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From the Archives -- Yoga: The Serenity Prayer in action?

By Kathleen Yount

WED OCT 06, 2021

From the archives! originally published in...errr...2016? Maybe?

Yoga: The Serenity Prayer in action?

What does it really mean to “do yoga”?

I’ve been considering this question, posed by yoga teacher Francesca Cervero: If I could boil down the teachings of yoga to one single tenet, what would that one teaching be?

I’m not sure if I’m ready to submit my final answer. But what I keep coming back to, what seems most relevant and practical for myself and pretty much everyone I know, is what practicing yoga means to me:

  • Cultivating the grace to accept the things that cannot be changed
  • Sustaining the courage, determination, and strength to change the things that can and should be changed
  • Developing the wisdom to know the difference between the two.

Yeah. That sounds familiar, right?

But I’m not drawing these ideas from that wonderful Serenity Prayer, embraced by myriad recovery programs. I get them from the Yoga Sutras, a source text of today’s yoga philosophy.

The Sutra itself—2.1—is the first teaching on the practice of yoga by the sage Patanjali, where he defines what comprises yoga practice:

तपः स्वाध्यायेश्वरप्रणिधानानि क्रियायोगः

tapaḥ svādhyāy-eśvarapraṇidhānāni kriyā-yogaḥ

My interpretation of this sutra—as well as a whole lot of my learning on yoga for my everyday life—comes from Leslie Kaminoff, whose Yoga Anatomy trainings go way beyond just ruminations on joint actions and muscle movements (though they are way great for that, too). Every year I teach anatomy to the teachers in training at blue lotus, and I always include a lecture taken from Kaminoff’s interpretation of this sutra, which he got from his teacher, TKV Desikachar.

Yoga practice, according to this sutra, must include these three things:

  • Tapas, which I often think of as wherewithal. It is the mustering of your internal power to overcome inertia or resistance and take right action.
  • Svadhyaya, which is self-study. Real, honest, non-judmental self-reflection on your actions, habits, and unique nature.
  • Ishvara pranidhana, which is surrender to the divine (however you define divine), with faith in the higher, unknowable order of the universe (again, however you define that).

In my anatomy teaching I talk about it with reference to yoga postures—how we approach them, how we embody them. But it’s so applicable to any aspect of life, and to any and everyone, no matter who or where we are. I got a sweet reminder earlier this year upon the death of my great-aunt Cleo Wise, who died at the age of 105—in her sleep, in her own bed, during a nap just following a nice slice of apple pie and some ice cream. When my mother relayed tales from the funeral to me, she told me that someone had recently asked Cleo for her secret to long life, and her response was, “Well, I just learned to be content with whatever was going on.” My inner child bubbled up and shouted, “That’s yoga!”

Now mind you: Aunt Cleo was not a passive, life-goes-on kind of gal. She worked in a textile plant all her adult life and also raised five children, two of which she ultimately buried, as she did three husbands, two grandsons, and five siblings. A true matriarch, my memories of this woman are mostly the messages she left my mother on our answering machine over the years, calling to make sure all was right with her brother’s far-flung children, her voice a caterwaul so loud that it strained the tinny speakers: THIS IS AUNT CLEO. She was loud, bold, and hilarious, and her official position on the key to long life was “hard work and her faith and trust in her Lord.”

It makes sense to me that this same teaching pops up in more that one tradition (assuming that neither Cleo nor theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, author of the Serentity Prayer, were undisclosed yogis), because it’s such a powerful practice for living a satisfying life.

As we move through our lives, we always have options for how we will respond to what is happening to our bodies, our minds, our moods, our circumstances. With some practice we can learn to respond instead of react; we can develop our own power to align our thoughts, words, and deeds with our values. And almost like magic, that integrity allows us to experience and enjoy the richness of our lives without being trapped inside the highs, lows, and terrifying neutrals.

This principle has given me more comfort, courage, and inspiration than just about any other thing I have learned from yoga. I can catch myself more quickly when I’m beating my head against a wall; instead of feeling overwhelmed by my emotions, I can use any emotion, from anger to love, as a tool that actually guides me to act with integrity in any situation, whether I am facing a loss, a betrayal, my wildest fantasy come true, or the big jerk in front of me on the highway.

OK. I’m not really awesome at that last example yet.

I may never remotely begin to fathom or understand the universe or my place in it. My single-pointed focus may forever yet waver. And I likely won’t even nail a handstand—forget about those other fancy asanas—but this principle suggests that no matter where I go and what I’m going through, I can align myself with a full, happy life of purpose, pleasure, and the full palate of human experience, without losing myself or my sanity. I’m willing to put my money on that one—with thanks to Leslie Kaminoff and Cleo Wise for the reminder.

For a different take on this Sutra, and some great reading on Tapas, Svadhyaya, and Isvara pranidhana, check out this article from Yoga International.