How Did Patanjali Know About COVID?

It’s been quite a year.  Here in Newfoundland, after nine months of almost no COVID cases, we find ourselves back on full lockdown.  In three days, the same number of people tested positive as had over the past 12 months.  Scary.  Friends and students report cycling through overwhelm and exhaustion without much of a break in between. 

Sounds like a good time to recommit to your daily yoga practice!  If we are honest, however, often it is exactly at these most challenging times when we are least motivated to practice.  People are funny that way. 

BTW, when I say “people” and “we,” I pretty much mean: me.  But maybe you see yourself in that description too?

This calls to mind what the Yoga Sūtra tells us about obstacles (or antarāya, which are defined in sūtra I.30).  Patanjali lists nine things that life will toss in our direction: illness, procrastination, doubt, physical and mental lethargy, carelessness, over-indulgence, close-minded thinking and regression. 

The thing about all these antarāya is that, sooner or later, every one of us will experience some version of them.  Whether they actually become obstacles depends on our current state.  Are we are approaching everything with a negative mindset or can we see positives even within difficult situations?  How’s our breathing – is it short and shallow or long and smooth?  Are we fidgety and restless in our body or is there stability and ease?  Is our mind is darting back and forth – squirrel! – or can we allow it to settle in one place and keep it there?

Most of us move between all these points of reference on any given day, hour, minute.  A consistent daily practice offers us short, doable opportunities to cultivate those positive attributes while simultaneously reducing the negative one (I love that about it!).  Over time, this re-patterning helps make moving between the ups and downs less jarring and drastic.  It isn’t that the whole world becomes beige, rather our clarity is sharpened and we can abide in our most authentic self even when the pandemic numbers go through the roof, our work is disrupted, the kids are screaming and, well, you get the picture. 

It also means that we can feel scared, angry or frustrated while remembering that this moment doesn’t define us.  Our feelings are not a problem – please, feel your feels!  Rather, it is when we land in an emotion (any emotion whether it feels good or bad), plant a flag, and call it our own. Then, we are entering the world of antarāya.

I feel like this second point above is really important, especially now while the world feels particularly on fire. I hear people – especially people who are involved with yoga – adding even more suffering to their experience with ideas about what a yoga student should or should not be feeling right now.

Here is what Patanjali tell us: thoughts and emotions will arise – we do not have control over that. The causes and conditions for their arising have already been created. Some thoughts and emotions have very deep roots and it may well be that they will continue to arise for the rest of our lives.

If the arising is not a problem, then we do not need to fight or try to control this. We do, however, need to notice the thoughts so that what we do next – after they arise – is based in our clarity and discernment.

This is pretty much what Patanjali dedicates the entire second chapter to exploring.

Yoga has so many tools to guide us along this path away from suffering. A practice can be individualised to meet you where you are – there are no should‘s.

This is true now, in the time of COVID, just as it was back in ancient India.

May I express my deep gratitude to all the teachers and students who have kept this wisdom alive through the millennia so that it can reach our eyes, ears and minds.

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