To many Americans, yoga is simply the practice of postures at the neighborhood health club. For others, it conjures up the image of a hermit perched in a cave high in the Himalayas. Either way, yoga practice is usually considered something fundamentally done to benefit your own development. Even if you are taking a yoga class with others, your practice is still solitary and focused on you, as is the time spent stretching your hamstrings on your sticky mat at home.
Reading the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali generally reinforces this understanding. This book, which many scholars consider the primary text of yoga, gives an in-depth description of yogic states and the practices associated with them. It is essentially about the internal process of learning how to disidentify with the causes of suffering and thus reach the goal of yoga, merging with the Divine.
Whether we choose a more casual view of yoga as the solitary practice of postures or the classical interpretation of yoga as a practice for escaping the bonds of avidya (ignorance) and entering the state of samadhi, the practice doesn't seem to directly address the day-to-day social relationships of those of us who live in the complex, busy world of families, jobs, and car pools. But if you look closely, the Sutra does offer advice about the social dimension of life. In Chapter 1, verse 33, Patanjali says, "By cultivating friendship, compassion, gladness, and indifference toward those who are comfortable, those suffering, the virtuous, and the non-virtuous, the mind is purified and made pleasant."
This verse is the second in a series of seven techniques suggested to reduce the chatterings of the mind, which are said to be the impediments to wholeness. In verse 33, Patanjali could just be presenting these practices as a form of meditation. But I think he is also suggesting that the way the practitioner acts toward others is an integral part of the practice of yoga. Whatever Patanjali may have intended, the verse is best understood when broken down into its basic parts. The actions we are to practice and the recipients of those respective actions are listed separately, but it is clear that they are meant to be paired in a one-to-one correspondence.
The first of the pairs implores us to practice friendship toward the comfortable. This would seem to be a natural thing, to give the happy and comfortable our friendship and love. But as a test, we can observe our feelings toward them when they are not so well off. Are we secretly a little glad that things have gone awry? Sometimes we may feel jealous or envious of others who are fortunate. This envy may even progress to self-pity because our life does not seem to have the ease we perceive in theirs. When we have such feelings, it becomes a real discipline to actively practice friendship toward those whom we see as happy.
The second pair suggests that we practice compassion toward those who are suffering. It may seem easy to feel compassion, and from a distance, it often is—when we observe the suffering of innocent victims of a tragedy, for example. But what about compassion for someone you perceive as a difficult person, even an enemy of sorts? There's a saying that helps me to understand this part of the verse: "If you could see your enemy's suffering back to the third generation, he would no longer be your enemy." When I can remember that those who are angry, revengeful, or violent are actually suffering greatly—otherwise, they couldn't act that way—then I can more easily access my compassionate feelings toward them. This shift in awareness is what the practice of compassion is all about.
This practice, I believe, is to be extended to oneself as well. As important as it is to offer compassion to others, it's just as crucial to be kind to ourselves when we are suffering. To see compassion only as something we give to others is to miss the transformational power of applying this sutra to our own thoughts and actions. In fact, all the practices suggested in this verse are as valuable directed toward ourselves as toward others.
In the third and fourth pairs, Patanjali suggests that we express gladness toward the virtuous and indifference toward the nonvirtuous. Even setting aside the difficult question of exactly what it means to be virtuous, these are challenging practices. Like friendliness toward the fortunate, gladness toward the virtuous can be sidetracked by jealousy, but the injunction to practice indifference is often the greater challenge.
Indifference is not something that is just to be acted; rather, it is to be felt. What we normally call indifference is just the refusal to show our disapproval or disdain. But Patanjali is not suggesting that. He is suggesting that we deeply and sincerely let go of attachment to our judgments. Specifically, we are to let go of our attachment to feeling superior to the nonvirtuous. We are to let go of feeling right, of feeling smug and superior, and instead to cultivate equanimity.
The moment I have the thought that someone else is a fool, an evil person, an incompetent, or have any other form of judgment, I have diminished my ability to observe that person. They no longer really exist for me in their full human complexity. What does exist is my concept of them. Not only am I no longer seeing and relating to a whole human being, I am no longer acting from the foundation of ahimsa (nonviolence), which is the first yama, or ethical precept, of Patanjali's yoga. And remember, it's just as violent to make such judgments about yourself as it is to make them of others.
To say this level of indifference is difficult to practice is an understatement. Self-righteousness and self-satisfaction can simply feel like so much fun. Indulging in these thoughts and feelings not only gives us a sense of power over others but also the false comfort of thinking, "I don't really have to change because I am so much better than so-and-so."
As children, we simply perceive our world. From those perceptions we create thoughts that gradually harden into beliefs. In turn, those beliefs narrow our window of perception. These narrowed perceptions interfere with our ability to see clearly—and so it goes, in a downward spiral of constricting awareness. Patanjali consistently teaches us that we are the prisoners of our beliefs; they create a prison as surely as if they were actual bars around us. Buddha stated it slightly differently when he said, "Do not seek enlightenment; rather cease to cherish beliefs."
It is this cherishing of beliefs, about ourselves as well as about others and their actions, that Patanjali addresses in verse 33. Ask most practitioners of yoga today, and they will say they took up yoga to be more flexible, calm, or centered. In short, to be more comfortable. But Patanjali's yoga is not about making us comfortable. On the contrary, it is about effecting a fundamental change in the way we perceive, think, and act. And this can be quite uncomfortable. I sometimes ask of myself whether what I am doing is healthy for me and others or whether it is just habit. At times the answer to this question has given me the incentive to choose what is initially more difficult—attempting to deepen my self-awareness.
Well-known Indian philosopher Krishnamurti once stated that "The highest form of human intelligence is the ability to observe without judging." In this sense of the word, verse 33 is about becoming more intelligent. It is about observing how our thoughts create prisons for ourselves and others. Even more importantly, verse 33 gives us specific practical techniques for extending our yoga practice into the relationships that are such a crucial part of our lives.
Author of Relax and Renew (Rodmell Press, 1995) and Living Your Yoga: Finding the Spiritual in Everyday Life (Rodmell Press, 2000), Judith Hanson Lasater has taught yoga since 1971 and is also married and the mother of three children.