Transcending Ordinary Human Consciousness
Yoga is best known for the often-impressive physical postures that are so widely displayed in images, advertising and t-shirts around the world. What is not as well known about yoga, especially for those who do not practice it, are its philosophical, psychological and spiritual wisdom. Yoga, as with most spiritual and religious traditions, has a familiar theme: that of transcending our ordinary human consciousness.
So, why is this a universal theme in our religious traditions? Within our ordinary human consciousness is a kind of forgetfulness or ignorance that perpetuates a feeling of separateness from one another and the rest of creation and therefore suffering which in turn generates more suffering. It is a hellish cycle for which religions provide various explanations and methodologies for helping us overcome in order to live more fulfilling and happy lives.
According to The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, we have identified with this separation so much so that it feels true and therefore colors the way we see and behave in the world. It’s like putting on a pirate costume, but then forget it’s just a costume and act as if everyone was someone to pillage or fight.
Yet, also inherent in our human condition is a kind of longing toward something greater than the mere pleasure of riches and the hope that we can obtain it. Without this longing, without hope, we would resign ourselves to our horribly unfulfilling fate. And so within us is also a spark of goodness; a trace of the memory of our shared humanity; an understanding that maybe we can do and be better.
Within the first few lines of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali yoga is defined as the process of stilling and grabbing ahold of the swirling thoughts in our minds. This whirling in our minds creates a kind of chaos in our lives. If we are able to settle this inner chaos, we can then see and act clearly, and diminish the chaos in our lives. Imagine water that has been churned up. It is often clouded with debris and makes it difficult to discern how deep the water is. However, if the churning stops, the debris eventually settles and it becomes easier to observe the depth of the water and therefore one has a better chance of navigating into and through the water more effectively.
Inherent in all religious traditions are moral precepts. Why is morality at the core of our religions? Because not only do these teachings help us navigate the muddy water of our desire, confusion, fear and ego, but they also negate the mechanism that was churning those waters in the first place. Morality provides a framework that encourages us to act in ways that are not only good, but also more effective for creating a happier and more fulfilling life.
The moral guidelines in The Yoga Sutras are broken up into two categories: 1) those that deal directly with our interactions and behavior in the world (yamas); and internal more personal practices (niyamas), which inevitably impact how we see the world and ourselves in the world. Both components are considered vital to transforming our ordinary consciousness. As an example, consider how many people have lost weight by making outer changes to their diet and exercise, but only gain the weight back and then some if they have not shifted their mindset. Morality is similar… it’s an outer and an inner job.
The yamas include familiar ideas such as don’t hurt anyone; be honest; don’t steal; abstain from sex; and don’t hoard what you have. Practicing these decrees cultivates kindness, respect and generosity. Not only are these qualities deemed universally good (and actually feel better than their alternatives), but they are also more successful at creating healthy and happy relationships between people. To act otherwise creates both inner and outer turmoil.
The more tumultuous our world, the more we need these moral guidepost to help us find our way back to clarity and peace. As our clarity and peace grows, the less we need guideposts because behaving well also makes the most sense and comes naturally.
The Sutras’ niyamas prescribe the personal practices of cleanliness; contentment with our circumstances; self-discipline; spending time studying spiritual texts; and keeping Divinity before us. While the impact of these practices indirectly affects others, they ultimately serve to uplift our consciousness to operate with greater clarity and understanding in the world.
Our individualistic inclinations (ego) perpetuate the frightening feeling that we are alone in this world, which leaves us grasping for anything that feels good (even if only for a moment and even when dysfunctional) and repelling anything painful (even if it is the discomfort of change and transformation). When universally adhered to, moral precepts reduce the power of our ego and expand the spark of goodness in each of us into a full-blown flame.
Kori Strobl is an Orange County based yoga teacher and has been teaching yoga since 2003. As a passionate student of yoga philosophy, her teaching emphasizes incorporating yoga’s sensible philosophy into the physical practice to support and enrich her student’s lives. She marvels at yoga’s unique ability to support practitioners of all religions to deepen their connection and understanding of their own faith. Kori has a knack for making complex and esoteric concepts approachable, interesting and practical. She has led teacher trainings, workshops, and retreats internationally and at home. She lives on an urban farm in Costa Mesa, CA with her wonderful husband and two energetic children.