Monday, January 1st, 2007
There are many systems of yoga, and not all of them affirm the act of using the body as the object of yogic focus. Some yogis, such as Ramana Maharshi, went further and actually advised practitioners to turn focus away from the body, lest we be attached to it when we die. Despite this, asana is the most popular yoga practice on the planet. Many would say that much of this is not serious yoga, but rather, people simply enjoying asana’s benefits towards health and feeling good. Of course, there are lines of asana practice which would fit under the category of serious authentic yoga, and ashtanga is one of them. What do I mean by serious authentic yoga?
1. It has as it’s underlying purpose a clear expression of the possibility of self-transcendence in this lifetime, and
2. it is undertaken with a rigorousness that offers the chance of this self-overcoming actually happening.
Historically, India has offered several serious views of self-transcendence, two of which are especially relevant for ashtanga:
a. The old Brahmin themes which I’ll lump under ”neti-neti” which means, “No, not that, and no not that, and no not that either, etc”. Anything that expresses itself as an object which can be perceived by our awareness cannot be the goal to which we are striving, because God has no qualities. The God of our own innermost self is entirely free of any features at all. This often came with a dualist approach to life, which I view this as the inferior view, simply because it was fully included in the larger visions of both tantra and Advaita which followed. But the essential aspect that no yoga, or no system of self-development, can ignore is contained in this neti-neti view. I’ll try to explain my understanding of this as clearly as possible:
The self that views things “out there”, the person you are right now who sees and experiences your outer and inner world, has plenty of stuff tied in with it; you are not aware of much of this stuff, it is beneath your level of awareness. (If you are already enlightened and free, please forgive my condescendence). Your eyes are not the eyes of the pure witness (although you may achieve this at times) but rather, eyes which ride on the contours of your personality and see things in a way which includes these contours. These contours can be completely dominant, as in children, or quite subtle, as in certain mature wise people. But for the neti-neti yogi, none of those contours, no matter how subtle, are the goal, all of them are illusion. These lenses which alter the perception of the pure witness are still within the realm of things, and the witness is not a thing at all. The Brahmins were trying to get us straight into the witness, and damn anything that has any kind of manifestation.
Shankaracharya, in his little book Aporakshanubhuti, says “The yogi is indifferent to both the highest emanation from heaven and the shit of a crow.” But, being an Advaitan, he then tempers that with a view that values both the intensity of the quest to get to the causal realm but also affirms manifest creation; in his Brahma Sutra Bhasya, he says that higher things have more value than lower things, but that none of them are Brahman.
One value of this view is that it puts the practitioner on a truly steep and fast learning curve. One way we humans develop over time is like this: the eyes by which we saw in the previous moment become the stuff that we see in the next; the subject of this moment becomes the object of the next; when our person is revealed over time, its elements can become things we consider; aspects of who we were yesterday become things we can consider today. Before that, we had no choice, these elements were fused into our personality and not available to the light of our awareness. We acted from them but we could not see them; they unconsciously drove us. Now, with this in mind, notice that the neti-neti yogi immediately disidentifies with the elements of his own personhood as soon as he recognizes them. Any element that he can perceive is not God, and he knows that in his innermost self he is God, so he lets go of any identification with the phenomena he sees or hears or feels. This is the process of maturity that we all go through at some pace, but the old Brahmins explicitly stated a method which works quickly, and doesn’t dawdle. The upshot: fast track to freedom from the limitations of himself. The bummer: possible pathology, as he loses track of who he was and has only dim and devalued structure from which to operate in this world.
b. So, in response, around the eighth century, in good old India, emerges tantra, the path by which one can lose her ego but strengthen her nerves, where the personality dies to the larger universe but the body radiates happy health. (Advaita also came up with a response to dualism, but in a different way.) Freedom in this body, through this body. Ashtanga yoga is a tantra. Essentially, tantra introduced the view that self-development is not just a process of disidentification, but also that of building internal structure: the mature tantric has robust subtle-physiology. The psychologists Blanck and Blanck tell us that the self “metabolizes experience” to “build structure”, and I think this view well-describes what we do in Ashtanga, which I also believe speeds up the structure building . I’ll get into my understanding of these things next month.