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“Why Bother?.. The Study of Yoga Shastras”

Urban Sadhu Exploration January 2024

bōdhi rupam bōdhi-sattvam, bōdhi-gamyam anamayam param-satyam param-shantam, param-brahma parat-param

Composed and interpreted by Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati

Meaning: It is the form and essence of intelligence and it is experienced through intuition. It is pure, simple, and transcendental. It is ultimate reality, ultimate Truth, and ultimate tranquility, which is called Brahman. It is smaller than the nucleus and greater than the greatest.

“Why should we look to the past in order to prepare for the future? Because there is nowhere else to look.” -James Burke, author of Connections

Back in the late 90s I was hired to work with a diverse team of artists, actors, directors, and professional theater groups in Washington, DC; our mission was to go into the urban DC public school system and bring awareness and understanding of the plays of William Shakespeare. As a team we were to help the kids put on a scene from a Shakespeare play, casting, directing, and even costuming (my job) the scene. The first day on the job we went to an 8th-grade classroom that was reading Romeo and Juliet as part of the district’s educational curriculum. The director, an African American woman named Brianna, asked, “How many of you are enjoying reading Romeo and Juliet?” About a third of the room shook their heads and some replied, “Noooo!” The director asked why, and a young male student up front near the team shouted out, “It’s about white people, ain’t got nothing to do with me!” Brianna looked at him and asked, “Why do you think the play just about white people and has nothing to do with you? Don’t you have friends whose parents don’t like the person that their daughter is dating, and the parents want to keep her from hanging out with the guy they don’t like? Don’t you know families in your neighborhood that don’t get along and are always fighting over everything?” The students looked at Brianna and answered “yeah.” Brianna went on, “So maybe if we look at the play from the point of view that all people have the same fears, emotions, needs, and desires, we can find ways that this Shakespeare play can connect to us and our lives today; but to do that we have to dive into it.” She went on, making a connection with this group of young people who at first did not see the point of reading a 16th-century play.

Over the course of the following three weeks, we produced several scenes from Romeo and Juliet with the students; all the elements were contemporary (except the swords and daggers) and as many local references were used as possible to help the junior high schooler feel comfortable with the ideas even though the language was an earlier form of English. By the end of the three weeks, the students were having a blast playing parts in a play that in the beginning seemed like dusty old white-folks European literature. The text had become relevant to them, and the students through interacting with the text within the context of theater were able to connect to it (even though no one carries around swords and daggers in modern times).

Recently I was approached by a yoga student who said, “Why bother studying all the old yoga texts? What if we don’t actually believe everything that the text is saying? Is it even relevant to our modern lives?” In truth, this was less of a question and more of a statement about how many of us approach “ancient” texts when we feel they have little to do with us; still, the conversation brought me back to that DC public school in the 90s.

Like students in the public school, every new yoga teacher in Urban Sadhu training is required to read a certain amount of ancient Yoga Shastras (books on yoga theory). Shastra is a Sanskrit word that means “rules” or “manual.” There are many Yoga Shastras: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Bhagavad Gita, and Hatha Yoga Pradipika – like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, these are the most common Yoga Shastras studied. It is important to know that each Shastra has a slightly different approach to the practice of yoga and has different opinions on the best way to achieve the final goal of yoga – enlightenment.

Modern-day yoga students often do not receive the teachings of yogic philosophy: due to the commodification of yoga, many studios and teachers only offer what will sell in the marketplace, which means mostly promoting yoga as physical fitness. This adds to the feeling of “Why bother? It has nothing to do with me and my life in the modern world” when it comes to studying ancient yogic texts. The biggest misunderstanding about ancient yogic texts and the modern application of the word yoga is that most modern yoga practitioners think of yoga only as physical exercise. The “ancient” texts help us keep in mind that the goal of yoga is obtaining a higher consciousness. Yoga is not a fitness class.

There are several key reasons for studying ancient yogic texts and philosophy. The ancient yogic texts, just like Shakespeare’s plays, attempt to set a framework for the human condition, a way to understand it. The common thread is that all Yoga Shastras understand that the minds of both the ancient people and those practicing yoga today are subject to the same fears, anxiety, and stress. The Yoga Shastras address this by teaching us how to move beyond our trauma and access a place of stillness, peace, and serenity, free from the constraints of habitual thought patterns. Once equanimity of the mind is established, the yoga practitioner can go beyond the body, mind, thoughts, and feelings and unite with Universal Consciousness. At that stage, the trauma of the human condition is fully eradicated.

When we look back at the “ancient” texts for help in understanding the purpose of yoga, we often find that issues that arise for the modern practitioner cannot be fully understood or addressed unless we have the historical background and context that gave rise to them. For example, we cannot talk about contemporary “yoga ethics” without having a firm grasp on “yoga ethics” from the past. Many of the problems raised in ancient yoga texts are still issues we face today, although other issues no longer seem valid in the context of modern society.

A real advantage modern yogis have over ancient yogis is that no one in history had such broad access to the diversity of traditions as we have today. Ancient yogis used to be given a single “disciplines” by a guru; now we are given many choices because the yoga market is so vast, but we still have to study the text even to understand that we have a choice. The diverse perspectives and approaches to yoga are no doubt enriching. Emphasizing any individual one at the expense of the others could lead to an inaccurate picture of the full potential of what yoga can be in today’s world. By holistically understanding and appreciating the relevance of yoga in the modern world, it is necessary to look at how yoga was understood by those who walked the path before us.

The ancient yoga texts can help point us toward solutions if we open our minds to the process of exploring. Without studying ancient yoga texts, it is easy for the modern student of yoga to be misled and manipulated by misinformed yoga teachers. Without studying ancient yoga texts, it is easy for the modern practitioner and teachers to appropriate and misuse the yoga traditions. Without studying the ancient yoga texts, we have no idea how we arrived here as modern yogis. Without studying ancient yoga texts, when we disagree with a yoga teacher’s interpretation we don’t have the knowledge to have a discourse with that teacher about their interpretation of the text.

In an article for, Edwin Bryant, professor of Indian Religion and Philosophy at Rutgers University, explains another reason it is important to study ancient yogic texts like the Yoga Sutras: “We forget that people throughout time are the same as us today.” He adds, “Their minds too were subject to fears, anxieties, stresses, and insecurities. Just like we suffer and look for a way out, so did they.” Professor Bryant continues, “The [Yoga] Sutras attempt to answer those big existential questions that people have asked since time immemorial: Who are we? How can we be happy? Those wisdom teachings remain ever relevant, because even if culture changes, consciousness doesn’t.” We have more in common with ancient yogis than not.

Austin Sanderson – Urban Sadhu


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