Two of the most important ideas in yoga philosophy are "ignorance" (avidya) and "discernment" (viveka). They are opposite sides of the same coin. When we develop discernment our ignorance is eradicated.
Ignorance (avidya) is sometimes called "primordial ignorance" since it is the state into which we are all born. It is like original sin in that way. It is the way we associate our thoughts and emotions with our deepest self. We notice thoughts and think, "This is me." "I am nervous." "I am angry." "I am confused." We develop a sense self, often called I-ness, ego or asmita. But these thoughts are not the essence of our being, and when we think that they are, it is ignorance.
Discernment (viveka) is also called "discrimination" and "knowledge." It is one of the highest goals of yoga, as we realize the true nature of ourself. As we observe our thoughts and emotions, we come to realize that they are not the deepest part of us. There is something deeper since it is observing the thoughts and emotions. So we search for the nature of this "observer," also called "the seer" or simply "consciousness."
The transition from ignorance to discernment is subtle, complex and takes many years. But it begins very simply. We notice our thoughts and emotions. That is the first step!
When we recognize violence and suffering in the world, often our first response is, "How can I help?" What can I do to reduce the violence, to reduce the suffering?
It is easy to say that the world needs to change, or to try to affect change in the world. The problem with this attitude, from a yogic perspective, is that it externalizes. It has us imposing our will upon the world, usually at the expense of a clear view of ourselves. It is generally our most ingrained and obvious views that we seek to export to others.
In the Yogasutras it is explained that, "When non-violence (ahimsa) is firmly established, hostility vanishes in the yogi's presence." (2.35) Only when we are peaceful ourselves can we affect peaceful change in the world.
As one of our teachers said, "It is impossible to give what you don't have." If we are not peaceful, how can we give peace? It is as futile an effort as if we had no food but tried to give food to others. First we must have something before we can offer it.
So, from the yogic view, the best way to reduce someone else's suffering is to eliminate our own. The best way to bring peace is to become firmly established in peace ourselves.
Whenever we teach yoga, it is mostly done with words. We describe the actions, body movements, breathing, areas of concentration and purpose to our students. Sometimes there are moments of demonstration, discussion, contemplation and quiet practice, but for the most part yoga teaching is done by speaking. This makes our words important. What are we saying? And for what purpose?
There is value in repeating the words of our teachers. It can root us in tradition, since our teachers often learned the same words from their teachers. It can also bring us closer to our own past experiences of practice, since we heard our teachers use the words while we were discovering. Now those same words can tether us to our own practice even as we guide others. Sometimes the words of our teachers are simply great, and try as we might, we can not invent a more effective way to describe a concept or action. In these cases, repeating our teachers is a wise choice.
But there is also danger in repeating someone else's words, even when they come from a knowledgable, respectable source. The greatest risk is that we will instruct what we do not understand ourselves. When we already have instructions ready to disperse, there is little motivation to plumb the depths of practice and then teach from our own knowledge. We may end up teaching things far beyond our own ability and understanding, and this is bad for everyone--us, the students and the knowledge that we are claiming to perpetuate.
Another danger is that speaking someone else's words can disconnect us from our own knowledge and experience. It is easy to switch to autopilot when we have the words ready beforehand. We can disconnect from our own practice as well as the needs of the students in front of us, simply repeating prepared statements that may or may not apply to the current moment.
Sometimes we invent our own instructions to guide our students. This has the advantage of being absolutely real and true; we aren't instructing what we've heard or read but what we've practiced and experienced. Almost always these words are clear, evocative and precise. When we speak with our own words, we are forced to connect our brains (and mouths) to our own knowledge, and this brings unity to both our teaching and practice. Disparate parts become unified. Also, this forces us to teach what we know. When we use our own words, there is no possible way to instruct something beyond our own understanding.
The greatest danger to teaching in the moment with our own words is that we can lose humility and become caught up in our own story. We get intoxicated with the sound of our own voice, convinced that our experience is worth trumpeting, that our instructions are worth following. This perspective is ruinous to the yogi, as the ego can grow and drown out all yogic knowledge and humility.
There are pros and cons to repeating traditional words, old phrases and the words of our teachers. The same is true for inventing our own instructions directly from personal experience. Above all, we must be aware of what we say and why, and also what impact the words have on our students and us.
I recently added fasting to my yoga practice. For one day each week I don't eat. It's not for losing weight, to look different or even for health purposes of any sort. I am fasting to clarify my relationship between my body and mind and to understand how what I eat affects both.
