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Yoga Sutra

The Yogic Prescription for Embracing Sadness

Sadness and turmoil are universal. Learn how practicing deep concentration during tough times can lift the emotional burden.

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Fixing your mind in one place can provide steadiness during times of turmoil and deep sadness. This type of concentration, called dharana, is the sixth limb of yoga. It’s akin to focusing a camera lens on something specific: At first, the object in front of the lens appears blurry, but gradually it’s brought into focus until it’s sharp. In the practice of asana, you can focus your lens on a specific place or area (desa) of your body, such as your eyes, navel, or heart. This discipline helps center your mind, allowing it to settle into stillness and find clarity—even on particularly rough days.

Recently I was confronted with the passing of a dear colleague and friend. She was a kind, beautiful, and devoted Iyengar Yoga teacher who, about a year earlier, had learned she had an aggressive type of cancer. In the months after her diagnosis, she taught yoga classes intermittently between her chemotherapy treatments. We talked regularly after class in the teachers’ dressing room, and she was quite open about the chemo progress and setbacks.

Despite all she was going through, she remained upbeat. I noticed that she was taking more time to talk to her students after class, which I really admired. She wore fashionable head scarves, and when her hair started to grow back, I marveled at her new, hip, cropped hairstyle. She was 54 years old, yet looked 20 years younger—which made her death even more difficult to fathom.

Yoga for Times of Crisis

Right after hearing the news of her passing, I was scheduled to teach a class that was partially filled with her students. I was not ready to show up as their teacher. My mind was deeply pulled into sadness, and my body was a meek follower. After a difficult start, with a broken voice, I began to turn the students’ attention to a desa: their eyes.

See also Decoding Yoga Sutra 1.12: Embrace the Value of Practice and Non-Attachment

This choice was not random. The late yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar wrote a prescription for yoga in times of crises. It’s a sequence of propped supine poses and inversions, in which students keep their eyes open at all times—looking ahead or up at the ceiling.

I’d previously practiced this sequence a few times, and it had been a powerful experience. At first, I had some discomfort from the effort it took to keep my eyes open and focused on the ceiling or wall, but gradually this effort melted away. My eyeballs seemed to descend into their sockets. They became deep wells of quiet perception that had little to do with the act of seeing anymore. They were completely absorbed in the asana and in my breath.

Teaching this sequence reminded me of this profound experience. In the beginning of the practice, during Supta Baddha Konasana (Reclining Bound Angle Pose) and Supta Virasana (Reclining Hero Pose), it’s very hard not to shut your eyes. So the art of relaxing your eye muscles, eyelids, eyebrows, and forehead becomes important. Later, in supported inversions like Viparita Karani (Legs-Up-the-Wall Pose), it is more about observing this restful eye state and the non-urgency to blink. In (Corpse Pose) with eyes open, it is as if the physical sense of the eyes has disappeared, and you can feel the brain itself resting.

In hindsight, the meaning of sutra 3.1 revealed itself during that 90-minute class. My students’ minds were eye-bound, and the result was a deep concentration. Everyone, including myself, became a quiet witness to the moment; it felt like we were in the core of honesty. Sadness came and went like waves—while space was created to observe this.

When the class ended, some students exchanged hugs, and then everyone left the room quietly. The practice had anchored us and united our hearts. Sadness is universal. When we take time to tune in and concentrate during rough times, the emotional burden disperses.

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