“Peace in the heart radiates peace to other hearts”
Patanjali is generally accepted as the forefather of modern yoga. This revered figure is known to have written the most ancient guidebook to yoga, “The Yoga Sutra” in around 300 A.D. (although some sources site dates going back as early as 200 B.C.). Sutras are poetic instructions on the philosophy of life and living, with the word ‘sutra’ denoting a kind of thread in the sense that has given rise to the current usage as a term for an internet conversation or set of linked ideas passing from person to person. In a more figurative sense, a thread might see individuals in a more holistic sense, as each of make up one part of a fabric, a community or society, our brief lives constituting a tiny role within the complex tapestry of life.
In Patanjali’s sutras, we find the roots of the modern practice of Ayurveda (or sometimes referred to as Ayurvedic Medicine). This ancient healing system categorises people into three main body types (pitta, vatta, kapha) and their relative dominance within an individual’s physiology and constitution in order to prescribe a total regime of diet, exercise, and environment, to maintain optimal health.
For more information on Patanjali’s relevance to all styles of modern yoga, I recommend Judith Hanson Lasater & Lizzie Lasater “Yoga Philosophy 101: 5 reasons you should know Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra” published in Yoga Journal August 5th 2016.
Yoga is included as a daily practice for a healthy mind and body within Patanjali’s aphorisms. Over the years, they have been translated into many languages and propagated to yoga students and teachers. There are 196 sutras in total, the Lotus Sutra remaining the one of the most popular and, in my opinion, timeless.
The metaphor of the lotus flower, with its uncountable unfolding petals, in almost synonymous with modern yoga, and is commonly used as an image on advertising and logos. Padmasana (seated lotus pose) is an iconic symbol for mediation practice and inner peace.
The lotus flower provides a visceral image with easily conveys the concept of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ yoga practices. Inner practices, such as pranayama and meditation cultivate introspection, whilst bhakti and asana focus our energies on devotional and visible practices in the physical world. For each petal that has bloomed atop the head of the flower, there are an equal number of tiny, hidden buds, compressed into the centre near the plant’s stem.
Here, with this constant shifting between flower and bud, is the philosophy of the Lotus Sutra. Implicated in its poetic verse is the idea that each person, and every living being, has the potential to make progress beyond their present state. Atoms join to become cells, cells become consciousness, consciousness becomes awareness, and so on, forever unfolding and reaching out from our original source. We are all striving for improvement, development, and even perhaps eventual enlightenment.
If the notion of continual progression is embedded in Patanjali’s text. In his model, spiritual self-development under the guidance of an experienced teacher. Lately this has been referred to in yoga circles as “the guru path”, and is the highest goal of attainment for the yogi. (For more information, please see https://blog.yogaallianceprofessionals.org/the-guru-path-yoga.)
In a translated extract from the original Sanskrit text of the “Lotus Sutra”, this is expressed as follows:
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds: Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you have ever dreamed yourself to be”
These are inspiring words for both teacher and student, beseeching the teacher-guru to use techniques which lead the student to discover themselves without dogma or imitation. A good teacher demonstrates, whilst a great teacher inspires.
Self-discovery seems to be one of the dominant zeitgeists of the latter part of the 20th century, leading to the popularity of yoga as a physical practice through asana (the remaining 7 of the 8 limbs have largely been ignored in the Western world). Asanas appeal to modern yoga practitioners as an antidote to our repeated movements patterns which have been imposed by societal norms or sitting (usually in chairs), standing, walking, and other gestural movements usually only making use of the arms and hands. Our arms reach back and forth doing chores, typing, driving, and the rest of the body stays motionless and over time muscles become weakened and flexibility lost. In yoga asana practice, better muscle strength and control can be regained, balance improved, and the mind also can open up to become aware of new possibilities of self-perception.
As different facets of our self-view expand, so also do the illusions of our thoughts. Unnecessary aspects might now take the chance to fall away as a new petal of the lotus unfurls. The petal that has completed its useful life is shed, it rots and fertilises the soil beneath the plant.
Yoga practice can therefore give rise to new, or clearer thoughts, ideas and sensations. Each of these may, if nurtured, manifest in our physical world. A tiny bud might become a blossom if nurtured through kindness, like the lotus flower reaching out, trying to extend beyond its boundaries.
“Where the heart is full of kindness which seeks no injury to another, either in act or thought or wish, this full love creates an atmosphere of harmony, whose benign power touches with healing all who come within its influence. Peace in the heart radiates peace to other hearts, even more surely than contention breeds contention.”
Patanjali, Lotus Sutra
Coming deep from within, our honest intention to reach out with what is of service to others, or reel in and detach from what is not necessary, gently guides us towards our highest aspirations, and a glimpse of our infinite selves.