Anyone who is engaged in serious yoga practice has come to yoga for the same reason—we’re fed up! That means we’ve had enough.
Atha means “now.” But it’s more than just “now”; it means now in terms of “hereafter,” or “going forward.” The importance of that nuance is that it implies that whatever has been happening will now, hereafter, be different. So in his first sutra, Patanjali is speaking directly to those of us who are fed up with things as they are. Everyone has a different story about the shape that being fed up takes for them—a miserable job, a life on drugs, a troubled relationship, etc. But fundamentally it’s the same for everyone who comes to yoga—at a certain point in life we take inventory of how much is really great and how much is suffering, and we come to the conclusion that it’s mostly suffering—even if the suffering is relatively mild, like “things are fine but I know there’s more to life.” Most people are not there; they’re not quite willing to let go of the old model. Some even like their suffering and identify with it. They’re not at that point where they’re fed up enough to say, “okay, what else is there? I’ll search high and low to get it.” But for those who are, Patanjali grabs us and says, “you’re ready to hear this stuff.” That’s the good news of that first word atha.
The word shasanam can be understood as a set of rules, a discipline applied to us from the outside, a set of instructions for what we’re supposed to do next. But when we put the word anu, which literally means “atom,” in front of it, it means the instructions or ways to act that come from the inside. For example—“I’m thirsty, so I’ll go get a drink of water.” It’s that simple: we don’t think of it as a rule that when you’re thirsty you have to go drink water, or when you’re hungry you eat, we just do it. In this sutra, Patanjali is telling us that yoga is one of these things that comes naturally. It flows from us, through us, and basically if we could just get out of the way, then it would be free to manifest in our lives. And that’s the practice of yoga—the practice of getting out of the way.
Of course it’s very difficult to let go of the parts of us that disable the natural flow of wisdom and purity, because they’ve become enculturated and neuroticized. They are the ways we cope with the world, our No. 1 defenses: they are how hard we’ve got it and how impenetrable our problems are. But Patanjali is saying that these are the parts of us that are unnatural, that have been inflicted upon us, and we could take them off like we take off a set of clothes. But it’s not so easy. One hundred percent of what restricts us is in our minds and has been concretized in our bodies in different ways. So yoga practice is meant to point out to us where that energy is stuck, whether in our minds, our shoulders or our hips. In this way, yoga is often referred to as a discipline. But it’s important to understand that it’s not the kind of discipline that’s forced on us from the outside, or in the case of teachers, it’s not a discipline that we’re forcing on others. It’s a discipline that’s naturally arising. As we move through our difficulties in the practice, whatever they are, we understand that the encounter with difficulty is a blessed moment and an opportunity. It is not a fail, but a chance to reflect on what separates us from each other, the nature of suffering in our lives, the role that prejudices and fixations play in our lives, etc., and just let them go. It can happen very quickly, in just an instant, but it can also take some time; it’s not easy to shed a carefully constructed armor. The great teacher Dharma Mittra likes to say, “Get mad and do it!” Get fed up! But don’t do it because a teacher tells you to do it or because it’s a rule; do it for your own reasons, because you’re fed up with the way things have been and you want them to change. Do it because you want to do it. Do it to get rid of a cruel dictator—your identification with your mind. Do it as your personal revolution. Atha…