In yogic teachings, the practice of fasting can be associated with pranayama (energy control) and pratyahara (sensory control). Pranayama is most often connected with breathing since it is such an elemental part of our existence. (I wouldn't live long if I stopped breathing.) Eating too is a deeply-rooted part of my physical existence, so its pull on my consciousness is strong. As pranayama practice develops, it naturally evolves from the breath toward eating and other "essential" life-functions.
Fasting is also part of pratyahara, the practice of looking at my sensory input and how it affects the way I perceive the world (and myself). My sense of taste is obviously related to food, and our culture has increasingly turned toward foods that stimulate my taste receptors, so much that I often consume food for the way it stimulates my mouth (and brain). When I control my food intake, I quickly come face to face with the powerful connections between my senses (in this case, taste) and my reality.
Controlling the energy and senses is hard, so fasting is hard. Quite literally it challenges my constructed perceptions of who I am. This is why dieting and food control is often a lost cause. The yogis consider fasting a relatively advanced form of control, so it makes sense when so many people struggle with it.
Over the past two months, we have uprooted our lives, moving out of a house that's been in my family for decades and into a small apartment that will enable us to be more mobile. Throughout the process I have been reminded of 3 disparate teachings from 3 different sources that all point to the same idea: that a yogi becomes invisible.
We often talk about "drawing toward" and "pushing away," so much that it was even the topic of a blog last year. When we are compelled to draw things toward us, whether they are objects, money or the attention of others, we fortify the constructs of our personality and take ourselves further from liberation (the essential, non-constructed version of the self). These things make us bigger, sometimes literally and sometimes theoretically. As we remove these constructs, the yogi becomes "smaller" until she approaches invisibility.
Looking back into history, the yogasutras state that suffering comes from pairs of opposites (2:48), including hot and cold, good and bad, etc. When we adhere to the pairs of opposites, swinging from happy to sad and back again, we are like a tight-rope walker who is wobbling violently from side to side. As we reduce our movement from side to side, we approach stillness in the middle, which from the outside can seem like nothing is happening. But the stillness reveals deeper movement that was imperceptible when the action was bigger. The more centered the yogi becomes, the more still she is. She approaches invisibility through her lack of drastic shifts.
Most literally, this was said to us by Tony Sanchez, one of our teachers. During our time with him, he told us that "a yogi becomes transparent, almost invisible." This is contrary to our culture, in which we become more visible and famous as success increases. The yogi, on the other hand, does not pursue worldly gain or the admiration of others. Quite the opposite. As the yogi progresses, she has less and is attached to less.
So I ask you: Do you draw things toward yourself? Do you embrace the pairs of opposites? Do you pursue the admiration of others? Do you make yourself still? Are you invisible?
It may seem like a simple and obvious question: what are we really teaching? But if we look a little deeper, we may find that our intentions can conflict with what we are teaching our students.
The simplest answer to this question for modern Western yogis is: asana, postures. We teach physical practices for the health benefits of mobility and flexibility, strength, balance and inversion. We also teach breathing, which can slow the heart rate, lower the blood pressure and reduce stress. The physical, mental and nervous system benefits of yoga practice are real, and they are increasingly central to the yoga culture.
This only creates an ideological conflict when we claim to be teaching anything like traditional yoga. The systems of yoga are many, but prior to a few hundred years ago most were dedicated to the subordination of the body and senses in favor of the realization of the true nature of the self.
Do you see the conflict between these two ideas? When we practice modern physical yoga, it is often alongside confidence-building rhetoric that values personal experience. "Have faith in yourself," "You are your own best teacher," we may tell our students. These things build our identification with our bodies and the physical practices, working against the progress of dis-identifying with the body. So, in a traditional sense, a physically-focused practice centered on accomplishing postures, and even health, can work against the ideals of yoga.
Admittedly, this is complicated. We are not suggesting that you change the way you teach or the way you approach your practice. But it is worth noting some of the little conflicts and paradoxes that arise in our yoga. These conflicts shed light on our assumptions and allow us to refine our view of ourselves and the world.
As we deepen our practice and study of yoga, the sheer volume of practices and traditions can be overwhelming. One solution is to stick to the teachings of one tradition and explore them deeply. Even so, I am often curious about why different traditions may have such disparate teachings, all called yoga.
Looking back in history can help clarify the purpose of many practices. We were recently asked if there was ever a point when all yoga was unified around a single set of teachings. Not to my knowledge, unless we go all the way back to the first documented explanation of yoga in the Katha Upanishad, from about 2,500 years ago:
"When the five senses are stilled, when the mind
Is stilled, when the intellect is stilled,
That is called the highest state by the wise.
They say yoga is this complete stillness
In which one enters the unitive state,
Never to become separate again.
If one is not established in this state,
The sense of unity will come and go."
