Yoga Sutra in One Word: Presence
If we are going to simplify the Yoga Sutra it is helpful to have a clear way to summarize its message. I will suggest to use one word as a reminder of the powerful message offered by Patanjali. That word is presence.
Take a moment to consider what presence means to you.
A number of texts in the yoga tradition start with the Sanskrit word “atha” (अथ). The “th” sound is pronounced like the “th” sound in hothouse or lighthouse. Atha can be defined both as “now” and as an exclamation used to draw attention. From the simplest point of view, all yoga techniques offer ways of bringing your complete and undivided attention to the moment you are in. The words “awareness” and “mindfulness” point to this quality of attending. The word “atha” is both a reminder to embark on the journey as well as a pointer to the destination: Presence. One contemporary commentator on the Yoga Sutra, Deshpande, suggests that “atha” can be interpreted as “and now,” which acts both as a reminder to be in this moment and a suggestion that life consists of the imperceptible passing of this now into the next now. Indeed, seeing “atha” as “and now” also points to the fact that, even as you try to be present, you will keep getting distracted from this specific and unique moment. The bulk of the practice is about keeping yourself coming back to the now moment that you find yourself in.
Being present is both the essence and the goal of the practice
Yoga is about being present. In other words, yoga is about showing up for your life with the honest intention of doing the best that you can. Obviously, presence can only be experienced directly. Thus, talking about presence is not presence itself, but it can help clarify the map to your destination.
Another way of thinking about this is that yoga is presence and presence simply means to be with what is. When you attend to what is happening you notice that the present moment, “what is,” is dynamic. So you find a paradox, because you are always only in this moment, right here and right now. But, this present moment keeps morphing into a brand new and unrepeatable moment. The paradox is that the present is a fleeting instant in eternal transformation. It is both a single point in time and all the different times that you have ever been in, as well as all the potential moments that you will ever be in. Take a moment to close your eyes and take this in.
Presence, Being Present, Being with what is, Mindfulness, Consciousness, Attention, Awareness.
We can think about all of these words as focusing only on the task at hand; concentrating on a single activity; paying close attention to your actions; acting consciously and deliberately; to do what you are doing; being here now; conscious awareness; remaining focused on what is actually happening right where you are..
Life is a precious gift delivered as the present, an always new moment. You are free to do with that gift whatever you want. For instance, you can choose to ignore this moment because you think that a previous moment is the most important moment in your life. So, you may choose to invest your attention, energy and money either in trying to go back to that previous moment. Or, if that past moment was not pleasant you can try to avoid any recollection of that previous moment at all cost. You can also choose to ignore this moment by trying to predict what will happen in the future. Regardless of which option you choose – and many of us are trying to do both at the same time– you are still choosing to ignore this moment.
Take a moment to consider if this might be the case for you. Do you find yourself dwelling in the past or planning for the future? It is remarkable that you can choose whatever approach you prefer for participating in your life. And you are choosing what you do with this precious gift all the time.
Yoga is both a complete system to get you to be present and it is also the state of being fully with what is. For yogis, the destination is being in the eternal present moment. If you are constantly thinking about other times and places as more desirable or more important than the moment you are in, there are three reasons for understanding that this moment, right here and now, is the most important moment of your life. First, this moment is the culmination of every single moment in your life so far. In other words, everything that you have done has brought you to this moment. Second, the moment you are in is the only moment in which you can act. Third, this moment is the starting point for the rest of your life. The actions you take right here and now will influence the rest of your life. Reflect on these three reasons. Can they invite you to show up fully to every moment?
Obviously, if you are already present all the time, or most of the time, you may already be in the state of yoga and you probably have figured out a number of effective ways to stay present. However, many of us, myself included, notice quite regularly that we keep getting distracted from the present moment. In my case, I would say I get distracted much of the time. Indeed, that is the main reason I practice yoga daily.
These questions may be useful to reflect on the notion of yoga as presence: How do you know that you are present? What are the distractions that pull you away from presence? What helps you notice that you are not present? Can the word अथ – atha act as a mantra, as a way to re-focus your mind? What can make the present moment be the most important moment of your life?