Vande gurūṇām


It feels like the eve of the first day of school.

And I guess it is.

I fly to London tomorrow for the first module in my 5 month yoga teacher training program. I’ve already been busy these last few months with pre-work: anatomy, paper-writing and learning a sequence.

I don’t know what to expect; I’m excited and nervous and hopeful. I know it will be life-changing.

Vande gurūṇām is chanted at the beginning of an Ashtanga class. It gives thanks to all our teachers and all their teachers.

And on this eve, I’m thinking of all the yoga teachers I’ve ever had. Thank you for your influence on my practice, and for supporting my yoga journey.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about the direction of this blog, and I know my brain will be full this summer. I anticipate my posts will be pretty yoga-heavy (with a bit of sourdough mixed in). I still aim to make them as relevant and thought-provoking as I can.

As I start this course, I wanted to post the paper I had to turn in (and will have to give a talk on). Enjoy…

Impermanence is one of the three marks of existence in Buddhism. That is, for every living being, nothing in this world is permanent. In The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, sutra II:18 addresses this fundamental truth of life and guides us on how to open to impermanence, how to react to change, and how to embrace the unpredictable flow of our lives.

Patanjali starts to teach us about the approach we should take to our path in life in the sutras immediately prior to sutra 18. These sutras reveal that we (the seer/the knower/the true self) have the power to create our own happiness through how we relate to our experiences. The idea of impermanence is inherent here, and these sutras set a foundation to introduce sutra 18.

Sutra II:18 states:

prakākaśa kriyā sthiti śīlaṁ bhūta indriya ātmakaṁ bhoga apavarga arthaṁ dṛśyam

That which we see (dṛśyam) has the qualities of the gunas:
• Illumination/light (prakākaśa)
• Activity/movement (kriyā)
• Inertia/stability (sthiti)
and it consists of (ātmakaṁ) the elements (bhūta) and senses (indriya). Its purpose (arthaṁ) is to provide both life experiences (bhoga) and liberation (apavarga) to the seer.

The “seen” is a key part of this sutra, defined by Patanjali as made up of the gunas and consisting of elements and senses. Simply put, the gunas, elements and senses, are everything in our life—everything that affects us.

This “seen”—all that is around us and all that we are part of—is constantly changing and in flux. This includes the tangible: our physical body, our material possessions, our wealth, and the intangible: our mind, our social status, perception, the universe.

It’s this constant changing, or impermanence, that gives the “seen” its purpose. Its purpose is twofold: to provide us with experiences in life—everything that we go through, including the positive and the negative, and to provide us with liberation. It’s our ability to accept the impermanence of our life experiences that ultimately leads to liberation.

I believe mindset and self-knowledge are fundamental in helping us accept our impermanence. We should foster a mindset and cultivate thoughts that are open to every moment of life, including loss and pain. Self-knowledge relates to our relationship with our physical body—the awareness that our self is not our physical self, and that mortality is inevitable (the Buddhist Five Daily Recollections help us to reflect on this impermanence).

Once we can control our minds and disconnect our self from our physical self, we gain wisdom, our mind becomes pure, we can go beyond sorrow, and we can transcend body consciousness, all of which are the essence of liberation that Patanjali refers to.

This sutra resonated with me because recently I’ve become more aware of my reaction to my own impermanence. Three years ago, I moved to Germany from California: 6000 miles apart and 180° different. While I was excited to learn, grow, and change, I later realized I had wanted it to be on my own terms. I was learning a new language, making new friends, and experiencing different cultures, but while all of this was taking place, I became fixated on trying to fit my previous lifestyle in my new environment.

I resisted the negative changes and longed for the familiar. My 20 minute bike ride to work had turned into an hour train commute; stores were closed on Sundays and weren’t open when I got home from work; my favorite foods tasted different (or were absent altogether); all my bills and paychecks were in German; an overabundance of fitness options didn’t exist. Frankfurt was not Santa Monica.

I quickly stressed myself out rushing to and from work so I could make a workout or buy toilet paper. My outgoing personality slowly morphed into closed-off and frustrated. Instead of being in awe of all the lessons life was trying to teach me, I fought the differences.

Simultaneously, I was growing into my mid-30s, which was uncomfortably close to 40. Over the hill, black and grey birthday parties, slowing metabolism, osteoporosis! For the first time, I could see crow’s feet (when I looked for them), my vibrant red hair—the catalyst of so many compliments when I was younger—began to fade, and my body started to go…south.

In getting older, I started to think of my life’s “what ifs” and “shoulds”. What if I hadn’t stopped playing piano? What if I had pursued a foreign language? What if I had started yoga younger? I should be more successful for my age. I should be more flexible. I should be skinnier.

I realized I had to change my relationship with my new home and my older physical self. I shifted my mindset and approach. Instead of assuming Germans were cold, I initiated conversations with strangers. I stopped rushing from work to gym to store—I told myself it was ok to miss a workout, or miss a train…or miss anything; that in rushing through life, I wasn’t learning from my experiences.

I also began to relax my thoughts of comparing and clinging to the past. I reminded myself of my own impermanence; that I am not my physical body. It’s a daily practice, and not without failure, but I can already see this openness to growing older has made me happier.

As I’ve become more aware of the impermanence in my daily life, I’ve seen this awareness manifested in my yoga practice. In yoga, as in life, I struggle with comparing myself to others, wishing I had started when I was younger, and lamenting about the inflexibility that’s a result of age (I’ll never be able to do virasana!).

I recognize when these thoughts drift in and I remind myself that I should be content with where I am, and open to learning from both the mastery and the struggles. It’s easy to acknowledge growth when I see progress, but if I never get virasana, aren’t I also learning from that experience? Whether I get a pose or not, both situations are impermanent, and both are here to teach me.

The liberation promised in Sutra II:18 is attained only once we can open to impermanence in our lives, by embracing change and not resisting it. Our mindset and self-knowledge are at the core of this opening up and realization that every experience in life and in yoga—all the good and all bad—is here to teach us. And that everything in life is impermanent.

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