“Freedom is the triumphant state of consciousness that is beyond the influence of desire. The mind ceases to thirst for anything it has seen or heard of; even what is promised in the scriptures.”
“And supreme freedom is that complete liberation from the world of change that comes of knowing the unbounded Self.” – from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
Patanjali’s fifteenth and sixteenth sutras are not only helpful reminders of what can happen when we step on our mat, but also excellent explanations of why we return to our mat again and again.
It’s this sense of freedom, I suspect, that attracted many of us to yoga in the first place, even if we weren’t altogether aware of our need for freedom when we started out.
When I took my first yoga class more than a decade ago, the last thing on my mind was freedom. All I wanted was a way to stay in shape without further hurting my knees which were tender and sore from years of long-distance running.
That first class met at the end of a long day, and I remember the teacher asking us to begin by stretching out in Savasana, her soothing voice inviting us to let go of the tension and whatever stress or worries might have accumulated during our day.
Something miraculous happened that evening. In the process of letting go of a) worries about my knees, b) fear of trying something new, and c) anxiousness over writing projects that I was struggling with at the time, I felt lighter and more free than I’d ever felt before.
The emotional and mental states that had bound me like invisible chains during the day melted away. No longer did these chains of thought—these worries, anxieties, fears, and doubts—weigh me down.
Each week I returned to class and found on my mat this same sense of freedom, although I couldn’t have named it then or described what was happening. All I knew was that I no longer felt the need to run from a difficult situation, escape a challenging relationship, or turn away from a hard or painful experience.
The regular practice of yoga enabled me to move beyond the influence of desire to a state that was closer to contentment. Simply by moving, stretching, bending, laying still and being on my mat, I could breathe easier, and each breath seemed to whisper: you are free.
I hadn’t thought to call these moments on my mat moments of freedom. It wasn’t until I read Patanjali’s fifteenth and sixteenth sutras that I understood. He was describing these moments—moments that exist beyond the influence of desire for anything. They are moments of contentment, of simply being awake, alive.
It never occurred to me to view the attainment of this kind of freedom in triumphant terms. But, looking back on my practice, I can see how my practice is a victory of sorts, a triumph, if you will, over negativity, despair, anxiety, fear, doubt, resistance, self-criticism, and a host of other issues that might have kept my mind and heart closed had I not found my way to the mat.
In the sixteenth Sutra, Patanjali refers to supreme freedom as complete liberation from the world of change that comes of knowing the unbounded self.
What is this unbounded self? And how does one come to know it in order to arrive at complete liberation from the world of change?
My sense is that the unbounded self is the self no longer trapped in misconception or misassumption, no longer chained by worry or anxiety, fear or doubt, but free of these things.
I suspect that we come to know this sense of supreme freedom once we unfetter ourselves from our anxieties and fears.
It’s this taste of freedom, I believe, that brings us back to our mats again and again.
Practice Journal: Do you remember the first time that your practice helped you feel a sense of freedom? Can you describe the experience, as well as what it was that yoga helped free you from? Write: 10 min.
Note: The quotes at the beginning of this entry are from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer (Bell Tower, New York, NY).