Every Monday, my friend and fellow yoga teacher Jen and I meet early in the morning to carpool to Burlington for our yoga philosophy study group. A small group of students meets each week to wrestle with the essential yoga text, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We chant a few sutras, and then discuss their meaning. The sutras are concise teachings that lay out the nature of the human mind, and describe how we can use the ancient practice of yoga to transform ourselves.
These 196 sutras are divided into four chapters, called Padas. Our study group has made it through the first two Padas, and is now at work on the third. This chapter, called the Vibhutti Pada, describes the effects of yoga and the special powers that can be attained by devoted practitioners. I have always thought of it as "The Chapter on Super Powers!" Some of the accomplishments that Patanjali describes are indeed paranormal, and difficult for western, rational minds to embrace. For example, Sutra III.24 states that by concentrating on strengths, the yogi attains the strength of an elephant. Then there is Sutra III.16, which says that when we concentrate on the three transformations (of characteristics, state, and condition), knowledge of the past and future ensues. Other powers mentioned by Patanjali include knowledge of our previous births, knowledge of the moment of our death, knowledge of others' minds, knowledge of the solar system, and even the ability to travel through the sky!
As for my own knowledge attainments, after twenty plus years of yoga practice, I admit that I sometimes have trouble helping my daughter with her sixth grade math homework. I am able to travel through the sky, but only with the aid of the airline industry. I am fairly strong, but I would certainly not pit myself against any elephant, even a baby one.
So given that I do not expect to develop any of these yogic superpowers in my lifetime, what use is it to ponder these ideas? This gets to the heart of mystical teachings, and what, if anything they have to offer us. Can something be true, without being literally, factually true? To use an example from Christian mythology, can we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus without accepting the Virgin Birth as fact? Throughout the ages, there are many tales of heroes born from a virgin mother. This exceptional origin story can point us toward recognizing a special being, one who can guide and teach us.
In Buddhism and Islam, there are also amazing tales of supernatural beings and events. If we cannot accept these stories as factually true, does that really mean we must reject them out of hand? Does our inability to believe in a literal Garden of Eden, complete with devious serpent, mean that this story has nothing to teach us? If we have trouble accepting that the baby Buddha walked at three days old, and left lotus flowers blooming in each footstep, can we not recognize that a deeper teaching may be waiting for us in this story?
Yoga is a practice of wholeness. When we are practicing with sincerity, devotion, intelligence and compassion, we understand how our thinking mind is NOT separate from our physical embodiment, and our spiritual unfolding touches every aspect of who we are. There is no need to cleave the rational, thinking mind from the spacious Self. If we deprive ourselves of the deep truths that mythology contains, we will be like a thirsty person sitting by a clear spring and refusing to take a drink. The spiritual aspect of who we are needs to be nourished with sacred stories and practices just like our physical aspect needs fresh water and good food. May everyone who reads this, and all other beings, be well fed, on every level!