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Yoga Philosophy 101: Take Yoga Off the Mat and Into Your Relationships

Judith Hanson Lasater draws on the teachings of Patanjali to explain how yoga can—and should—play a role in improving our relationships.

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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.

Nailing a Handstand or perfecting Crow Pose are wonderful accomplishments for a yogi, but are they really the ultimate goal of our practice? According to master yoga teacher Judith Hanson Lasater, the real challenge (and reward) comes from integrating the teachings of yoga into our everyday lives after we leave the studio—especially into your relationships with yourself and others.

Yoga philosophy, as taught in classic texts such as the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, teaches us to look beyond asana and view yoga as a practice for our daily lives. Here, Lasater draws on the teachings of Patanjali to explain how yoga can—and should—play a role in improving our relationships.

Yoga Journal: So much of our lives and our happiness are connected to our relationships with others. How can the wisdom of the Sutra guide us in taking yoga off the mat and into our relationships?
Judith Hanson Lasater: The practice of yoga is not what we do. Practice is about a relationship we have with ourselves. What do we want to be the nature of our relationship with ourselves? Is it going to follow the yamas—are we going to tell ourselves the truth? Are we going to be non-harming with ourselves? What does that look like? So, first Patanjali tells us that we need to have that kind of relationship of clarity, compassion, and discipline with ourselves. Then, of course, we can think of all these things with relationship to others.

I recently taught a level two Relax and Renew [restorative yoga] training, and I told the trainees right at the beginning, “The first thing to ask yourselves as teachers of yoga is not ‘what am I going to teach,’ but ‘what is going to be my relationship with my students?’” So first we have to ask, what is our relationship to ourselves? Then we ask, what is our relationship with everyone else we come into contact with? What is the quality of that relationship going to be? I believe that when Patanjali gives us the eightfold path of yoga—yamas, niyamas, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi—it is actually descriptive rather than prescriptive. I had always thought of the eight limbs as what I should or shouldn’t do, how I should or shouldn’t behave, but now I think of it more as a description of what an integrated person does.

YJ: How does an integrated person behave around others?
JHL: To me, an integrated person treats everyone the same. The people I know who have had dinner and talked with the Dalai Lama say that he treats everyone exactly the same. At dinner, he shook everyone’s hand and thanked them. Then he went into the kitchen and shook everyone’s hands and thanked them.

So Patanjali talks about the relationship we have with ourselves. I’m adding onto that, let’s talk about the relationship we have with our practice, and the next step is how do we then live that. How do we become the yoga? How do we make moral, ethical and interpersonal choices? Upon what are we going to base those choices? The Sutra can guide us to look at that.

YJ: How can cultivating mindfulness through yoga and meditation help to make us more compassionate toward ourselves and others?
JHL: I think that when I have awareness of my thoughts but I don’t dance with them, it creates a certain spaciousness in me so that compassion can arise. I become the empty bucket so that the rain of compassion has space to arise, and then compassion is the basis of my relationship with myself and others.

Meditation is about cultivating awareness of thoughts as they arise. Here’s an analogy: When you’re sitting in meditation, it’s like you’re sitting on the banks of a river and receptively contemplating the flowing river, and then suddenly you realize you’re on a boat floating down the river, and that boat might be “What am I going to cook for dinner?” or “When am I going to have time to finish that project?” or whatever, but I have no knowledge of how I got from the bank to the boat. So then I just go back to the bank. I do that over and over again until there is a slight slowing down where I notice myself being transported to the boat. Then there are occasional moments where I can sit on the bank and not go with the boats that pass by. That’s what we’re doing, very simply. We’re becoming self-aware.

That’s not an easy process. I like to say that there are two kinds of pain in the world: the pain you get from doing yoga, and the pain you get from not doing it. So we can hunker down and be afraid and not change, or we can walk through the woods and meet the big bad wolf to make it to grandma’s house. The practice of yoga in the wider sense is a deep willingness to live in the radical present. That is sometimes difficult. It takes courage.

YJ: What’s one small way that you personally bring yoga into your interactions with others?
JHL: Krishnamurti says that the highest power we have as human beings is the ability to choose our thoughts. We can use them as tools. So here’s a simple thought I use a lot to improve my interactions with others: “Everyone is Buddha.” I choose to believe that everyone has a spark of divinity, and that everyone is Buddha in disguise. Why? Because I like how I feel, what I say, what I do and what I get back when I treat everyone like Buddha. The surly waiter, the harried gate attendant at the airport, the sweet taxi driver, myself (I’m working on that one!)—whoever it is, everyone is Buddha. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s “true,” what matters to me is the efficacy of that thought. This is what Patanjali is teaching us.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.