Rediscovering Our Inner Child to Minimize Suffering

In recent months, many students have sought my advice on coping with suffering. Suffering can be defined as an awareness of disease, harm, or threat, distinct from physical pain. It encompasses an emotional component that can hinder one’s ability to lead a fulfilling life, which in turn may lead to introspection of beliefs, values, and societal norms. While many may feel alone and isolated in their emotional pain, the universality and interconnectedness of suffering among individuals underscores a shared human experience, regardless of the source. Working together, we can cultivate the skills necessary to manage and lessen the impact of individual and societal suffering.

Through my experience teaching and practicing yoga for over 20 years, as well as my studies in comparative theology, I have discovered valuable insights into understanding and managing the nature of suffering. Through classes and asanas, the practice and philosophy of yoga has the power to affect the root causes of suffering. The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali acknowledge the presence of suffering, pinpoint its origins, and provide a pathway towards a state of non-suffering. While originating from a belief system distinct from the West, these philosophical concepts hold a profound resonance and offer valuable insights that can greatly benefit us all. Comparing these ancient ideas with more contemporary philosophy, correlations can be made between these teachings and certain aspects of psychology and neuroscience.

In particular, one model of early childhood development strongly suggests that an infant’s innate capabilities of openness often mirror the experiences normally attained through rigorous contemplative practices such as yoga and meditation, highlighting Patañjali’s dictum of suffering. Additionally, the relationship between infant and caregiver unveils the obstacles faced in minimizing suffering, defines flexible boundaries and is capable of creating a new shared space towards non-suffering. A body centric approach as taught in Yoga Asana, can offer a path to help alleviate suffering through practices like non-attachment, emotional regulation, and embodying a new paradigm of openness and non-suffering into the world.


In Sūtra 1.2, Patañjali states that “Yoga involves restraining the fluctuations of consciousness,” emphasizing that suffering stems from the ever-changing nature of consciousness, particularly the ego and the external world. As human beings, our nature is to attach to things, believing them to be permanent. This illusion of stability leads to suffering. In a sense, Patañjali invites us to open our awareness to witnessing all – what and how we are thinking. By focusing on stilling consciousness, we can become liberated. This does not suggest inaction or doing nothing, and it is more than simply accepting change; it goes beyond self-consciousness and into a collective consciousness. This can often feel like a very daunting task. For anyone who has practiced meditation, this approach may be more relatable, though it is not until we reach advanced stages of meditation where we can witness this encompassing consciousness or sense of liberation.

Referring back to early childhood development research, studies support the notion that infants have heightened attention but lack both a stable ego and social awareness. This allows infants to rapidly identify and recall rich, salient details throughout their environment while lacking the ability to control where their attention rests. These numerous studies lead some to suggest that infant consciousness is an encompassing lantern instead of a narrowed, focal spotlight. Others postulate that this radical openness is analogous to adult meditators “who may be experiencing the radically self-effacing characteristics of some advanced stages of meditation, particularly those that emphasize ‘open presence’ in which the field of attention is dramatically broadened, and the various contents of consciousness are simultaneously illuminated.” In other words, quieting our ego and enhancing our awareness allows more advanced experiences of stilling our consciousness of suffering.  


Patañjali highlights five distinct movements of consciousness as the root ‘afflictions’ that lead to suffering: Ignorance, Ego, Desire, Anger, and Continuation of Attachments. He explains ignorance as a lack of knowledge and a failure to “see things as they are”, creating a field where other causes of suffering develop. Ignorance breeds ego, a sense of I-ness, individuality and differentiation – from others, and the world around us. BKS Iyengar describes Ego as “pride” with changing qualities depending on its state. Ego has also been characterized as a “mistaken identity,” where one becomes attached to an identity that takes possession of their experiences – veiling and entrenching our awareness from the causes of suffering and the possibility of freedom from it.

