The beauty of this month’s full moon got me thinking about an important Buddhist teaching. The lesson is that a finger can point to the moon’s location but the finger is not the moon. To see the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger.

I have been mulling this over in the context of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The Sutras were compiled about 2,000 years ago and yet still contain helpful advice for yoga practitioners in the modern era.

Patanjali opens with three short statements that summarize all of what he wants us to know about yoga. He tells us to be present, calm our distracting thoughts and understand who we are. When we do this, we attain Samadhi.

Samadhi is often defined as concentrated meditation in which the subject, or Self, becomes one with the experienced object. It is also described as being absorbed in Spirit. In a state of Samadhi, the mind becomes calm and still and we experience a state of oneness.

It sounds simple when I put it this way, but for me, it is a life-long journey. Patanjali tells us that we will face many challenges on the path of yoga and thus gives us a lot of savvy advice for our journey, including a comprehensive map and a list of tools.

In the West, the tool we draw on the most is the practice of postures or asanas. This approach to yoga seems to suit the Western mind and offers many tangible benefits. However, we can become fixated with the performance of poses and can sometimes lose sight of Patanjali’s teachings.

In the end, it isn’t really important if your feet touch the back of your head in your back bend. What is going on while you are practicing the pose can be more important than the pose itself. What thoughts and feelings do you encounter? Do you push too hard? Do you give up too easily? Do you admonish yourself for being wobbly in a balancing posture? Do you get angry at your reluctant hamstrings? Do you tell yourself a story about why you can’t do something before you have even tried it? Do you look only at the finger without seeing the moon?

Asana practice is indeed a finger that points to the moon. It is one tool among many that we can use to become present, calm our distracting thoughts and connect with our most authentic Selves.

It is easy to become lost or distracted in our lives and in our yoga, so we still need the finger that shows us where to look. But when we look, we must remember to gaze beyond the finger to appreciate the beauty of the moon. It is always there for us, even when we can’t see it.

Happy Practicing and Moon Gazing!