No mention of postures, health, nutrition, stress or flexibility. Only the senses, the mind, the intellect, and a unitive state that arises when they are still.
The Katha Upanishad, Part 2, Chapter 2, Verse 10-11.
(This post originally published 2/9/2017)
This verse from the yogasutras is one of the easiest to understand, and one of the most powerful to put into practice. It can seem overly simple to promote qualities such as friendliness and kindness, but it helps to think about what we are replacing with these qualities.
With friendliness we are replacing competition, the sense that each person is an enemy. When we feel that others are our enemies, we isolate ourselves and retreat to xenophobia, the fear and mistrust of anything that is different from us. The more we perceive others as different, the more we fear them.
Friendliness, on the other hand, connects us with others. It frees us from fear and allows us to see more clearly. Sure, there are people in this world to fear and mistrust, but most people are just like us. Cultivating friendliness opens us up to the possibility of growth, connection and change.
With kindness we are replacing selfishness and mistrust, both of which lead to meanness. No one wants to be "mean", it is a product of our own fear of not having enough or not getting our due. When we perceive others as infringing upon our rightful space, credit, food or work, we act meanly toward them.
To a yogi, the big problem with being mean is that it affects us more than it affects others. It plants seeds of anger, fear and animosity within us, and those seeds will bloom eventually. The more we cultivate meanness, the more we poison our own minds. Kindness is a wonderfully simple way to combat this situation. Treat everyone with kindness, not just those who deserve it. By doing so, we plant seeds of generosity, openness and love, and those seeds will bloom too.
INDIFFERENCE TOWARD HAPPINESS, VICE & VIRTUE
The final instruction of this verse is more complicated. Why would we want to be indifferent toward happiness? Or vice? Or virtue?
According to the yogis, some of the roots of our suffering are our attraction to pleasure and our aversion to pain. These are called raga (attraction) and dvesha (aversion). We enjoy the pleasure that we get from a compliment, attention, success, new shoes or a text message, and we become attracted to that pleasure. Our thoughts and actions are soon directed toward repeating the pleasure, and our existence begins to feel empty whenever we are not experiencing pleasure. For this reason, the yogis say that even pleasure is pain.
Once we realize that pleasure and our attraction to it actually brings us more suffering, we begin to detach from the attraction. Gradually we become indifferent toward the ideas of happiness and sadness, pleasure and pain, and vice and virtue. This process takes a good teacher and a long time.
As we practice yoga, we strengthen our energy. As we feel better, we have a greater desire to be active. We may take on more tasks, teach extra classes, volunteer or be of service. All of these are and can be positive contributions to the world, but there is danger in beginning to draw these actions toward the self. We may start to have thoughts like, "Look at all this energy I have! Look how much I can accomplish!"
While this may be true on the outside, it's more complicated on the inside. As we feel stronger and more energized, it becomes increasingly important for us to find devotion as a response to the feelings of "look what I can do!"
Devotion means that we offer both the energy we feel that makes action possible, and the actions themselves, to a higher good or a higher power. We can cultivate this through prayer or mantra, and practice it through being of service even in our daily activities and interactions.
When we practice yoga and feel more energized, we should understand that this energy is just a result of becoming aware of it. It is not that we created it. Then when we take this energy and put it into action, we can understand that we are in service to the world, as opposed to doing good for the sake of building ourselves up.
We all have a dilemma each time we open our mouths to speak. Do I say what I know or do I ask about what I don't?
We may say what we know to express our opinion in a conversation, to convince, to teach or simply to reinforce our own reality by saying it out loud. As yogis, we should be careful of this. Every time words come out of our mouths, their reality is solidified in our minds, and we become more rutted in our version of things.
When we ask what we don't know, two important things happen in our minds. We acknowledge that we don't know everything, a humility that is absolutely essential for growth and human connection. And we open ourselves up to new information and knowledge.
How will we get smarter and better, how will we make progress if we think we are at the pinnacle of knowledge and understanding?
This is why I love to be wrong and to admit that my knowledge is incomplete. Only during these moments can I learn new things and make progress in understanding. This benefits me by making me smarter and more complete, and more so by maintaining humility and flexibility in the "reality" that is my mind.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga. This blog is about their experience with yoga practice, study and teaching.
- Understanding Chair Posture
- 5 Reasons To Backbend
- Lock the Knee History
- Why Teaching Is Not a Personal Practice
- The 113 Postures of Ghosh Yoga
- When You Take a Class, Take the Class
- Should We Be Teaching Advanced Postures in a Beginning Class?
- The Yogi Becomes Invisible
- Bow Pose (Dhanurasana)
- The Oxygenation Myth