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.
Most of the meditative, inward-looking spiritual traditions of the world agree that we overlook our true nature.
Our misunderstanding comes from the active (sometimes hyperactive) nature of the mind, which is constantly on the lookout for danger and opportunity. When these things are missing, the mind finds other activities: daydreaming, pondering, obsessing, discussing, watching TV, etc. There is an endless number of things we do to keep our minds busy. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that our busy minds give us things to do.
Our identity problem comes when we mistake these mental activities for the true nature of the self. We don't realize that our emotions and mental activities are separate from us, and we identify ourselves with each emotion and thought: "I am angry," "I am happy," "I am hungry," "I am thinking."
It can seem like splitting hairs, like an unnecessary distinction to make. But, are you your emotions? Are you your thoughts? Are you the breaths that you take or the beats of you heart? Are you the pain in your body? The more we explore these questions, we find that the "self" is not to be found in any of these elements.
Nowhere is this concept stated more clearly than in the Yogasutras, "the Self appears to assume the form of thought's vacillations and the True Self is lost." (1:4) (1)
The practices of yoga are many, but they all point to this issue. Every single practice of the body, breath and mind is designed to point us toward the true nature of the Self.
1. Stiles, Mukunda, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 2002, p2-3.
Inherent in every spiritual tradition in the world is the concept of loving others. Not because they are nice to us or from the same culture, not because of what we can get from them or how they make us feel.
We love because we are all the same. "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" is the clearest and simplest of messages. What we see in ourselves is also in others.
This does not mean that we don't have differences. One only needs to do a little bit of travel to experience the diversity in the world. Humans talk different, eat different, dress different according to how their region and culture has developed.
But that same little bit of travel reveals the common threads of humanity. Every human I've ever seen loves their family and likes to laugh. And, contrary to some opinions, every person I've met will be generous with strangers as long as they don't feel threatened for their own safety or livelihood.
So, as you read this during the holiday season, you may be in the presence of family or strangers who test your patience. Love them, not because you like them or because you think they are compelling company. Love them because to do so is a recognition of your innermost being.
When the doorbell rings, our dog Bug goes crazy. He barks like mad because he knows there is a stranger on the other side of the door. He is defending his territory. When the television is on and a doorbell rings onscreen, he has exactly the same reaction. He rushes to the front door and barks, even as we reassure him that the doorbell wasn't real. He doesn't have the ability to separate reality from the false reality of the television.
The scary part is: we have the ability to engage with "false" reality.
Actually, we can hold countless "realities" in our minds at any given time. The trouble is that only one is actually real. All the others are false, and we spend a lot of time with our minds immersed in these false realities.
Watching television and movies is the ultimate expression of this. We spend hours at a time engaging our minds in completely fabricated realms designed to trick us into mental and emotional responses. Every moment we spend in these realms is a moment that we are detaching our mind from reality. It becomes harder and harder for the mind to recognize, much less function effectively in, true reality.
All of yoga philosophy is based on the idea that we exist in a state of illusion rather than reality. The things we see, hear, touch and think are constructions of our mind. They are not reality. The practices of yoga lead us to strip away the illusion a little bit at a time, gradually revealing the true nature of reality and the self within it.
Television does exactly the opposite of yoga practice. It creates false realities for our minds to engage in, and the better the program is, the more we involve ourselves and identify with the characters and situations. So, the better the show or movie is, the worse it is for your yoga practice!
Almost every yoga practitioner who has been at it for more than a few months has dealt with an injury. The physical nature of our western yoga practices---the deep stretching and vigorous movements---is bound to injure the body sooner or later, just as any physical activity carries the danger of bodily harm. Lots of us even start a yoga practice to help deal with preexisting injuries.
The point is that injury is common among practitioners of yoga, and contrary to how it may seem, injuries are actually invaluable for the progress of our practice.
CARRY ON, MINUS THE EGO
Think about it: how do you deal with an injury? After an initial period of frustration and even anger, you slow down and figure out how to carry on with the new reality. This "carry on" mentality means we have to let go of who we thought we were before and adopt a new mentality of who we are now. This is a crushing blow to the ego, which holds on tightly to our idea of the self. Believe it or not, this is a profound step in the yogic practice: learning to detach from the belief that we are our body or the postures we do.
The next thing you do is continue your practice (hopefully), but with an intense inward focus. Your awareness of the body is heightened by your pain and the desire to heal. This heightened bodily awareness is one of the highest goals of physical practice. By turning our attention inward, we recognize what the body is (a body) and what it isn't (the self). From there, the progression toward detachment continues.
Of course, we are not suggesting that you go out and hurt yourself. Nor are we suggesting that you practice in a cavalier way that courts injury. These steps of awareness and detachment can happen without injury, too.
Also, most of us here in the west practice physical yoga to improve our health. This is wonderful, and health is wonderful. But, yogically speaking, there is always the danger of identifying the "self" with the body. This happens especially when we are strong and healthy. The ego loves to equate itself with physical strength.
We hope that you never get injured. But, if you do, remember that your yoga practice and your "self" are not defined by which postures you can do.
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.
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