For the past year and a half, I have been studying Chapter III of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, word-by-word, with my mentor, Chase Bossart, and a group of amazing, dedicated students of yoga. Many of us studied Chapter II with Chase in the same way so we are rounding up Year 3 of studying together.
Just as the examination has been word-by-word, the experience of it has been day-by-day, week-by-week and so my sense of the sum total of effort is less of satisfied completion and more of a feeling of immersion – that I have slowly soaked up the words, concepts and ideas. My capacity to soak up was limited by, well, my capacity so I know that I will be ready to jump back in and see what I can soak up should this opportunity come around again. I think that’s how it goes with the Yoga Sutra.
In my various trainings, I have studied Chapters I and II a fair bit because they are laying out the real nuts and bolts of it all – first from the perspective of one who is “nearly there” and then, in Chapter II, explaining it for us student-types. Chapter III always felt a little strange to me once we get past the first 17 sutra that talk about dhārana, dhyānam and samādhi. How useful is it to talk about levitating or time travel or speaking every language? I mean, who is out there running around doing those things?
One of Chase’s geniuses is that he can take these ideas and make them relevant to a regular person. Turns out they are not so distant and abstract but actually alive and functioning in my life. Deep into Chapter III, Patanjali starts giving warnings about these siddhis or powers: don’t be distracted by what a clear, settled mind can do! There is a reason why Snakes and Ladders is a popular and ancient game in India. You can get to square 99 and have your foot hovering over 100 and…oops! Back you go! Even in that – who hasn’t been there in some form or fashion?
Last week, I was listening to a talk by a senior monastic at Zen Mountain Monastery as part of our newfangled virtual retreats called One Continuous Thread. In this talk, he mentioned, or perhaps he wondered about, looking at a photograph of a group of people and looking at each one in turn. As he looked at each person, he said to himself, “Perfect.”
Maybe this is a great example of how yoga and Zen differ. I love my Yoga Sutra studies – truly this text has transformed my life and I am so deeply grateful to Chase and Dolphi, in particular, for sharing their wisdom and insight so that I may begin to understand what it is offering. It is both highly detailed and totally open-ended. It is why you can study it the way they paint the Queensborough Bridge – as soon as you get to the end, it is time to start over.
And yet….there is something to the heart-piercing simplicity of cultivating the ability to look at a group of people, each in turn, and say with wholehearted sincerity, “Perfect.” You don’t need 50+ sutra to parse that out (but you do need to practice it).
I ask you, is there a greater (or more needed) superpower than that?