Yoga and Liberation: Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 4:34

“Freedom is a reversal of the evolutionary course of material things, which are empty of meaning for the spirit; it is also the power of consciousness in a state of true identity.”

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 4:34

I just finished reading Barbara Stoler Miller’s translation of the Yoga Sutras, Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. She translates the Sanskrit word yoga as “discipline,” the discipline for achieving spiritual freedom. Miller defines freedom (kaivalya in Sanskrit) as “the isolation and liberation of the human spirit from material nature.”

The last sutra 4:34 concludes: “Freedom is a reversal of the evolutionary course of material things, which are empty of meaning for the spirit; it is also the power of consciousness in a state of true identity.” Miller’s commentary explains that Pantanjali means that when the spirit achieves its true identity, it is liberated to be an omniscient observer to the world rather than a suffering participant subject to temporal constraints and ceaseless change.

But what does that really mean? And do I want that?

Then I listened to this lovely Real Talk Radio Podcast episode Hiking, Grief, & Liberation with Amanda Jameson, where Jameson describes an experience that, to me, fleshed out the type of spiritual liberation the Yoga Sutras are dedicated to achieving. At least, this is what I hope they are talking about, as it’s something I can get behind.

In relevant part (from 0:29:40), Jameson:

I just remember standing at the top of that valley and feeling more peace than I think that I had felt in just a really long time. And have you ever felt the rightness of a moment? …. To me, it doesn’t feel faded, it doesn’t feel like I was meant to be here, but it feels so much like you’ve lifted the veil a little bit almost, and you’re seeing what could be and just both within yourself and in the wider world. And it’s just this feeling of smallness combined with this feeling of love for the land and for yourself, and just this feeling of compassion, I guess is the word, for this life journey that we’re all on. And the most heartbreaking, but I also think that one of the most beautiful things about moments like that is that we do have to move on eventually… just knowing that that moment will end is part of that moment’s beauty. And I don’t know that anything has taught me that particular lesson as much as through hiking.

Her evocative description of her feeling of peace in that moment calls to mind the omniscient perspective and non-attachment of the yogic ideal of freedom. The ladies go on to have a beautiful conversation about how to bring that feeling of peace from thru-hiking (“when you hike hard enough for long enough that the bullshit in your brain stops”) back to more aspects of front-country life and what liberation means or feels like in the context of finding a way to live that is less harmful, to ourselves, to others and the planet.

While most of us will never achieve something as radical as letting go of all desires, attachments and completely erasing our own egos, there is wisdom in the idea of liberation through changing one’s perception. Even if in historic context the liberation sought by yogis was liberation from the karmic cycle and yoga is not mentioned in the podcast, this conversation was enlightening to me about how spiritual liberation can be relevant to my life and align with values of activism and social change. Give it a listen!

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