detachment versus passion – my take on the Yoga Sutras

So one of the things we had to do for our yoga teacher training program is write a brief (one-page) essay on both books one and two and three and four of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, one of the classic yoga texts, perhaps written by Sri Patanjali anywhere from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D. It was just meant to be a personal essay to I think basically show you had read the book and thought about it a little. Anyway I thought I’d share my take on the first half of the Sutras here.

Derek Rose
Sonic Yoga winter 2010 200-hour intensive teacher training
“The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” Books One and Two
Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Sachidananda

I thought it was interesting to read Patanjali’s millennium-old Yoga Sutras alongside Sri Swami Satchidananda’s decades-old commentary, which apparently dates to around the 1970s. Satchidananda’s warmth and generosity of spirit shines through in his writings … but he does come across as a bit “New Agey” at times for me. He is definitely writing from a time and a place, and some of what he writes is a bit simplistic. For example, Satchidananda’s suggests that the U.S. president just “hop on a plane, got to the U.S.S.R. and say … ‘Let’s be friends!'” (p. 135) Um, yeah. He also dismisses methadone clinics — a valid opinion, but I didn’t really gather he had given much thought to it or understood the complexities of heroin addiction. Perhaps these are just quibbles, but it the overall effect was to make his writing at time sound dated, while the Sutras themselves seem more timeless.

On overall theme of Books One and Two seems to be equanimity. “The consciousness of self-mastery in one who is free from craving for objects seen or heard about,” reads Sutra 1:15, “is non-attachment.”

“Have vairagya, have dispassion, have non-attachment,” Satchidananda advises (p. 25). “By renouncing worldly things, you possess the most important sacred property: your peace.”

I was torn when reading this. I certainly think material things do not truly bring you happiness, as much as I enjoy my iPhone. And in Sutra 2:43, Satchidananda gives the example of a saint who was being insulted by a ruffian. The words just rolled off the saint’s back as he silently smiled at his tormentor. That’s the kind of non-attachment I think most of us would admire. But is going through life dispassionately the best way to live? Or should one be passionately involved in life, with all its ups and downs and twists and turns? To be passionate not about money, but maybe about your art, your community, social justice, animal rights … or even how your baseball team does in the World Series.

“If there is no passion in your life, then have you really lived?,” asks T. Alan Armstrong, in a quote I found on the Internet. Men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were certainly passionate about their causes and are revered because of it. But Yoga, Satchidananda writes candidly, “does not bother much about changing the outside world.” Hmm. I for one am glad men like King and Gandhi were concerned about changing the outside world!

To be fair, what Satchidananda calls for is not non-involvement, just non-attachment. “The secret is that any desire without any personal or selfish motive will never bind you,” Satchidananda writes (p. 25). “Why? Because the pure, selfless desire has no expectation whatsoever, so it knows no disappointment no matter what the result.”

To some extent, we can all relate to this. We’ve all known people (or at least I have) who do good deeds for people and then get bent out of shape when the recipients of their largess aren’t sufficiently grateful. But on a larger scale, I feel like people rarely take action because they don’t care about the results. Bill Gates isn’t giving billions to his charity because he isn’t concerned about the outcome; I’m sure he has high expectations for improving education and fighting diseases in the developing world.

Going through life without expectations because you are worried you might be disappointed seems like a sorry way to live in my book.

“Only a saint, a renunciate, is always happy because there is nothing for a saint to lose,” Satchidananda writes (p. 25). But what does a renunciate have to gain? Well, he always has himself. But isn’t there more to life than that?

I don’t think it’s any accident that Satchidananda even talks approvingly about “devitalizing” sexual desire “by the withdrawal of the mind” through meditation, prayer and “contemplation of the sexless.”

“That doesn’t mean you must completely stay away from sex,” Satchidananda writes. “Instead … have sex only in the proper way, in a marital relationship.”

While of course I respect people who make that choice, again, I want to go through life living it passionately and zestfully. And yes — including a little premarital sex…

FYI, I feel like modern yoga doesn’t really get into the whole issue of non-attachment. Instead my teachers (to the extent they mention this stuff at all) generally talk about living “in the moment,” rather than looking to the past or the future. That is to some extent still another way of saying we shouldn’t have expectations, however, so some of my criticism remains.

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