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  • Writer's pictureRon Bushner

A Yogic Approach to New Year’s Resolutions


Making a list of resolutions for the new year is something many of us do this time of year. Usually, we make a list that has items naming the “bad behavior” that we want to fix or the “good behavior” we long to make our own. These lists often include addictions to substances or activities we want to put in our rearview mirror; the weight we would like to shed; the sleep habits we wish to remedy; the things we wish to accomplish; the things we think will get us the rewards we seek.

Yoga offers a different approach to changing our behavior. Unlike listing resolutions of what to do, yoga offers recommendations about how to be. Yoga Sutra 1:2 says “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.”[1]

The whole point of yoga is to still the mind. All of the poses, the breathing, the chanting, the mantra, the study of scripture, the meditation is about our state of mind. These activities are called practices because yogis practice them by setting aside time to do them regularly and with diligence in order to experience their effect—the quieting of the mind. Yogis carry the skills cultivated in practice into our mundane, every day, routine lives to maintain the quietness of mind that allows us to discern more carefully what life is presenting to us.

Sometimes we encounter situations where an immediate response is necessary. If we are in danger, we react based on our deeply imbedded, primal “fight or flight” instinct. Even though these truly dangerous situations arise infrequently in our lives, we often react immediately tp what happens in our lives based on the “patterning of consciousness,” even though there is no danger. Rather than having the patience to consider other aspects of the situation and to see that there are several options for how we respond, we react. Our first glimpse of what life presents is based on the patterns of our previous experiences. These patterns can be deeply embedded.

By cultivating a quiet mind, we are more capable of discerning aspects of the situation that are outside what our patterns predict, and we have the time to consider what our options for action are based on a more thorough perception of what is presented, not just what we are conditioned to see. We can then respond with a choice of behavior rather than react instinctively.

Sutra 1:33 in particular is an example of how stillness of mind helps us navigate life’s waters with responses rather than reactions.[2] The sutra says:

“By cultivating attitudes of friendliness toward the happy, compassion for the unhappy, delight in the virtuous, and equanimity toward the non-virtuous, the mind-stuff retains its undisturbed calmness.”

This sutra has been described as the “four locks and four keys.” The locks are examples of the puzzles and challenges we encounter in our daily lives and the keys are reminders of how, from a place of quiet and calm, we can view these situations to properly assess them and make better choices in how we act.

Lock: Happiness -- Key: Friendliness

At first glance, responding to happiness with friendliness seems an obvious and easy choice. However, there is often more happening than we see at first glance. Seeing another’s happiness may remind us of our own failures and unfulfilled desires. Envy, jealousy, or regret may arise and get mixed into our feelings. Our well wishes for the happy are diluted and our appreciation of their happiness filtered through our feeling of being less-than.. Think of how you feel when you see that photo posted on Instagram by your friends who are on vacation in Venice; their smiles emit pure joy as they sit in a gondola on a canal with the stunning old architecture in the background. The image can activate feelings that override those of friendliness.

Patanjali suggests that when happiness becomes a lock that disturbs the stillness of our mind, the key is to cultivate friendliness toward happiness. Get to know happiness well. Make friends with it. Give it the attention and respect a friend deserves. Dwell on another’s happiness. Cultivate an appreciation for happiness in the lives of others and you will find happiness more present in yours.

Awareness of happiness cultivates more happiness in our lives.

Lock: Unhappiness -- Key: Compassion

Seeing unhappiness in others can be uncomfortable. It can feel like a burden. Sometimes we are impatient with a loved one who is making the same mistake over and over again. Sometimes a friend is stuck in blaming his disappointing situation on a loss, a mistake, a failure, or an error that was not his and you wish he would get over it and move on with his life. The suffering of others can trigger feelings that are uncomfortable, frightening, or distressing, or can simply provoke anxiety. Instead of engaging the unhappy, we turn away from them as soon as possible.

