Who am I?

Yoga is a practice with a long history, perhaps because all of yoga relates to one of the fundamental questions every human being ponders sooner or later in life: “Who am I?” In fact, practicing yoga is an empirical way to explore the question, “Who am I?” through our ways of moving, breathing, thinking and feeling.

Now we continue our gradual progression through the Yoga Sutra considering the first four verses in Chapter One of the Yoga Sutra as a complete summary of the essence of yoga.

These are the first four verses of Chapter 1 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra

  • Now, yoga practice [1.1]
  • Yoga is regulating my ways of being. [1.2]
  • As a result, I am embodied awareness, presence [1.3]
  • Otherwise, I think that I am my ways of being. [1.4]

These four verses offer the foundation for all yoga practices. The first verse asks you to show up to your life. The second defines yoga as a process of self-regulation. The third verse presents the results of yoga, presence. And the fourth verse points out what happens when your ways of being are not modulated. As we explored in the previous episode, yoga is about making the present moment the most important moment of your life. Consequently, you show up to each moment, alert and ready to participate with open mind and open heart. The second verse hints at the human condition, especially at the human tendency to get entangled in habits and tendencies. In order to be fully present, you must become aware of your patterns. You monitor and modulate these patterns to prevent getting stuck in a pattern that pulls you away from participating actively and deliberately in your life. When your tendencies are modulated, you experience directly your own true nature, embodied awareness. By being present you are able to respond to the flow of life with harmony and grace. When you are not aware of your inclinations and habits, they are more likely to get out of control. Consequently, you might end up believing the stories that you are constantly making up about yourself and about the world. In other words, you end up thinking that you are your ways of being.

In these four simple verses, Patañjali already presents a framework for the whole project of yoga. On one hand, there is life, the always ongoing phenomena that keep changing from one now moment to the next. One the other hand, there is consciousness, what makes us aware. Neither life nor consciousness can be captured, isolated or synthesized in any way. Life manifests as all the changing experiences that are happening, regardless of our noticing them or not. Awareness is the manifestation of consciousness as the light that makes it possible for us to notice that we are conscious and that enables us to feel bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts.

An old movie theater is one metaphor that can clarify these two ideas in this context. The movie projector with all its components and the film running through it are the necessary elements for the film to be projected onto the screen. The movie projector and film represent life. The movie projector includes in its parts a very bright lamp whose light is concentrated by a lens, passing through each frame of the film, which is then magnified by a second lens to project that image on the screen. Consciousness is the electricity that powers up the projector. Awareness is the expression of consciousness as electricity transformed into light flowing through the light bulb. Applied to this metaphor the fourth sutra says that the lamp may end up believing, erroneously, that it, the lamp, is the electricity. However, without electricity, the lamp will still be in the projector but the film will not be projected onto the screen. Life includes the changing phenomena, the screen, the projector and movie that is projected on the screen. Life encompasses also everything else that makes up the movie theater. As you watch the movie, it is your own awareness that enables you to experience the sensory stimuli related to the movie as well as the sensory stimuli in your body when you see the movie, hear its soundtrack and feel the texture of the clothes you are wearing and the firmness of the seat you are sitting on. Life also includes your emotions and thoughts as you watch the movie. Yoga helps you modulate your internal activities and reactivity so that, even as you watch the story unfold on the screen you remember that you are not the temporary emotions and thoughts going through you, because when they dissolve you still are here and you still are you.

Here are the first four sutras again:

  • Now, yoga practice [1.1]
  • Yoga is regulating my ways of being [1.2]
  • As a result, I am embodied awareness, presence [1.3]
  • Otherwise, I think that I am my ways of being. [1.4]

These first four sutras offer us a simple and potent suggestion for practice and life: Find out who you are. As you try to answer this simple question you may find that there is a gap between who you are and who you think you are. A modern sage in South India, Sri Ramana Maharshi, suggested “Who am I?” as a powerful tool to inquire into your own nature. Is it possible that most, if not all, of the causes of suffering arise from the gap between who you are and who you think you are? Take a moment to ponder this. Who you are is the direct, undiluted experience that is happening right where you are. The experience brings with it sensations, emotions and thoughts. Presence (the state of yoga) is experiencing yourself fully as you are. Your experience is not necessarily good or bad, it just is. This is what is often called the natural state, or what we are calling embodied awareness in sutra 1.3. The alternative is to think about what you are experiencing. This is an action of stepping out of the moment-to-moment embodied awareness to try to make sense of what is through your comments, opinions and stories. That is the space of who you think you are. It includes, who you think you are, who you think you should be, who you think other people expect or think of you.

Can the question “Who am I?” lead you to notice if there is a gap between who you are and who you think you are? Are your desires, choices and actions resulting from who you are or from who you think you are? Are there any noticeable differences between the two? What does this exploration reveal to you about who you are and who you think you are? Where do you allocate your energy?

Remember that you can also explore these sutras by chanting them