Yoga Medicine dives into the Yoga Sutra texts, and explores the concept of the Guanas, and how we should always be striving for balance.for
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: Learning to Find Balance
Most dedicated yogis have come across The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali at some point during their journey through yoga. The text is introduced in most 200-hour training, but we rarely get a chance to really dig into it. Often because there’s so much for us to learn as yoga teachers in the making. We usually just end up giving it a quick glance before turning our attention to what feels most challenging in our studies, like sequencing, anatomy, or even our own physical practice.
On top of that, there are so many things that might concern us on the way to getting our certificates. Are we going to say something silly during our teaching exam? Will we forget the difference between rectus abdominis and rectus femoris on our final test? And will we ever be able to wrap our tongues around the 1008 names of asanas? In this situation, memorizing a bunch of philosophical terms in Sanskrit might feel less relevant to us and our students than actually figuring out how to get them safely through their asana practice.
So when it comes to the study of yoga philosophy, we often have a vague idea that the Yoga Sutras is a text about eight limbs of yoga. And that sounds a lot like the Ten Commandments. This means that as long as we don’t steal, lie or sleep around (too much) we’re probably not that far off the yogic path. However, while following the eight limbs is definitely a great place to start if we want to embrace a way of life that feels like yoga, the text has a lot more to offer.
The Text & Its Message
A sutra means a thread. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali could be said to be a weaving of threads that form a tapestry on how to approach the world if we want to find balance. The definition of yoga according to the text might surprise you. Or it might if you have an understanding of yoga that’s been colored by social media.
Patanjali’s definition of yoga has nothing to do with being really great at handstands. It doesn’t have anything to do with having thousands of followers on Instagram or even the coolest collection of yoga pants. Although, that might be because yoga pants weren’t a thing back then. The classical definition of yoga, mentioned in the second verse of the Sutras, is simply that yoga happens with the cessation of the turnings of the mind.
Or to rephrase it in language that’s a little less opaque: Yoga happens when we find our stillness.
From that point on, the entire text is more or less a description of how to arrive at that stillness.
Or, rather, how to realize that it has been with us all along.
So to return to the eight limbs that we’re all familiar with: if we find ourselves not following them from time to time, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to end up in some yogic hell, where we can’t receive shipments from Alo Yoga, our hamstrings will never lengthen and the Instagram app won’t download. It simply means that reaching a state of yoga is going to be that much harder.
One of the great beauties of the Sutras is that it’s an extremely undogmatic text. Yoga can be approached from numerous directions, according to Patanjali. And none of them are necessarily better than the others.
The World’s Energy
In my own practice, one of the most useful ideas has been that of the gunas. Or, to make it less esoteric: that the world is made up of energy. Which means that all there really is to the ever-changing material world all around us and in us (also known as “life”) is energies in a perpetual dance. Gunas acting on gunas, to paraphrase my teacher, Richard Freeman. That doesn’t mean that we’re subjected to these energies with no possibility to affect our own destiny. It means that if we learn to recognize them, we can have a say in how they unfold.
Especially to non-yogis (and maybe even to secularly minded yogis) talk of energies might feel uncomfortably new-agey. But the Yoga Sutras aims to describe the world exactly as it is as well as how we perceive it. To add a few nerdy terms, it’s thus both an ontological text (about what is) as well as an epistemology (about how we perceive what is), which simply means that it was probably considered to be a scientific endeavour at the time it was written down. So the idea of the gunas came from a very close study of the world unfolding at a time when microscopes had not yet been invented.
How are the gunas described in the Sutras? The text bases its ontology on the philosophical system called Samkhya Yoga, where we meet the idea of the gunas for the first time. The gunas are rajas, tamas, and sattva, often translated respectively as action, inertia, and balance.
The Three Guanas
As Western readers, when we are presented with a list like this, it’s normal to add value to the terms. We are so used to thinking in dichotomies of positives and negatives (i.e. good/evil, beautiful/ugly, young/old), that it can be hard, even on the subtlest levels, to not add value to the gunas. Doesn’t action sound a little bit better than inertia? And isn’t balance what we should be striving for all the time?
So, if you really want to integrate the idea of the gunas in your understanding of life and yoga, it’s important to keep reminding yourself that they’re just energies. Neither positive nor negative, but simply present to varying degrees during different stages of our lives. To make this even clearer, I like to compare the gunas to the Taoistic idea of yin and yang that we’re probably all familiar with.
Guanas & Taoist Ideas
If we know even a little bit about Chinese Medicine, we know that yin can’t exist without yang, and yang can’t exist without yin – like the sunny side of a hill can’t exist without the side that’s in shadow. And where we might find a balance between the two (sattva, broadly speaking, in yogic terminology) from time to time, constant balance is probably not possible or even all that interesting.
To pair this analogy with the gunas, the rajas is yang and tamas is yin. Imagine the very first weeks of a love affair. The butterflies in your stomach, your heart beating faster when you receive a text from your lover, the pure excitement of simply being together that makes it hard to sleep when you’re in each other’s arms. The devastating heartbreak when you’ve had your first fight and you fear that this might be the end of you as a potential couple. But then comes reconciliation and the world is once again a place of pure beauty and delight. So while you might not feel either in balance or in complete control of yourself when you fall in love, would you really want to exchange all that for perpetual equanimity?
As the love affair progresses over the years, a third, tiny person might join you. Which might mean that your main energy is pretty tamasic. Partly because your sleep cycle is disturbed by breastfeeding, diaper changes and the general lack of interest in sleep that babies seem to have at night. But no matter how exhausted you are, deep in your heart, you know that you wouldn’t swap it for well-rested balance if it meant not having your bundle of cuteness smiling at you at 3 am in the morning.
So one of the secrets to playing along with the gunas is simply to figure out what energy is predominant at any point in your life and how you might approach it. While you might go a little over-the- top rajasic bordering on slightly crazy when you fall in love, you can balance your rajas with a much needed sattvic meditation practice for a great yogic approach. So instead of following your butterflies around, you’ll start noticing if you’re falling into patterns that have gotten you in trouble in the past.
Or if you’re collapsing from lack of sleep because your baby is teething, you might decide that now is not the time to worry about your abs even if society demands that you look like a runway model four weeks after giving birth. A few easy, comfortable yin poses to release tension and a good long shavasana will be a perfect way not to fight your tamas, but instead embracing it’s nurturing qualities.
Learn to Balance with your Asana
The interesting thing about how we approach our asana practice in the light of the gunas is that we often tend to do more of what we already have enough of in our lives instead of what might help us create new and more sustainable patterns.
We tend to practice quite hard if we’re caught up in a rajasic cycle. Or if we simply have a tendency towards rajas. And while we might not change our practice from Hot Power Flow to restorative yin every time we unroll our mats, understanding how nourishing a quiet practice can be from time to time to balance the intensity of modern society is a great way for us to support ourselves. And Conversely, if we tend to be drawn towards quiet, contemplative practices, our system might benefit from adding strengthening asanas and flows that create circulation to our practice, so that we find the energy to go out and make a difference in the world through our kind, quiet approach.
A great way to get started doing that work is simply to start noticing the world as energy. So that you can figure out how your particular energy at any given moment fits into the dance that is life.