We come to accept our ego as a stable, permanent individual, which prevents us from seeking beyond that belief. Ego is further reinforced by attachments; we get caught up in a vicious cycle of like and dislike, desire and anger. This pattern begins in infancy, where the relationship between the infant and their environment, specifically the caregiver, reveals a crucial step in the development of self-awareness. Selectively narrowing the focus on one thing while excluding others is a mechanism for establishing self-consciousness and social awareness. Essentially the infant becomes increasingly focused, developing a differentiated, layered and complex identity with self and others, while simultaneously reducing the initial natural openness of the underdeveloped I-ness.

As time passes, our accumulated experiences tend to strengthen our attachment to our sense of self. Gradually, our ego further narrows our horizons, and we begin to perceive attachments as permanent. This manifests in how we come to define ourselves by our jobs and careers, possessions like our car and home, and even how we identify with societal labels around age, race, nationality, gender roles and sexuality. Eventually our ego becomes intertwined with our physical health, often manifesting as physical discomfort, and emotional fluctuations, like joy, sadness or worry. We hear people say, “I am happy” or “I am sad” often not recognizing that “I” is neither; happy and sad are only value-labeled perceptions, themselves a part of the experience of I – which is itself only part of the unknowable whole. In other words, happiness, sadness, grief – all emotions, no matter how deep, are only more attachments.

Amidst these challenges of defining and redefining the self, as well as how it fits in the greater whole, Patañjali notes that we have a choice: work to free ourselves from the suffering or chose to remain attached to this vicious cycle. It is important to note that ego can cause suffering but ego is required to lead us out of suffering through choosing what Patañjali describes as discriminative knowledge.


In Sūtra 1.12 Patañjali provides ways out of this cycle stating that “Restriction of these fluctuations (of consciousness) is achieved through practice and non-attachment”. In Sūtras 1.49 and 2.26 he clarifies that a constant [yoga and contemplative] practice with discriminative knowledge is essential to breaking this cycle. This type of knowledge is neither a product of the 5 afflictions nor gleaned from inference, books or other external sources. Instead, it is wisdom, insight or precociousness gained from forms of precognitive, cognitive and body experiences.

Individuals experience a multitude of emotions and according to Patañjali, humans essentially de-evolve to identify with these emotions. In simpler terms, one may experience emotions that move us as if we are on an emotional roller-coaster. In Sūtra 2.33, Patañjali encourages us to acknowledge the array of emotions we encounter, while simultaneously intentionally nurturing a contrasting feeling – an act which he refers to as pratipakṣa-bhāvanam. This approach does not involve suppressing or disregarding emotions by focusing on more pleasant thoughts but instead choosing to create a field to balance out the emotional experience, transforming the tumultuous roller-coaster ride into an equanimous journey.

To this end, Patañjali offers strategies for the alleviation of suffering. In Sūtra 1.33, he advises cultivating qualities like “friendliness, compassion, happiness, and equanimity in different situations of pleasure, dissatisfaction, merit, and absence of merit.” This approach aims at emotional regulation and maintaining boundaries, which differs from emotional contagion where the energy of others shifts based on an individual’s emotions; emotions may be felt but remain unshared. However, Patañjali suggests that through choosing positive affective responses we have a greater potential to produce higher states of consciousness that would free us from suffering.

For example, an individual may react positively or negatively to another person’s job promotion depending on their own personal situation and what particular emotions are brought up for them. They may experience mudita (a Buddhist term for finding joy in the happiness and success of others) or they may feel a sense of loss, jealously or even envy.  An individual may empathize with the struggles of homelessness or the mental health crisis or they may blame those who are experiencing these events. One may feel inspiration while listening to their hero’s story or they may become saddened by hearing the difficulties and pain forced upon them. Still others may experience the pain of earth’s ecological destruction or the suffering of other life such as animals or insects, while others may remain unmoved by these events. Patañjali invites us to choose these positive affective responses in dealing with these engagements. No matter the situation, we have the choice of the extent of our engagement and ultimately our response is influenced by the emotional field we can regulate and sustain.

