Discipline, Study & Surrender during the Pandemic
Those of us familiar with the Yoga Sūtra (YS) will recognize “discipline, study, and surrender” from YS II.1, which presents the three components of Kriya Yoga, or the yoga action.
According to BKS Iyengar, these are burning zeal in practice (discipline), study of the self and the sacred texts (study), and surrender to a divine source, or something greater than ourselves. YS II.2 tells us that practicing the components of Kriya Yoga combats the afflictions (ignorance, ego, attachment to pleasure aversion, and clinging) that interfere with our ability to establish mental, physical, and emotional balance. Attaining a balanced state can be challenging under any circumstances and can feel particularly out of reach during our current public health crisis when our usual coping mechanisms are not available or don’t quite fit the situation. But perhaps profound reflection on YS II.1 can offer guidance.
In a recent live-streamed class, Abhijata Iyengar (BKS’s granddaughter) challenged viewers to avoid getting caught up in the technique of our postural practice and instead cultivate “burning zeal” in a different way – by experiencing whatever pose we happened to be doing from “moment to moment.” Now is not the time to try to get better at poses or to master new ones, which is often how we interpret what it means to practice with zeal and discipline. Instead, our main goal in practicing āsana during this time of quarantine should be to become more sensitive to our bodies, to understanding the āsana more clearly, and to be aware of our experience in the pose moment by moment. This approach will help keep up anchored and steady.
So, instead of becoming fixated on getting the hands to the floor in Uttānāsana (standing forward bend), engage in svādhyāya, or study of the self by working with the pose in a different way. Use support under the head, arms, and chest to extend the torso forward rather than down. Stay in this relatively comfortable version of the pose longer than usual to notice the sensations in the body, the quality of the breath, the state of the mind. Observing ourselves in the pose in this way can reveal a tendency to do āsana, or any activity for that matter, halfheartedly. We go through the motions and then wait for it to be over. Abhijata counseled to instead “fully execute what we’ve started.” This advice relates to chapter three in the Bhagavad Gita which emphasizes that action is superior to inaction. When we’re feeling overwhelmed, it can be helpful to start a task with one small activity – stand in Mountain Pose, write the first line of an email or report for work, help your child with one school assignment.
I wrote this post on May 10th, Mother’s Day. Abhijata, herself a mother of two, equated the peacefulness and inner calm that comes with surrendering (the third aspect of Kriya Yoga) with a mother’s acceptance, love, and care. During this difficult period in time, it is important to practice self-care and acceptance. Try it in Jānu Sīrsāsana (one-legged forward bend). Sit on a folded blanket or two to mobilize the lower spine. Place a bolster, blankets, or pillow under the torso to both encourage the abdominal muscles to lightly engage so that they support the spine. If the bolster reaches, let it support the forehead, too. If not, use a separate support for that. Use the inhalations to go forward and the exhalations to go down, to let go. Notice how the back side of the body opens us, relaxes, and the front side becomes inwardly focused and quiet. Surrender into this quietness without trying to improve the pose.
The three components of Kriya Yoga – discipline, study, and surrender – correspond to three of the paths of yoga discussed in the Bhagavad Gita. Discipline relates to the path of karma yoga (another term for the yoga of action) which, in turn, represents the ordinary activities of daily life. Just completing our daily activities, whether it’s changing a diaper, making breakfast, or doing a set of standing poses, is an important expression of yoga.
Study of the self and sacred texts links to jñāna yoga (the path of wisdom outlined in the Bhagavad Gita) can be experienced through practices that remove the veil of ignorance that shrouds our ability to see and experience the world clearly. Prānāyāma (breath work) is a powerful form of yoga recommended for this purpose but many of us struggle with developing a regular prānāyāma practice and only do it when it’s taught in class. However, just a minute or two of focusing on simple inhalation and exhalation can help. Inhalations are energizing and create clarity. Exhalations are calming. Together, a few rounds of inhalation and exhalation can foster a state of calm alertness.
Surrender relates to devotion to a divine source, or bkahti yoga (the path of devotion). We can practice surrender in āsana, as suggested above for Jānu Sīrsāsana. We also can practice this by learning to pause, reflect, respond skillfully to situations that may rankle us. A little bit of practice goes a long, and according to BKS Iyengar, purifies the body, mind, and spirit. During this time of coronavirus, practicing with self-acceptance and gentle awareness can do wonders for our mental, physical, and emotional balances. Studying texts can help, too. Here are a few recommendations.
Bryant, E. F. (2009). The Yoga sūtras of Patañjali: A new edition, translation, and commentary with insights from the traditional commentators. New York, NY: North Point Press.
Iyengar, B. K. S. (1993). Light on the yoga sutras of Patanjali. New Delhi, India: HarperCollins Publishers.
Miller, B. S. (1995). Yoga: Discipline of freedom. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
Mitchell, S. (2000). Bhagavad Gita: A new translation (1st ed.). New York, NY: Harmony Books.
Narasimhan, P. (2018). The yoga sūtras of Patañjali: A collection of translations. Arlington, MA: Popsi Narasimhan.
Sargeant, W., & Chapple, C. K. (2009). The Bhagavad Gītā (25th anniversary ed.). Albany, NY: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York Press.