Baxter’s post yesterday (see Does Home Practice Make You Healthier?) was packed full of interesting tidbits, wasn’t it? But one of the most striking comments for me was this one about yoga philosophy:
Notably, frequency of philosophy study was the yoga practice variable that most often predicted health. In addition, more frequent philosophy study also contributed to a lower BMI and higher odds of being a vegetarian. And this sometimes equated to only reading philosophy once a week.
Now I’ve been saying for some time, both to students and on this blog, that I felt yoga philosophy was one of yoga’s valuable tools for cultivating equanimity (see Acceptance, Active Engagement and the Bhagavad Gita and other posts on yoga philosophy). So it was wonderful to hear that this recent study offered some evidence to back me up! And I thought today I’d say a little bit about why I think yoga philosophy is so beneficial, and also mention a few ways for you to get started with yoga philosophy, if you have not already done so.
In general I think that yoga philosophy helps us cultivate equanimity because it provides an alternative way of thinking about our lives. Every day in our society we’re bombarded with advertising that tells us that in order to be happy, we must buy more and achieve more. That’s just due to the nature of capitalism, as, of course, various companies and individuals wanting to make money need to persuade us to be unhappy with our current situation and urge us to improve ourselves by buying their products and/or services. And striving for material success also seems to be built into our culture Unfortunately, for most of us, this pressure leaves us feeling continually unhappy and stressed out, caught in an endless cycle desire and dissatisfaction. What yoga philosophy does is remind us that there is another way thinking about our lives, and provides us with a different goal we can aim for: equanimity. The following quote from the Bhagavad Gita describes the yogi who has achieved equanimity.
He who hates no light, nor busy activity, nor even darkness, when they are near, neither longs for them when they are far.
Who unperturbed by changing conditions sits apart and watches and says “the powers of nature go round”, and remains firm and shakes not.
Who dwells in his inner self, and is the same in pleasure and pain; to whom gold or stones or earth are one, and what is pleasing or displeasing leave him in peace; who is beyond both praise and blame, and whose mind is steady and quiet.
Who is the same in honor or disgrace, and has the same love for enemies or friends.
Although it is obviously a lifelong quest to achieve the state of equanimity described above, I’ve found that it is very beneficial when I notice dissatisfaction taking over, to step back and at least remind myself there is a different point of view. Then I can begin to let go. And obviously the people interviewed in the study Baxter discussed found similar benefits.
|Arctic Sun by Michele Macartney-Filgate|
The Yoga Sutras is likely the most commonly cited scripture these days (though this probably was not true in the past). Composed in 150-200 C.E. by Patanjali, who may or may not have been a single person, the Yoga Sutras is a short, concise work of aphorisms. It is very intellectual and abstract as opposed to Bhagavad Gita, and while some people find it too dry and abstract. I myself find it a brilliant work on psychology and the nature of the mind. The Yoga Sutras is often considered by some to be the climax of a long development of yogic technology, and Patanjali’s school has come to be considered the authoritative system of the yoga tradition referred to as “classical yoga.”
There are many different translations, some with detailed commentaries, others with little or no explanation. I suggest you peruse several different versions to find the best one for you to start with. Being something of a nerd on the topic, I find myself using several different translations on a regular basis, including:
Light on the Yoga Sutras by BKS Iyengar, with Iyengar’s commentary
Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Edwin F. Bryant
Desikachar’s very loose translation in The Heart of Yoga
Georg Fuerstein’s very literal translation in The Yoga Tradition
The Bhagavad Gita is one section of a much longer work, the dramatic epic poem the Mahabharata, written in approximately 500 to 400 BCE. The Gita tells the story of Arjuna, the most distinguished warrior in the Pandava army, as he stops and surveys his adversaries in the Kavara army. The Kavaras are power-hungry corrupt rulers who had usurped the throne. The peace-leaving Pandavas, on the other hand, have the welfare to the people at heart. So this is considered a moral war. Arjuna sees among the opposing forces many with whom the Pandavas have no quarrel, including highly esteemed teachers and elders. He tells Krishna, his charioteer and great friend, he is determined not to fight. His scruples center on the imagined personal consequences of his fighting: his guilt for the decimation of his people. Krishna speaks with him about yoga—the Gita is their dialogue—until he is once more resolved to fight. Some people Krishna’s advice to Arjuna to go into battle disturbing, but Mohandas K. Ghandi, who called the Gita his “mother,” considered the war to be a metaphor for the battle within our souls.
As with the Yoga Sutras, there are many different translations of the Bhagavad Gita, and I recommend that you search for a translation that speaks to you. Translation can make such a difference; I’ve seen the same definition of yoga translated in these different ways:
yoga is equanimity
yoga is balance
yoga is evenness of mind
I really enjoy both the simple, very accessible translation by Stephen Mitchell as well as the more vivid and dramatic one by Juan Mascaro. And I always turn to Georg Feuerstein when I want a translation that while awkward is as close as possible to the original Sanskrit.
Although these two scriptures are just the tip of the yoga philosophy iceberg, I promise you that these two very different books are rich with insights, and you can read them over and over. And I assure you that if you find just one helpful message or concept, it will be worth your time and effort. If reading these works by yourself is too daunting, consider finding a friend or two to read and discuss the books with (I did that for many years with one of my dearest long-time yoga friends).