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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.
The foundational teachings of yoga were created and recorded thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not relevant to the way we live our lives today. According to Judith Hanson Lasater, who teaches yoga all over the world, the wisdom of yoga philosophy has something important to offer not only modern students and teachers of yoga but anyone seeking happiness. Here, she shares her thoughts on the enduring relevance of the classic text of yoga philosophy, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, for life in the modern world.
Yoga Journal: What does such an ancient text have to offer a yogi living in today’s world? Things are so different now than they were back then.
Judith Lasater: At first glance, it’s easy to wonder why we would pick up this dusty book that was written thousands of years ago (2,500 years perhaps), in another culture and another time. Things have changed so dramatically since then in just about every way you can think of—except the most important one.
What has not changed is the human mind, human emotions and the human heart, and the fact that we live in community of some kind. Basically the whole of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is about the mind and the ways we create our own unhappiness. It’s a roadmap to happiness. It wants to teach us all the pitfalls, the fool’s gold, in this world, and to help us understand and shift radically our perspective to see our own selves. It encourages us to realize that there is a way not to be at the mercy of our thoughts.
YJ: What are some of those pitfalls that we’re still vulnerable to?
JL: Well, we can look at the yamas and the niyamas in the second book of the Yoga Sutra, for one. Many yoga students are familiar with them, we often call them the 10 commandments of yoga. The yamas, which mean restraint, begin with ahimsa. Patanjali says that if you want to take the path of yoga, then the very first thing to do is to stop intentional harm. It’s intentional harm, because we’re going to do harm—we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to say words that hurt other people, we’re going to do things and act in ways that are harmful, just by accident. But he’s talking about intentional harm. That is not the way to happiness. He says, “don’t steal” and “don’t be greedy,” not because it’s morally wrong, which is what we might think he means. But I believe that he says tell the truth, don’t steal and the other yamas because you’re going to suffer more if you do. It is just not efficacious. It’s a pitfall and you’re going to suffer more.
YJ: What are the things that we should keep in mind if we want to be happy?
JL: Then he goes through the niyamas, [or positive duties], and he tells us what is going to help. Self-reflection, svadyaya, is one of them. To cultivate contentment is another one, which is interesting. We seem to think that if we get all our ducks in a row, then we’ll be content—we’re running, juggling, dodging and weaving all the time to create contentment. Patanjali basically says contentment is there; it’s your nature, stop stirring yourself up.
In the first book of the Sutra, he talks about the nature of thought. He identifies—and Buddhism says something similar to this—that the basic problem we have as human beings is that we have this wonderful brain, and we can have self-reflection and be aware, but the problem is that we believe our thoughts. But Patanjali and the wider philosophy of yoga teaches us to see that we are more than our thoughts. And if we believe our thoughts, that creates our reality.
YJ: It sounds like Patanjali is giving us a picture of yoga as a practice that is so much more than just asana, as we tend to think of it today. Where does asana come into play?
JL: Yes. Asana is just to get your attention, and then pranayama does its work. The breath is more tied to your mental state. We all know instinctively that when someone is upset, we tell them to take a few deep breaths. The breath both reflects our level of stress and affects our level of stress. If you watch your breath all day, you’ll notice that you hold your breath a lot, because many people do.
Breath is really considered a more important physical-emotional-mental-spiritual practice, and it is more of a practice about thought than asana. Asana is a focusing technique that’s broad. It’s wonderful and it’s very good for the nervous system of the modern Westerner because it’s unitasking. In our lives today, there’s not just multitasking, there’s hypertasking. When you’re doing Trikonasana, you’re not also doing Dog Pose at the same time. This is really good for us.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.