Yoga is the practice of experience. This is often lost on the western mind. We see Yoga as a physical exercise and don’t understand or perhaps fear the depth of what experience beyond intellect can teach us.
The Yoga Sutras are incredibly distilled. Much like the Taoist advice from the Tao Te Ching, the Sutras can seem maddeningly simplistic or even contrary. In short, I’m not sure the Yoga Sutras would have made any sense to me had I not had the experiences I had in the studio.
I had been practicing and intense style of Yoga for several years prior to coming upon Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga. There were times when I could not pick myself up off the floor. As I read The Wisdom of Yoga. I began to understand the role the asana (posture) practice had played in my coming to terms with certain events in my life.
In The Wisdom of Yoga, Cope interprets the Sutras through the personal stories of six friends, including the author, while various members of the group arrive, depart or remain constant as they take their retreats at Kripalu. Cope places their experiences and realizations in the context of the Sutras.
And that is what sparked my interest. The Sutras gave a form to the series of seemingly unrelated events in my life, and placed them in a context. It led to me making sense of experience. Even then, for the longest time, I did not get past the second sutra, translated in the book;
YS I:2 “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.”
It reminded me of a long ago acquaintance who was in recovery and used the metaphor of an endless loop cassette tape, playing negative thoughts that in the past had led to her unhealthy behaviors. That was exactly the place I was in when my marriage was ending, stuck in a continual loop of thoughts focused on that failure. And, it was leading me to punish myself via a grueling style of Yoga, practiced in an unforgiving manner.
What made the Yoga Sutras accessible was that The Wisdom of Yoga is not so much an academic study of the Yoga Sutras as it is a practical exposure to the Sutras. In the process of exploring their stories, Cope applies elements from the Sutras and the practice of Yoga to everyday foibles of the human condition.
One quote from the book informs my work today, “There are patients for whom a mountain of insight never matures into a molehill of behavior change.”
So much of what I do as a Yoga Instructor is to get people out of their head and into their body. Though the Sutras only refer to asana practice in 3 of the 196 verses, these physical, body practices are what make it possible to get out of the patterning of consciousness and then re-examine the problem or create space from the strong reaction.
At this point, I must reveal, I did not finish this book the first time I read it, in part because I remained stuck at the second sutra. Because I was stuck, I sought out more, studying the Sutras with Chase Bossart. In those classes, we defined the second sutra as Yoga is concentration.
Those classes with Chase, along with my Yoga asana practice helped me see that I was stuck, that I had an agitated mind. I couldn’t concentrate. The act of becoming aware, becoming the observer in your own life is a significant step. And this book was a significant stepping stone toward making the Yoga Sutras more accessible.
Criticisms are directed more towards those a memoir might receive, that it’s self-absorbed. Some aspects of the journey of the characters are a bit unattainable for many of us: not all have the time to devote to self-study in this manner, nor can many afford a retreat or an extended vacation at a place like Kripalu.
That can be forgiven in that the problems dealt with are universal; separation, compulsion, cynicism, fear of commitment and finding one’s own voice. Cope’s practical application of the Sutras demonstrates how to read and apply the Sutras to the personal problems we face in our modern world.