Yoga Philosophy 101: The First Sutra—What It Means and How You Can Practice It

Lasater explores the meaning of the first sutra and offers a home practice to honor its wisdom.
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Lasater explores the meaning of the first sutra and offers a home practice to honor its wisdom.
Lizzie Lasater, yoga sutras, relaxation pose

Yoga Journal co-founder Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, and her daughter, Lizzie Lasater, have partnered with YJ to bring you a six-week interactive online course on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. Through study of this fundamental text, the Lasaters, with more than 50 years of combined teaching experience, will support you in deepening your practice and broadening your understanding of yoga. Sign up now for a transformative journey to learn, practice, and live the sutra.

Patanjali’s first teaching, atha yoga anushasanam, which means “now, the practice of yoga begins,” is easy to dismiss. But Sutra I.1 isn’t something to skip over on your way to the good stuff, according to international yoga teacher Lizzie Lasater. Here Lasater explores the meaning of the first sutra and offers a home practice to honor its wisdom.

Yoga Journal: What does Sutra I.1 mean to you?
Lizzie Lasater: My mom says that she likes to think of this sutra as “Now the practice of yoga is shared,” instead of “begins,” and I think that’s a really nice idea about yoga. It is a direct hand-to-hand lineage, and it is always about sharing.

But when I first started reading the Sutra, I didn’t take this verse that seriously. Now, the more time I’ve spent with the text, the more enamored I am. I think it’s a very powerful sutra and it’s one of my favorites. I like that it’s just three words—it’s extremely simple to hold onto and lends itself easily to being chanted.

YJ: What is the significance of the first word, atha?
LL: If we had to reduce the Yoga Sutra down to a single word, that’s the one I would pick. Atha means now, and that is fundamentally one of the deepest insights of spiritual practice: To bring us very deeply into the present moment. Atha is this kind of call of action for us to wake up now. It can be a mantra for daily living that moves off the mat and into our lives, bringing us back to what’s happening now.

You could build a theme for a whole class or a whole practice around atha. Asana itself is fundamentally a set of building blocks—these positions are designed, in my opinion, to bring us into the now. They are focusing techniques. When we focus on the breath and on the sensations of the body, those are all occurring in real time. They are always happening in the present.

YJ: Can you give us an example of a practice based on this Sutra?
LL: This is a home practice, which ties in perfectly with this sutra. Practice is a space for being in reality with what’s going on right now—in my body, in my day, in my life. I’ve done this practice a lot in my own life and I find it to be quite powerful.

Here’s what I suggest: Take your phone, put it on airplane mode, and set a timer for 15 minutes. Roll out your mat, lie down, bend your knees and spread the feet wide to the edges of the mat. Then let your knees come gently together, close your eyes and bring your hands onto your belly. Now, think about the idea of atha and ask it to yourself as a question. What do I need right now? What does my body want right now? Listen in stillness and silence for the answer to arise.

The "worst" thing that could happen is nothing—you lie there for 15 minutes or you straighten your legs and do Savasana (Corpse Pose). That’s the risk, and for most of us that’s actually really wonderful considering how jam-packed our days are. But every time I’ve done this, something arises and I start moving and breathing intuitively. This is a much more receptive kind of practice than imposing our idea of practice on the body.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

About Our Experts
Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, PT, has been teaching yoga since 1971. She trains students and teachers throughout the United States as well as abroad, is one of the founders of Yoga Journal magazine, and is president of the California Yoga Teachers Association. She has written eight books. Learn more at judithhansonlasater.com.

Raised in San Francisco and trained as a designer, Lizzie Lasater, MArch, RYT, teaches yoga internationally and online. She sometimes jokes that she’s been practicing yoga since the womb because her mom, Judith Hanson Lasater, has been teaching since before Lizzie’s birth. Lizzie lives in the Alps with her Austrian husband. You can find her schedule and classes at lizzielasater.com.