I’ve recently been reading BKS Iyengar’s book on the Yoga Sutras. Rather than go through each Sutra one by one in this text Iyengar (who not undeservingly is labelled on the front page of the book ‘The World’s Most Respected Yoga Teacher’) works through discussion of various themes in Patanjali’s great text. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is not famous for it’s emphasis on bhakti (devotion) as a path to attaining Yoga. For this we should perhaps to turn to the Bhagavad Gita. However as my teacher Sharon Gannon (Jivamukti Yoga) reminds us the practice of yoga asana and bhakti are indeed deeply and fundamentally linked. Iyengar reflects this very much in his commentary particularly when he focuses on sutra 45 from the Sadhana Pada (Chapter 2). His translation of this sutra is as follows,
‘It is possible for the sadhaka to experience samadhi and to reach perfection in it through full surrender and resignation to God.’
Let’s unpack this translation a little and see what Iyengar is really saying about the nature of yoga and asana.
A sadhaka is a spiritual aspirant, one who is engaged in Sadhana (conscious spiritual practice) as a way of life.
Samadhi is ‘same as the highest’, bliss and joy.
(translation from ‘Jivamukti Yoga’ by Sharon Gannon and David Life)
And ‘full surrender and resignation to God’ is of course the practice of bhakti. It is interesting to me that in this sutra the form of ‘God’ that Patanjali highlights is Isvara. Isvara is the word used to describe God in the form that we can relate to. God in the form of goodness, beauty, joy, kind acts and generosity of spirit. The English Romantic poets spoke of this God when they walked in nature (Wordsworth saw God in a field of daffodils, Keat’s in the autumn trees and Yeats even studied the Upanishads in quite some depth so moved was he by the teachings they offered). Rumi saw God as one might experience an infatuation with a lover (and St. Teresa of Avila had a similar experience). We might see Isvara in the eyes of our newborn baby, in the magnificence of a glorious sunset on in the ocean at dawn. Isvara is immediate, tangible and ‘real’ to us not abstract or distant. What to do if we want to experience God in this way? Be earnest in our efforts and sincere in our practice.
Later in his text Iyengar also does reference the Bhagavad Gita (it might be impossible to talk about bhakti without doing so!) where he quotes the famous sloka which relates to making an offering to God. This echoes the teaching in the Bible where Jesus suggests he does not need riches or wealth as an offering but humility and service. The Buddha also offers a similar teaching when he says even a pot of dirt is a sound offering if it is given in the spirit of love and devotion. Bhagavad Gita states;
‘Whosoever offers a leaf, a flower, fruit or even water to me with devotional love and pure heart, I accept.’ BG IX.26 trans. BKS Iyengar.
Iyengar suggests the sadhaka may not even need a flower, leaf or sip of water. Just the breath coupled with our attention could be enough. He says,
‘For me as a bhakta of yoga leaves stand for mind, flowers for intelligence and fruit for consciousness and water for the taste of flavour (rasa) [of the practice]’.
What a refreshing thought – we don’t need anything – other than the gift we all have available at every moment, our faculty of attention – to be in God’s service every moment.
‘If the asana or breath is offered to God with [a] clean mind, mature intelligence, diffused with ripened consciousness, the Lord accepts and partakes in the joy of the sadhaka with love. Here the sadhaka needs not even offer a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water but simply offer the asana or a breath with a pure head and heart.’ BKS Iyengar.