With this sutra, Patanjali teaches that yoga practice is preventive medicine for our minds—a way to keep future pain and suffering from manifesting. He reminds us that past pain doesn’t exist anymore, current pain is in process and will run its course, and future pain can be diminished or avoided altogether by committing to the yogic lifestyle.
“Pain that has not yet come is avoidable” is a sutra in the Sadhana Pada, the chapter of the Yoga Sutra on practice. This chapter tells us to work hard, tempering our level of effort with both self-observation and an understanding that how our efforts are received is beyond our control. Through practices on and off the mat, we build strong, pliable bodies to maximize the health of our physical systems; cultivate free, unobstructed breathing to invite fresh energy into our bodies; and gain a greater understanding of our minds by meditating, reading spiritually uplifting texts, and reflecting on our experiences.
By practicing whole-hearted attention in whatever you are doing, you become more aware of the subtle details that fill your days. Try to observe your interactions, and then begin to notice what kind of residue your thoughts, words, and actions leave. When you observe an undesirable residue (usually accompanied by feelings of sadness, doubt, fear, guilt, or anger, to name a few), you can then shift your actions to prevent a recurrence. Once you start paying attention, you’ll notice that your days are sprinkled with tiny bits of avoidable anxiety and stress, like hitting the snooze button and then suffering from the self-imposed anxiety of rushing to avoid being late. Through reflection and assessment, you can keep suffering from happening again by choosing to get up when the alarm goes off.
Another example might be excessively indulging your sweet tooth and then agonizing through a stomachache, disturbed sleep, or even worse, dental work. There’s no need for a radical shift and swearing off sweets entirely, but the solution is one of moderation.
Of course, life is filled not only with mild states of anxiety and suffering, but sometimes you are overwhelmed with unexpected tragedy, inexplicable cruelty, illness, and loss. While these kinds of suffering cannot necessarily be avoided, your capacity to process the trauma can be enhanced by your studies. During times of great sadness, I have found that the tools of my asana, pranayama, chanting, and meditation practices create an invaluable refuge. Even if the suffering is only assuaged while I’m on my mat, that relief wouldn’t have been possible without the structure and support of these teachings.
As with everything in your yoga practice, there is no quick fix or trick, but there is the suggestion that you can have a positive effect on your own life—immediately and continuously. By doing a little bit of sincere practice every day, you’ll cultivate the discernment to make better choices, minimize your exposure to disturbing situations, and protect yourself from harm that is easily avoidable—like overreaching in your asana practice or overextending and overanalyzing yourself—so you don’t miss out on the gift of this life.