students in Philosophy of Yoga early in the semester each year and it always stirs up some good conversation. This semester a woman summed it up perfectly with a bumper-sticker-worthy phrase:
Be where your feet are.
I asked her to explain. She said, if you’re not paying attention to exactly what you’re doing, if you are multitasking or daydreaming or just distracted, you cannot be doing yoga. Yoga can only teach us in the moment – in the now. So, she summed up, the most important word in the sutra is “now.”
The first step is a doozy
Before he mentions a posture, or a breath, or even describes why we would want to practice yoga in the first place, Patanjali offers a giant piece of wisdom. It is something that seems incredibly simple but, for humans, with our wonderful, creative, curious, chatty brains, is nearly impossible:
Stay in the now.
Be where your feet are.
What does it look like when you’re “in the now” in the real world?
Just for a second, let’s forget about yoga mats, yoga clothes, and the threat that someone may ask you to stand on your head or do a backbend. What on earth does it look like to “be where your feet are” in the real world? (Because, in the end, a yoga mat is simply a little laboratory on which we practice better ways of living.)
- It means putting your phone on do not disturb while you grade papers so that your students get the very best of your mind – attentiveness being many times more important than intelligence.
- It means closing your eyes to get lost in a song so that nothing distracts you from the beauty of what you’re hearing and the way the melody makes you feel.
- It means resisting the urge to glance up at the television in the local pub while you’re having dinner with your partner. (Yoga promises that eventually we won’t even notice that television, but that’s after a whole lot of practice.)
- It means being so in awe of the beauty around you that the pace of your hike slows to a standstill so that you don’t miss a thing. “This,” you think as your heart pounds at the glory of it all, “is not what I intended when I laced up my boots and headed out to get my heart pumping.”
- It means maintaining eye-contact and an open, curious state of mind in even the most painful, vulnerable conversations. It means resisting the urge to plan what you’re going to say, choosing instead to listen and really hear what the other person is saying to you.
- It means single-tasking with determination and persistence.
“Now” begins anything and everything that is meaningful
It turns out (as it almost always does) that Patanjali is teaching us not how to do yoga, but how to live life. When we are in the now life is richer and more meaningful. It is also more manageable. When we are where our feet are we can navigate even the most challenging events of our life with grace and poise.
“Now begins the teaching of yoga” suddenly means to me “Now begins your life.” I promise it’s worth paying attention to.
Yoga With Spirit’s free asana class in February (scroll down to the center of the page) was inspired by the phrase “be where your feet are.” I hope you enjoy practicing with me – and that the practice on your mat inspires you to practice off your mat as well!