We all have a story to tell, a story of collapsing to our knees, winded and weary, and then picking ourselves up from wherever we’ve fallen in order to keep going. What fuels our ability to persevere through loss and adversity? One short answer is faith. But what is faith and how does it really work? Because faith relates more to the heart than it does to logic, it’s something we can feel but not necessarily define with absolute certainty. We tend to think of faith as something we have or we don’t, as in having faith in God or the Universe, or in a worldly sense, as having faith in humanity or a particular organization. Yoga offers another perspective, one that links faith to personal practice.
The Sanskrit word śraddhā translates to faith or trust. But encased in this word is a deeper, more illuminating meaning. B.K.S. Iyengar describes śraddhā as mental and intellectual firmness, which fosters an innate trust (1). Vyasa, an original commentator on the Yoga Sūtras, interprets śraddhā as clarity of mind that sustains us as we move along with our yoga practice. When the mind is clear, truth reveals itself; With untainted vision, we can see the way forward and trust it (2).
Faith is something many of us long for, and it’s also something we need – a deep trust in our purpose, preceded by mental clarity and fortitude. Faith is, without question, a necessary component of yogic practice. It’s our sustenance, our spiritual nourishment. But faith is also a practice in and of itself. It’s a quality of being that need not be left up to chance, but rather is something we can cultivate. Just as any type of personal growth stems from effort rather than luck alone, we can develop a relationship with faith wherein it becomes a reliable and vibrant force in our lives.
Whether it’s faith in the potential for personal transformation, faith in humanity, or faith in the goal of equity and justice for all, it starts with quieting our minds. Cultivating faith is not a linear process, and that’s because focusing the mind and removing obstacles, like ignorance and attachment, are by no means easy undertakings. Our minds are wild and turbulent like the wind, and therefore seemingly impossible to control, so exclaims Arjuna in Bhagavad Gītā 6.34. But, Lord Krishna replies in 6.35, it is possible to control the mind, however obstinate it might be, through practice and detachment. Yet, try as we might, sometimes the mind is steady and focused, revealing our true nature, and at other times we identify with our fluctuating thoughts (See Yoga Sūtras 1.3 and 1.4). Such is the nature of practice.
As we work to transform ourselves and better the world around us, it’s normal and necessary to fall down from time to time, whether from the weight of doubt and despair, a wave of humility, or just exhaustion. But within spiritual work like yoga runs a river of grace. Each moment is an opportunity to examine ourselves, to course-correct, to try again, to make real change happen. If we give it the time faith will lead us somewhere special, towards authenticity, deeper empathy and compassion, so we truly become caretakers of each other. If we work to still our minds, truth will arise and reveal the next right steps.
We can’t force faith upon ourselves through any type of logical thinking, but we can allow it to expand within us by creating the necessary conditions to reveal our inner selves as holy places where truth does exist. In times of great despair and hardship, it may feel like we’re dragging ourselves across the floor, hoping for just a shred of strength to peel ourselves up. In those moments, practice faith like medicine. Be still and listen. Just like a sailor must know the direction of the wind in order to guide the ship, we must know truth in order to persevere. We must seek out that divine wisdom, adjust our course accordingly, and then allow that steady breath to fill our sails. It will lead us to where we need to go.
(1) Iyengar, B.K.S., translator. Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. Thorsons, 2002, p 75.
(2) Bryant, Edwin F., translator. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. North Point Press, 2009, p. 77-78.