In early childhood development infants are open to the world, capable of being shaped by and shared by others. Caregivers play a crucial role in these engagements through maintaining their attention with positive interactions of friendliness, compassion, happiness, and equanimity. Most importantly, this union continues as long as the caregiver manages to hold space for this shared experience, essentially elevating the positive affect between both infant and caregiver – often to levels even the caregiver is unknowingly reaching. For example, the engagement creates this particular field when, as the caregiver’s eyes move, the infant’s eyes move. The moment the caregiver opens their mouth, the infant opens their mouth. The caregiver’s head leans or turns and the infant reacts the same way. Eyebrows lift; breath changes. The infant and caregiver are in a loop, sharing and expressing one positive emotional (affective) experience. This shared experience raises the infants emotional state to degrees that the infant cannot access without the help of the caregiver and, in fact, a caregiver unknowingly elevates their own emotional levels as well.

One of the most incredible shared moments between infant and caregiver is when the caregiver gently takes the infants hand and playfully bites the tips of their fingers. The baby then opens their mouth and bites down as well. What is so incredible about this event is the fact that, up to this moment, the infant has never seen their face in a mirror. Thus, the infant is unknowingly exhibiting a precocious bodily awareness.  

This body awareness and open boundaries reveal a precognitive ability to share, manage and elevate affective experiences. In other words, by what we choose to practice, both for self and others, we are able to inform and create a new embodied experience. Through choosing to ground into our feet, soften our face and throat, and breath smoothly we can support a shared practice of compassion while creating and elevating a state of compassion beyond our initial conditioned abilities. The opposite effect would occur if we chose to practice hate and anger – approaching the world with our fist clenched, chest puffed out, face scowling. Therefore, if we want to minimize suffering, discriminative body awareness informs a choice – changing the paradigm where life can exponentially improve for everyone.


Patañjali’s approach focuses on cognition; however, research shows that emotions have both voluntary and involuntary aspects found in the body. This means that we have some control over how we experience and regulate our emotions. Emotions are not just things that happen to us; they are also actions that we can choose to engage in. For instance, as noted above, in a moment of anger we can choose to adopt certain postures or behaviors that can either heighten or lessen its intensity. By being aware of our voluntary and involuntary actions and using attention to modulate our emotional experiences, we exercise emotional agency. As mentioned above, infants are particularly open to having their emotional experiences shaped by others, primarily their caregivers, through the location and proximity of their body situated in the environment.

In reviewing the work of Patañjali’s teachings, it is also essential to make note of something that I view as a limitation of Patañjali’s perspective of body. In the translations of his words, the body is primarily viewed as a vehicle for enjoyment, while consciousness serves as a vehicle to alleviate suffering – a perspective akin to the Western notion that often separates the mind and body, relegating the body to a passive role devoid of intelligence or wisdom. This has significantly and adversely impacted our fundamental engagement with the nature of suffering in the self, others and the world. Without awareness of the body’s innate knowledge and embodiment we fail to understand how the body attaches to afflictions and the adverse impact this has upon the body consciousness. In other words, we hold tons of shit in our bodies and through awareness of the body we can learn stillness and minimize suffering.

Body plays a crucial role in managing our experience of suffering; it is a situated sense of being. This embodiment is a perspective onto a perceivable environment. Body is what we would recognize to include the mind and cognition. Body location and dynamics shape the interaction and interactive scene as well as the context in which the exchanges are organized and played out. This is evident in the relationship between infants and their caregivers, where the physical closeness and nurturing provided by caregivers help to inform, regulate and develop a sustained, nondual experience within a dynamic social structure. Furthermore, because of the openness and underdeveloped self-hood and social differentiation, the caregiver can expand beyond their positive affect to include the infant. This relationship of reciprocity is the field where we can experience a collective state of nonsuffering.

In yoga and contemplative practices, the teacher and student often create a shared, embodied experience. This is often facilitated through detailed instruction provided by the teacher, creating a supportive environment for both student and teacher, immersing them in a sustained, unified experience. During class, the student may feel as though the instruction is tailored solely to them, fostering a sense of connection and unity within and among the participants. This unified, embodied space allows the body consciousness to quiet suffering, promoting a sense of calm and openness into the world, similar to what we see between the infant and caregiver.