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Sanskrit: modern context for ancient practice

Sanskrit Foundation

Have you wondered why Sanskrit is used to describe yoga? Yes, it’s a dead language and might seem unnecessarily arcane in the yoga studio. But consider that Sanskrit contains a nuance that require several English words to express. Sanskrit terms are handy because yoga philosophy and ideas can be expressed in a concise way.

For example:

Yoga (derived from Sanskrit yuj): the union of the self with the divine. To yoke. In the Yoga Sutra 1.2, Patanjali defines yoga as “the restriction of the whirls of consciousness.” Yoga is slippery in its definition but describing the practice with its Sanskrit word captures the essence of yoga without needing excessive description.

Samadhi: placing, putting together. The putting together of consciousness and objectiveness. The understanding of the self in relation to the other. The existence within the self while simultaneously escaping the confines of the ego.

Samadhi is the eighth limb of yoga and is tricky to understand, much less articulate. Carl Jung took a stab at describing why the concept of Samadhi is best left in its root word. He said that it’s used without definite meaning but instead represents a concept that can only be understood through broad conception of theory. He compares it to asking a man in India what grass feels like. Rather than describing a blade of grass, the man will show you a meadow filled with different types of grass. The concept is articulated by a broad description. Samadhi is a single word that articulates the broad concept of transcendence.

Spiritual Geography

Sanskrit provides a spiritual geography for the practice. The use of the language manifests the ideas of the practice. By representing ideas rather than translating the words, the landscape of the practice is relevant and accessible to modern yogis.

Consider two Sanskrit words: virabhdrasana and avidya

virabhdrasana A, B and C (the warrior series) represent the battle against avidya (the ego).

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Warrior Two – Battling the ego

Avidya translates to ignorance, misunderstanding and incorrect knowledge. The warrior poses are an allegorical battle against fundamental misunderstanding of the self.

Yoga is the restriction of the whirls of consciousness. Samadhi (the “goal” of yoga) is existence while escaping the confines of the ego, avidya is misunderstanding of who you are and the warrior poses are your physical self, doggedly carrying on in spite of it all.

Mistaking passing thoughts and experiences as the totality of existence is an example of avidya. Believing that the abject misery of a romantic breakup is your true state is a misunderstanding of yourself. Thinking that the bliss of vacation will last forever is also avidya. It’s not that bliss and misery can’t consume you, it’s that your true self is a moment-to-moment awareness: experiences and thoughts are impermanent reflections of you.

Confusing sorrow with joy is another example of avidya. Convincing yourself that you’ll be happy when you get a promotion or when your husband cooks you dinner is failing to understand that happiness occurs now.  It’s not that these things don’t equate to joy, but their absence must not create sorrow.

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timeless

The warrior poses represent the complex and unending battle with your ego. You practice the warrior poses as a way to battle misunderstanding of your true self. Instead of that misunderstanding, you seek to understand yourself in the present moment of consciousness.

Practicing yoga seems simple in its execution, but complex in its description. The battle of misunderstanding is relevant for everyone, regardless of creed, religion or generation. Everyone struggles against the whirls of consciousness and strives for contentment in the present moment. The timeless nature of the battle is represented with Sanskrit. Universal concepts are summarized with concise words. Sanskrit words inform the practice as a representation of the collective struggle.

Sanskrit is no longer a living language, but its use lives on in the practice of yoga. Using Sanskrit to describe yoga provides enduring context to a modern practice. Understanding the concepts of yoga using the descriptive terms of Sanskrit is a tool to inform your understanding of yourself, your health and wellness and your relationship with the world around you. The greater your knowledge of Sanskrit words, the richer your practice will be.

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Mindful Meditation for Peace of Mind

You don’t have to practice yoga every day. But when you need your practice, you’re going to wish you’d been practicing every day.

Yoga is a physical, emotional and psychological practice. The physical part, the poses, is the most obvious. The emotional and psychological components of a yoga practice are much harder to understand. But tapping into the emotional, mindful and psychological aspect of yoga presents a platform for training the mind to avoid negative self-talk and unnecessary distractions. Try practicing mindfulness meditation as a way to navigate difficult experiences, understand interpersonal relations and ease the suffering of yourself and those around you.

When the body is suffering, there are tools that can be used for healing. Tools such as resting sore muscles, splinting broken bones or massaging tired muscles are all useful for healing what ails the physical body. On the contrary, when the mind is tired or emotional pain is present, the tools necessary to heal are not as apparent. The subtle body and the mind present great complexity and require tools such as mindfulness yoga for healing.

