What Would Patanjali Do? How to Cultivate Serenity in the Real World

by Janet Arnold-Grych

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written about 500 BCE, state that yoga is perfect evenness of mind. We nurture that groundedness through our yoga practice, creating a foundation of equanimity. Yet, while we strive to apply our mat-cultivated serenity to everyday activities, it can seem like the rest of the world doesn’t work that way. A calm demeanor can be mistaken for submissiveness or signify that you don’t care that much. When our new washing machine is delivered with a giant dent, or our credit card is mistakenly “frozen,” or that colleague continues to ignore pleas to meet deadlines on a time-sensitive project, staying cool doesn’t always get us the results we need.

Is it hypocritical to espouse “evenness of mind” except when someone simply isn’t listening or responding to us? What would Patanjali do when faced with the nagging, annoying difficulties that are part of everyday life?

I once had a colleague who seemed to operate on the “on fire” principle. He wouldn’t move very fast unless faced with an irritated or exasperated request. I can only guess that he somehow thrived on the adrenaline rush of being up against a deadline, or feeling like he was the lynchpin in an important process. To work effectively with this colleague, I had to leave evenness at the door. Of course I didn’t launch office supplies or personal attacks at him, but I did have to infuse my timelines with urgency.

Given that we are all bombarded by thousands of messages each day, it’s not surprising that sometimes grease is only given to squeaky wheels. Maybe some primitive part of our brain assigns priority based on the intensity of emotion with which a message is delivered. Some of the most effective leaders I have worked with use this to great success, soliciting action with a tailored mix of support and intensity. Most of us respond to kindness, but I would guess many of us respond more quickly to escalated emotion.  

I doubt Patanjali lived in a utopia. Surely he and his associates encountered difficult colleagues, miscommunication, broken promises, and conflicting stakeholders. Would he have accepted the cycle of 1: embrace evenness, 2: exert emotional intensity as needed, 3: repeat? Probably yes, because he was human, too.

“We are human, and humans are made up of all sorts of emotions,” says Izzy Lenihan, Kripalu staff member and certified life, career, and wellness coach. “Every one of us feels love, joy, fear, anger, sadness.”

When we spend time on the mat, all sorts of thoughts and emotions can arise, sometimes not so enjoyable—self-judgment, distraction, anxiety. The mat is a sort of training ground that allows us to practice acknowledging, receiving, and moving through them. Our practice can enable us to more skillfully meet and harness emotion, giving us a greater sense of choice and mindfulness. 

“The idea is not that I am so kind or so holy that I can be taken advantage of,” says Izzy. “Sometimes you have to step in and use your voice and create boundaries. No one says you have to be mean or attack. You get to allow that protector to come alive, but do it with a sense of consciousness. The evenness comes in recognizing that you need to speak up for this reason—but that doesn't define who you are.” 

For most of us, the goal is not to glide through life in a state of uninterrupted serenity, but rather to be able to modulate emotion and recalibrate quickly. Even the Dalai Lama has said that he occasionally becomes angry, and that’s okay. Everyday life provokes and sometimes requires an assertive stance or strong emotions. The key is to handle these situations wisely, to use our practice to slow emotion down and observe it dispassionately—even when we’re feeling passionate.

So, what would Patanjali do? “I think he would allow the emotions to come up and then befriend them,” says Izzy. “The idea is not to suppress those emotions, but to love them in a way that honors us.”

Janet Arnold-Grych is a yoga teacher and writer whose work has been published in Elephant Journal, Huffington Post, Third Coast Digest, and other outlets. 

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