The key for the unhappiness lock is compassion. This doesn’t mean we cry when the unhappy cry or get angry to support them in their frustration. Compassion can take many forms. Delivering strong clear advice that is difficult to hear can be compassionate. Such advice must, of course, come from a place of love and caring and be motivated by the welfare of others. Acts from a compassionate heart have comforted many.

With a mind of stillness sustained by yoga practices, we can refine our innate compassion by recalling and reflecting on the acts of kindness from which we have benefitted. At the same time, we will also remember clearly the feelings of confusion, isolation, despair, and pain that accompany suffering. We also need courage and strength: courage to move beyond concerns for ourselves so we can connect with the suffering of others and strength to help the unhappy shoulder their burden.

Acts of compassion strengthen the heart.

Lock: Virtuous -- Key: Delight

Unlocking the power of virtues is the key of delight. Virtues are moral traits that benefit others and harm none. They reflect a spiritual maturity. They serve as a reliable guide in steering through the choices we must make in the face of life’s uncertainties.

We can develop virtues by study and contemplation, but this sutra offers another path. By recognizing the presence of virtues in others and celebrating them, we will learn and understand them better. Embracing, understanding, and rejoicing in virtues wherever we find them will bring them into our lives sooner and more often.

Virtues can be found in many places, but not all are easily seen. It is challenging to see virtue in those who make us uncomfortable or whom we dislike. We should ask whether it is possible that behavior we see as obnoxious or pushy may also be seen as virtuous in its perseverance and single mindedness. Even with those we see as enemies, we may also see in their behavior elements that are virtuous. If we do, we will better understand our enemies and their situation as they see it. We can understand the delight of the virtuous more fully.

Lock: Non-virtuous -- Key: Equanimity

Witnessing the non-virtuous challenges our equanimity and disturbs the stillness of mind that we cultivate. Yet if we maintain our stillness of mind we can closely and without bias examine the non-virtuous act and perceive it clearly.

When we witness (or suffer an injustice ourselves) anger is possible response, but not one Patanjali would find acceptable for a yogi. Although anger may motivate us to take action that seems to be the best solution to correcting the injustice, letting anger fuel a response is never the best option. Even if the action benefits another, the anger harms us. We lose our equanimity. Our bodies are agitated. Our stillness of mind and the clarity it supports are disturbed. Anger blocks our reason and creativity. We lose the opportunity to find a better approach to resolving the conflict. Acts of anger predispose us to do more acts of anger and the door is opened or habits to develop and habits unchecked become our character. We risk becoming bitter.

To counter the impulse of anger does not require us to be uncaring or aloof. Rather, we observe and respond from a place of equanimity that is strong, clear, and free of bias. From this position we can find the best solutions. Our actions are based on higher motives: compassion, clear knowledge of what is right, and a strong wish to bring about harmony. We can understand the wicked act and its ramifications and are better able to find creative and effective solutions.

A resolution for the new year following the principles of yoga would focus not on the details of what you want to do or not do but on how you want to be: more discerning, seeing beyond what the first glimpse of a mind conditioned on previous experience sees, opening to consideration of all that is present. Nurture stillness of the mind so that you can be more discerning in your perception of what life presents you and more thoughtful and creative in choosing your actions.

If the desire to make a list of resolutions is strong, a yogi can keep it short: do more yoga.


[1] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, Chip Hartranft, Shambhala Classics (2003). Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is a key text in explaining the philosophy of yoga. Like other ancient writing we rely on scholars who translate the language in which the text was written and offer commentary on what it means. In Sanskrit, the language of Patanjali, sutra means “thread.” The yoga sutras are 196 aphoristic statements that together offer a thread that strings together the key concepts of Patanjali’s school of yoga. There are innumerable different versions of the Yoga Sutras.

[2] My favorite translation and commentary on the sutras is Inside the Yoga Sutras: A Comprehensive Sourcebook for the Study and Practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Intergral Yoga Productions (2006) by Reverend Jaganath Carrera. The following discussion of sutra 1:33 follows Carrera’s translation and commentary. I highly recommend his book for anyone whose interest in yoga is piqued by the ideas here.

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