There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I sat hiding under my grandfather’s desk. The desk was covered by an enormous Persian rug that covered the four corners of the table, draping endlessly onto the floor. In that study where he used to spend countless hours, more hours than the day and the night seemed to hold, there were books. Books above and books below. Books neatly lined-up on bookshelves, books stacked on the floor. These books intimidated me not simply because they were too dense or because they were mostly legal texts (my grandpa was a judge) but in hindsight, what got me hiding was the fear that I would not measure up to the goals and aspirations contained in those texts.
The Sanskrit word śāstra comes from the root ‘sās’, which means teach, instruct, correct. Shāstra is defined as instruction, rule, manual, book, work of authority, scripture. Shāstra is the study of ancient scriptures as well as the Sanskrit language.
Textbooks, scriptures, and manuals can often feel out of reach to many of us. The instructions “in there” may appear too farfetched for everyday life. The stories we read about saints and the wisdom we hear from teachers might seem to imply that they never harbored an unkind or malicious thought, that they never hurt another being. Upon reading these texts, we might ask ourselves: Is this in my wheelhouse? Is it possible for me to be like that – to become a holy being? The most immediate response to our internal dialogue would likely be: No way. That is not for me! But what the shāstras point to is our potentiality. They remind us that, innately, we are all capable of kindness and compassion, that our innermost desire is to live in a way that uplifts the lives of others. They remind us that this is possible now!
Every situation, every occasion, every relationship can show us something about yoga, about inter-dependence, about inter-beingness. For example, the air that we breathe is made clean thanks to the trees, which means we and the trees “inter-are”. Despite the lockdowns, the masks, social distancing, and the various ways we have been advised to protect one another, we still all breathe the same air. When we catch a rainbow in the sky, that emanation is only happening because of certain causes and conditions coming together – sunlight and rain. This is the law of cause and effect in action, a teaching on karma offered to us through a colorful arc in the sky. Things are inter-dependent and that is true, but the truth is only visible if we are ready to see it. Shāstra can prime us to be ready to see.
According to the tradition of yoga, we are invited not simply to believe what we hear but to seek our own direct experience. There are three ways of acquiring knowledge according to Master Patanjali as laid out in PYS 1.7. Perception (pratyaksha) is the first one – when valid knowledge is drawn from that which is perceptible, visible, present before our eyes (‘aksh’ means eye, sense of sight, penetrate, embrace). The second valid means of gaining knowledge is through inference or reasoning (anumāna). The third one is knowledge that makes its way to us from a reliable source (āgāma), a respected authority, whether an oral authority (e.g. some respected person, an expert in their field, who has firsthand knowledge) or a written authoritative text such as a shāstra.
Śāstra is one of the five tenets of Jivamukti Yoga, the pillars that make up the foundation of the method co-created by Sharon Gannon and David Life. Texts, teachings and instructions have been passed down through the ages as an act of generosity by those who have experienced them and taught them. These teachings were written on palm leaves, on papyrus scrolls, wax tablets, shards of broken pottery and even on the walls of caves, in the hope that what was learned, experienced, or revealed would live on and be of value to future generations.
Spiritual teachings are often not understood the first time we hear them, nor the second or the third. Sometimes we need to change the way we hear the teachings, see them with new eyes from different angles. The asana practice is like tending the soil that will receive the seeds of the teachings. When we walk into a practice space, we bring so much with us. We may not be able to receive the wisdom shared in that moment, but we could chant a simple sound like Om or a verse that will help us direct our attention and solidify the togetherness of the group. After the āsana practice, our experience of the teachings can be free of conceptual overlay, allowing us to discover something we hadn’t realized before.
Śāstras aren’t there to intimidate us or put us off. Instead, they are meant to be a companion whose purpose is to create an opening for honest, personal, non-conceptual direct experience. Once verified in our own experience, we discover that shāstras are reflecting back to us our own sense of knowing. From shāstra to āsana, from the mind to the body, we are continuously invited to cultivate our inherent ability to be informed by our daily lives.