There will always be suffering. Emotional suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition. Heartbreak, loss, failure, rejection…these are just a few examples of suffering that every human will experience. The attachment to this suffering is optional. As children, our personality structure is based on seeking love from the environment. Seeking and finding love is a strategy of the ego and children must pursue love and acceptance as a survival technique. As we reach adulthood, however, the pursuit of love, acceptance and pleasure creates a false sense of self. Constantly seeking approval and love from external sources represents the inherent idea that we are “not enough” as we are and thus suffering ensues when external circumstances of love and acceptance change or disappear.

The strategy for navigating difficult emotions and indulging in less suffering is to train the mind and heart to be free of misunderstanding of the true self. Mindfulness meditation is the tool. Our lives are a collection of stories and the challenge is to understand that these stories are not the totality of our existence.

By understanding that experiences and situations are often beyond our control, we can escape the assumption that experiences and emotions represent our faults as humans.

The intention of mindfulness meditation is to develop a strength where sensations such as emotions are present, but not threatening.

Our greatest challenge to misunderstanding ourselves is interpersonal relationships. If, as Sartre said, “Hell is other people,” then how can we escape that hell? Sartre did not mean this literally; as in, he didn’t mean that other people are poisonous villains. What he meant was that much of our understanding of ourselves comes from the knowledge that other people already have of us. Our interactions with family, friends, strangers and coworkers creates parameters for how we are judged. In turn, we judge ourselves by the same criteria. If we can escape this judgement and stop allowing other people’s perception of us to be the dogmatic definition of ourselves, we can achieve a sense of peace and a deeper understanding of ourselves.

A heart-cultivation practice is a mindfulness meditation technique that acknowledges the other people around us, but does not focus on the mutual judgements and expectations we have for each other. This is a strategy for exercising the four qualities of the heart. It’s a useful strategy for managing difficult emotional times, but is most beneficial if it’s part of a regular practice.

  • Loving kindness
  • Compassion
  • Sympathetic job
  • Equanimity

Loving Kindness (metta)

Loving kindness is an inclusive, unconditional love for all living beings. It is not based on “merit,” and has no expectations of anything in return.

Start with yourself.

May I feel at home in my life.

May I trust the process of my life

May I feel patience with my circumstances

May I be free from harm

May I find peace and joy in this world

May I be happy

Next move on to a neutral person. This can be someone with whom you have limited interactions. For example, someone that you see on your daily commute to work or the receptionist at the gym or the cashier at the grocery store. Practice sending loving kindness to this person with whom you have no positive or negative interactions with. A neutral relationship.

May he feel at home in his life

May he trust the process of his life

May he feel patience with his circumstances

May he be free from harm

May he find peace and joy in this world

May he be happy

Finally, if you feel ready, move on to someone with whom you have a very trying relationship. Do the best you can.

To the best of my ability, I wish her comfort in her own life.

To the best of my ability, I wish her patience with her own circumstances

To the best of my ability, I wish her freedom from harm

To the best of my ability, I wish her happiness and health

Compassion (karuna)

Practice compassion by taking note of all the stages of suffering. Refrain from seeing suffering as a binary creation. Suffering is more than a start point and an end point. Suffering is a string of constituent parts and to be compassionate is to look at what is happening and look at the circumstances that gave rise to it. Being compassionate is the ability to recognize and be with pain and know that it is not personal. Rather, the experience of pain can be construed as a welcoming to the human family.

Practice compassion by choosing a person who you know is suffering. Focus on their experience.

May he be free from pain and suffering

May he grant himself permission to love

May he forgive those who have hurt him

By developing a feeling of compassion in your heart, you are cultivating an energy. By practicing this compassion, you are allowing this energy to grow and propagate.

Sympathetic Joy (Mudita)

Create sympathetic joy by acknowledging joy in the simplicity and finding joy in other people’s joy. This is a challenging practice, but it’s important to remember that someone else’s joy does not take away from your own potential for joy. The opponents of joy are envy and jealousy, but by unselfishly noticing someone else’s joy, the poisonous opposite feelings can dissolve.

May her feelings of joy be abundant

May she feel joy in the simplicity of her life

Equanimity (Upekkha)

Equanimity is love plus insight and is characterized as evenmindedness. Cultivating equanimity creates a skill set where you are not thrown off balance by your experiences. It is a recognition that all experiences, good and bad, are impermanent and that participation in the human experience will always present highs and lows, but neither needs to define you

I love all beings and understand that all their experiences are impermanent

I love all beings and understand that making space for love, compassion, joy               and kindness is the way to peace, not clinging to craving, jealousy, envy, pleasure or fear.

Conclusion

A regular mindfulness meditation practice is a tool for achieving emotional stability. By cultivating loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, we can participate in the human experience with ease and understand that our experiences are not the sum total of our existence.

A traumatic or difficult experience may prove to be the catalyst to start practicing mindfulness, but the practice will be of most use if it’s done regularly. You don’t need to practice yoga every day, but when you need your practice, you’re going to wish you had practiced every day.