Waltzes with Wisdom: Reading the Yoga Sutras in Community

This is the first post in a two-part series on Finding the Sacred in the Sutras. You can read part two here.

Ask any one of my teachers, and they’ll tell you… I’m not an easy student to teach. I seem to have emerged from the womb an eternally-curious mind—always inquiring, always challenging, ever asking that question teachers dread so much… “Why?”  The problem is, for much of my life I wasn’t willing to rely on anyone outside myself to help me find the answers to my questions. I didn’t trust others enough to be vulnerable in my doubt, my uncertainty, my unknowing—and, as a result, the answers I found to my questions were severely limited by the biases of my own mind.

Recently, though, that’s started to change. My reading of what I’ve been told is the most quintessential sacred text of modern yoga shook my world up a bit, and in many ways reading the Yoga Sutras has been like a dance of sorts. Although the dance thus far has been a messy one—full of lots of awkward stumbling and even a few falls— I’m slowly learning to surrender and allow my partner to take the lead.

My brain just loves to pick apart patterns of wisdom hidden beneath the folds of this world we live in—in books, in art, and perhaps most cryptically in the sacred texts of human culture. It should be no surprise then, that my ears perked up the first time I heard a reading of the Yoga Sutras. If I remember correctly, I was sprawled out in savasana, totally spent and probably questioning my own sanity after I’d haphazardly crawled my way through one of my first ever “power” yoga classes.

“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and disregard toward the wicked, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.” – Yoga Sutra 1.33

Hearing my teacher read sutra 1.33 aloud in class made a several-thousand-year-old book of complex and tightly packed adages accessible to me—even as a budding yogini who had only been on her mat maybe a dozen times. I remember a little voice chiming up in my mind. “Hey there!” that inner Jiminy Cricket called out.  “You’re in the right place. This yoga stuff ain’t just some silly gymnastics-like exercise for hippies from California. There’s some wisdom here.” This sutra was the extended hand beckoning me to step onto a great cosmic dance floor for a waltz with wisdom.

To be honest though, my reading of the Sutras in the weeks and months that followed was riddled with lots of stepping-on-the-toes-of-my-partner as I tried awkwardly to gain my footing in the dance. I—like many other students I’m sure—was always a bit put off by Patanjali’s terse, somewhat dogmatic-sounding lingo, and I struggled to integrate many of its teachings in the existing rhythm of my modern life. I started questioning the “sacredness” of this supposedly enlightening ancient scripture and eventually just set the Sutras aside altogether.

Until a book group I help facilitate selected the Sutras as the next text for discussion a few months ago, I had just about given up on that—uh— “waltz with wisdom” altogether. For the most part, the answer I’d come to was that there were no sacred answers hidden in the pages of the Sutras for me. Now though, I’m discovering that truth gazes out at me from the eyes of fellow human beings, not the pages of a book.

For me, the dance with wisdom really came alive when I surrendered to letting someone (or something) else take the lead. Whether it’s that weird sort of other worldly presence that emerges during the group process or the reflection of my own light in the eyes of a yogi sitting across from me, I’m finding that the Sacred in the Sutras is born through the process of sharing it with others.

No longer had the exhausted little yogini fiercely committed to getting it right by herself — without the help of anyone else— I’m now finding Patanjali’s writing speak to me in a different way. So what are these “sacred” insights I’m coming to in my our reading of the Yoga Sutras? Well, in my next post, I’d like to explore some of the answers I’ve been coming to—specifically how one sutra introduced me to the Sacred in my own heart.

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- who has written 43 posts on Yoga Modern.

Chelsea Roff is a writer by day and yoga teacher by night, a weaver of words as well as of asanas. She is Managing Editor at YogaModern.com, and her writing has been featured by Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal, Wanderlust Festival and the Hanuman Festival. Chelsea is passionate about using online media to inspire action that serves a greater cause -- whether it be the expansion of knowledge, support of our global community, or improvement of planetary and personal health. She travels the country teaching yoga in the most non-traditional of spaces, from cocktail parties to public protests to centers for at-risk youth. In Dallas, Chelsea helped start a yoga service organization that brings yoga classes to people in homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and prisons. Chelsea currently lives in Santa Monica, CA, where she can be found cartwheeling across the beach, hiking in the mountains, and practicing yoga poses on her little pink scooter.

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