The Yoga Sutra begins “atha yoga-anushaasanam.” Now the teachings of yoga begin. Atha is a very special word that is used at the beginning of many Sanskrit texts. It means now. Now we are at our starting point, we are ready to begin. We have done something to reach this point. We are ready for a change, and we recognize that what we wish to change is within us. Every moment is that “now,” and any place we may find ourselves can be our starting point.
This simple concept – start where you are – is the yogic foundation for healing. Yoga is a path that can lead us from one state to another; it can transform us. This is not a passive process. This journey of transformation occurs through our own actions. For most of us, this journey is a step-by-step process, one foot in front of the other.
Starting where we are, we take a step towards our goal. The goal represents the direction we are going. We may not know what it will be like when we get there, but we move in that direction because we think that it will be better for us. As we get closer to our goal, we become clearer about the direction we wish to take. Taking a step, noticing what happens, adjusting our course, and taking another step as we again start where we are, is the process of transformation.
The idea that we must start where we are is essential. In making a journey we are starting in one place and moving towards another. Say we are in Philadelphia and we want to go to New York, we would start by traveling in a roughly north-northeasterly direction. Suppose however that we are mistaken about being in Philadelphia. We are actually in Boston, but imagine ourselves to be in Philadelphia. Starting out for New York, we head off in a north-northeasterly direction. Now we are bound for Nova Scotia, there is no way we will get to New York because we are mistaken about our starting point.
Knowing our actual starting point may be difficult. All of us are suffering —more or less; few of us wish to accept that fact. Generic suffering is a dissatisfied sense of restlessness and uneasiness that something is not quite right. We are unhappy with the way things are. The world doesn’t meet the expectations we project upon it. We imagine ourselves as different from the flawed vulnerable human beings we are, but readily see the faults that lie elsewhere. We think. “I would be happy if only…(fill in the blank).” Or, when we have those times when everything is “just right” we imagine it will last forever. Inevitably we will be disappointed.
Yet this denial of suffering is actually the cause of increased suffering. If we are blind to our situation, we can hardly help but to keep bumping into the same problems over and over. We might leave an unhappy situation – a job that doesn’t suit us, a relationship that is contentious. We start a new job. We meet someone else. At first everything is fine, but then mysteriously the same problems arise. We are confounded – why is life so hard? Will I ever have a happy relationship?
We expect the world to match the internal map we have created in our imagination. Rather than adjusting ourselves to the fact that we are in Boston, and not Philadelphia, we blame the map for misleading us about how to get to New York, rather than recognize that we ourselves misunderstood our starting point.
Yoga offers an explanation for our confusion. The mind is like a crystal lens through which we see the world. The lens is colored by past experience, and the surface of this lens may not be perfect, resulting in a distorted image. The work of yoga is clarifying and refining the mind, ridding it of color, polishing making it clear and transparent, allowing for more accurate perception.
The process begins with self-observation, sorting out what is true and what is false, what is desirable and what causes us suffering. Just noticing is enough. We do not have to begin by trying to change anything, we simply need to be wiling to see what is actually happening. This type of honesty and openness requires courage, but seeing where we are, at any given moment in time is essential if we are to move forward.
To think of the entire journey of transformation all at once is overwhelming. Thinking of the span of our life and considering taking all the steps that we will take to complete our journey is daunting. Yet for this problem there is a simple solution. Stay in the here and now – in the practical sense it is the only place and time that you can take action in, and thank goodness for that. Start where you are.
-- Karen Lee