I’m very familiar with the AA Serenity Prayer, it hung in my grandmothers bedroom in a beautiful gilded frame written in exquisite and elaborate calligraphy. I remember asking her about it when I was very young, maybe just 5 years old, and she explained it to me with such eloquence I used to recite it to myself whenever I got frustrated or angry. Little did I know, I had just received one of the most essential teachings of yoga, and begun the practice of mantra when I was still in kindergarten. In more recent years, I have become familiar with Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Any serious student of yoga eventually ends up reading the sutras, but it took me many, many years before I was really able to begin to understand them.
I was in class today with NYC based yoga teacher, Leslie Kaminoff who shared the similarities between one of Patanjali’s sutras, and the AA prayer. I really appreciate people who can bring ancient wisdom into context for modern practitioners of yoga and armchair philosophers. Patanjali’s yoga sutras are almost impossible to navigate unless you have a great understanding of sanskrit (very unlikely) or have a wonderful philosophy teacher who is really able to bring them to life (these people are very rare in my experience). Leslie also explained that while the yoga sutras encapsulate certain important yoga concepts, the sutras themselves are really designed to inspire the teacher, who then imparts his or her interpretation of them to the student. Thus the teaching happens, not when you read them yourself, but when your teacher explains them to you. Yoga is after all, an oral tradition. Of all the times I have had this sutra explained to me (well over ten interpretations by ten different teachers!) this one today really stuck. And I got it, because it was simple.
The very first sutra in book two of Patanjali’s yoga sutras says this:
Tapah Svadhyayesvara Ishvara Pranidhanani Kriya Yogah.
Swami Satchitananda translates this in this way: Accepting pain as help for purification, the study of spiritual wisdom and surrender to a supreme being all constitute yoga in practice. A western scholar Stephen Cope translates it like this: Yogic action has three components – discipline, self study, and the orientation toward the ideal of pure awareness. There are numerous translations with slightly different nuances and interpretations of the sanskrit, but the essence is essentially the same. Three things are required to practice yoga: you need to dedicate yourself to the practice with intensity and passion, you need to study sacred texts to educate and improve yourself and you need to surrender all the benefits of your practice to your higher power.
It is a very important sutra, and the author Patanjali confirmed this by placing it on the very first page in book two “Yoga Practices”. Patanjali wanted people to understand the concepts before they dived into the rest of the text. Let’s look at these concepts one by one.
Tapas in sanskrit means ‘to burn’ or ‘to create heat’. It is basically the energy of restraint, and implies a self-discipline or austerity willingly undertaken with the goal of inner purification to elevate ones consciousness. Through the practice of tapas, a yogi can “burn off” or prevent accumulation of negative energies, which clears the way towards spiritual evolution. A dynamic yoga practice that generates heat could be considered tapas, as could fasting from certain activities (like television or the internet) or eliminating substances such as cigarettes and alcohol, with the goal of purification. If you were super hard core, you could simply recline naked on your bed of nails like this guy from Calcutta. I even met a sadhu in northern India who lifted extremely heavy weights with his testicles. I didn’t get his photo unfortunately. But, whatever your Tapas is, it requires considerable struggle and sacrifice to achieve.
Svadhyaya means ‘to get next to the self’, or sometimes is more simply translated as self study. Originally, it referred to studying the ancient Vedic texts, but if we are to bring the yoga sutras into a more modern and relevant context, I suggest that any spiritual text that elevates your consciousness and awareness could be considered to be Svadhyaya. Reading the Bhagavad Gita, or the bible, or simply an autobiography of a big hearted hero and reflecting deeply on the teachings and taking steps to integrate that wisdom in your daily life could be considered Svadhyaya. People magazine does not count.
Ishvara Pranidhana means ‘to surrender to a higher power’. Ishvara, means Lord, God, or Life Force, and Pranidhana, means love for, surrender to, or faith in. I practice this simply by offering the benefits of my daily yoga practice out into the world through simple prayer and devotion. In my mind, Isvara Pranidhana is working hard without having expectation of any personal benefit. Ishvara Pranidhana is also the art of surrendering to the natural flow of life, and trusting that you will be taken care of (karmically speaking).
With these concepts in mind, let’s examine the AA Serenity Prayer and just see how closely aligned the two are:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change (Ishvara Pranidhana – surrender to your higher power)
The courage to change the things I can (This is the absolute essence of Tapas!)
And the wisdom to know the difference (Svadhyaya – self study leading to deep wisdom.)
So there you go, your first lesson in Patanjali, simply contained in the AA Serenity Prayer. Easy to remember, no difficult pronunciation, and a very deep, relevant and life affirming message.