Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 2:5: Avidya (Ignorance) is seeing the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant and the non Self as the self.
Defining the Sutra:
It is important to note that Patanjali is speaking about a certain type of ignorance. Normally, ignorance is defined as not knowing or even ignoring what you know. Avidya is a deeper more insidious type of ignorance. Avidya is when you believe something to be true and you have no clue that it is not. Avidya is when a child is terrified of the monster under the bed. Avidya is when a person believes that all Black people are bad. Avidya is when someone believes that they are unworthy of love and happiness.
Modern Day Application:
To wake up from Avidya is to wake up from the cycle of suffering. Lets use Yoga and look at the 4 examples given by Patanjali and how they cause suffering.
Seeing the Impermanent as Permanent
Have you ever gotten frustrated because you could do a pose one day but not the next? Have you ever gotten sad because you injured yourself and had to start modifying your practice or go back to a previous sequence? Have you ever been upset because your body was hurting and you couldn’t do your regular practice? Have you ever been angry because your teacher added on to your practice and you did not feel ready?
Believing that our bodies and our practices will never change is mistaking the impermanent for the permanent.
Seeing the Impure as Pure
The first Niyama, which is the second limb of the Ashtanga Yoga system, is Sauca or Purity. To stay healthy and focused on their practice , a Yogi’s mind, body and environment has to stay pure. We all know those people who are oblivious to the funk emanating from their Yoga mat towel and clothes. Maybe you have had the experience of being totally unaware that your Yoga teacher was toxic. I know that I have. Do you know people who are constantly talked out of making time for yoga by friends and family who say they have their best interest at heart? Have you eaten bad foods that compromised your Yoga practice without knowing it?
Seeing the Painful as Pleasant
Do you feel that, if your practice is not hard, that you didn’t do anything? Do you allow teachers to be rough with you because it is “good for you”? Have you ever pushed yourself to the point of injury? Do you know people who find joy in inflicting pain on others? Do you struggle with an addiction where you hurt yourselves and others for a temporary feeling of bliss?
Seeing the non Self as the Self
Do you feel helpless against your thoughts and emotions? Do you feel that you cannot get on your mat unless you wake up to a perfect morning? Do you get upset when you have a bad hair day or a “bad” practice? Do you obsess over your body and your yoga poses? Do you get angry in class when the heat, music, the flow or the teacher is not perfect?
Seeing the non Self as the Self means allowing life to blind you from seeing who you are within. Who you really are can never be reduced by thoughts, emotions and outside circumstances. Anything that changes, is not the real you. You are the movie screen. The events of life is the movie that is playing across that screen. The movie cannot effect the screen. It just temporarily colors it or projects onto it.
Seeing the non Self as the Self is becoming so heavily identified with the movie that we forget that we are the stillness behind it experiencing the movie.
Why is this Important?
Twilight is the most dangerous time. Why? Because in total darkness neither a rope nor a snake could be seen. In broad daylight the rope would obviously be a rope. Only in dull light could the man mistake the rope for the snake. If you are completely ignorant, groping in darkness, you will not see the “rope”-the pains of this world- and want to understand the truth. So, Yoga is neither for a person who has gained the light nor for the totally ignorant person who doesn’t bother to know anything. It is for the person in between. It is to dispell this ignorance that Yoga is practiced.- Swami Satchidananda
We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable-First step of the 12 steps for addiction recovery.
Atha Yoganusasanam. Now for the teachings of Yoga. Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1:1
Like the 12 steps, the only way Yoga can create a lasting change in our lives is for us to admit that something needs to change. It is to admit that we are not able to make these changes on our own and we need help. This is why a good Yoga teacher and books such as the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are so important. If we could do it on our own, we would have.
Swadhyaya, self-study. This is very confusing for many people. Selfstudy—”self”– many people think self-study means, “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. I don’t need a guru. I can just read books.” Now there are lots of videos about yoga. Someone will teach you handstand. You see someone doing handstand. That means he’s a big yogi. “Oh, I don’t need a teacher. Oh, I’m doing swadhyaya.” Long back I met a crazy person. She came to me and, “I was a trained dancer,” she said—and she was asking questions. To the answers, “Oh, I know, I know, I know.” If you know, then why are you coming to me and asking questions? Then I was very curious. I asked her, “Where did you learn yoga? Who’s your teacher?” “Oh, I don’t have a teacher. I’m doing swadhyaya,” she said. “Swadhyaya, what does swadhyaya mean?” I asked. “Oh, I’m watching videos. I’m reading books. And I’m learning yoga.” I said, “Okay. That’s where your knowledge is only this much [gestures small amount].” Swadhyaya means, whatever you learn from your guru, you try to know and practice that. After this workshop, whatever you have learned, to practice, and study that. To improve that in your daily life. And to read all the books. Not the modern books. Ancient books. Veda, Upanishads. Bhagavad Gita. Samhitas. There are so many books. Patanjali Yoga Sutra, Hatha Yoga Pradipika.- Sharath Jois, Namarupa Magazine Issue 21
Follow where your guru is walking.-Sharath Jois
It is important to pick a teacher in whose footsteps you want to walk. It is important to pick a teacher and a teaching that is headed in the direction you want to go. If your teacher is always suffering, they can only teach you how to suffer. If your teacher is always angry, they can only teach you how to be angry. If your teacher is prosperous, they can teach you how to be prosperous. If they are happy, they can teach you about happiness. Would you seek out a dentist to help you with your injured foot?
A student asked one of my teachers, “when can we let go of your hand?” He said something along the lines of “never” but totally more PC. I began to wonder, “was he leading us towards freedom or away from freedom?” No, teachers and teachings do not have to be perfect. It is how the teacher or teaching handles those imperfections that show whether or not they are on the path of Yoga. Even after I found out about this event, I studied with my teacher. The evidence against freedom was just so overwhelming that I eventually went my own way.
Don’t get stuck in the twilight or the in between place where you don’t trust Yoga, your practice or your teacher. Choose teachers and Yoga practices that you can fully surrender to. In the twilight, we are constantly seeing snakes where there are only ropes. In a world full of snakes, there is still suffering. If you are constantly second guessing your practice and your teachers, there will still be suffering. The only way you can effectively use a rope is to know that it is a rope and not a snake. To get the greatest benefit from our practice, we have to allow ourselves to see truth. We have to face ourselves in the full light of day. It is not until we can live fully in the light that we can be the light.
Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail email@example.com.