saha vīryaṁ karavāvahai
tejasvi nāvadhītam astu mā vidviṣāvahai
oṁ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ
Accept us both together. Protect us both together. May our knowledge and strength increase. May we not resent one another.
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. Śāstra is defined as instruction, rule, manual, book, work of authority, scripture. Śāstra 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 śāstra 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 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. Śāstra 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, and see them with new eyes from different angles. The āsana 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.
- Choose a spiritual text, a verse, or a wisdom author to teach from the entire month and share how you are putting it into practice.
- Invite students to study one teaching and to possibly keep a journal that briefly describes how they are applying the teaching to their own life.
- Share stories from someone you look up to. How are their stories relevant to you? How did they make their stories relatable?
- Shāstras are not meant to be held as beliefs or ideas that we follow blindly. Encourage students to strike a balance between learning from another’s experience and activating their own wisdom.
- Studying oneself through āsana is possible. Ask students to become aware of the resistances, habitual patterns, blind spots the āsana practice brings up.
- There is an art to respectful disagreement in the same way there is an art to getting your body to do something it seems to resist. How can the approach one takes to a challenging āsana inspire one’s approach to an uncomfortable idea?
- Choose a portion of a shāstra to read before and after the āsana practice (or meditation practice). Invite students to notice any change in their understanding or experience of what was shared.
- Play music from artists or bands that have felt like companions at different stages of your life.
If you would like to sing and play the chant of this FOTM on the harmonium, click here.