Friday, April 6th, 2007
….well, you’re always with God, the yogi just tries to realize this consciously…
Ashtanga means eight limbs. Ashtau: eight, anga: limbs. I know, this is probably review, but:
limb1: yamas: things not to do , 2. niyamas: things to do, 3. asana: focusing on physical processes, 4. pranayama: focusing on breathing processes, 5. pratyahara: taking the outward senses and turning them inward, 6. dharana: focusing the inward senses and/or the mind, 7. dhyana: attaining lengthy periods of such focus, and progressively increasing its concentration, 8. samadhi: transforming the object upon which concentration rests into the subject which does the meditating, where it dissolves, and all that remains is the pure subject. In this post I’ll tease the gobbledegook in that last one apart.
We’ll start somewhere simple, on our yoga mat. We come to Ashtanga practice, in class, on our own, whatever. We find ourselves in triangle pose. We know that the final form of the pose, as taught, has us keep that front leg straight, holding onto the big toe with thumb and first two fingers, with shoulders over the leg, upper shoulder lined up right on top of the lower one. Iyengar could go further in that direction, but you get the picture.
Let’s take the front leg. Say I’m a tight guy and if I keep the leg straight, I can’t get to the toe yet. If I keep my shoulders over the leg, the furthest I can get is about half way down my shin. The question becomes: what is it between where I am now, and the finished form of the asana? My answer to that: stuff. What happens if I practice regularly and eventually get down to that toe? The stuff goes away, it dissolves as it were.
Physiologically what happens? Well, the fascia, muscles, and tendons in the leg, and probably a few ligaments in the foot, lengthen. A physical density has been cleared. Yogically we could say that a dark area has been put into the light, an unknown region has been presented to awareness. Mentally: we go down into the stretch until we can feel a field of resistance, and then we have something into which we can “deploy our attention”, a place where focus can rest. As Hatha Yogis, we bear our minds into the fields of physical sensation generated by the act of the asana. In Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga, the physical body is systematically cleared this way, each asana presenting a different set of regions of the body, a different set of fields to perceive. Incidentally, injury has little to do with this: we work the fields presented by the body we have today, injury is a fabulous somatic field upon which to meditate. Also, it’s not about getting to the finished form of the asana, so much as working the fields presented by the asana, which we might get all the way through in this lifetime, might not; it’s about working the region, not about perfecting the asana. Agree or disagree, at least we’re clear so far?
Next: at some point in doing this, we begin to make the connection between proceedings in physical processes such as this and those in our psychic life. This is the jump from the fourth limb to the fifth, taking “low” operations and making them “high”. Physical yogic work begins to operate at the psychic level. Pattabhi Jois says: “When the body is strong, the mind becomes quiet.” Once we have some degree of peace of mind, we begin to notice the traces left by the thoughts that pass through us. (For my understanding of the basics of this, please see the October 2006 post “Sublimation of Impressions”.) Basically, our thoughts leave an impression, lay down a trace that can be somatically perceived, and the yogic act is to take attention away from the thought and turn it to perception of the trace itself. Basically, instead of thinking, feel the traces left by thought. This is a way to move into deeper states of consciousness.
And the great hatha yoga move: just as bearing force into our leg in Trikonasana will clear the leg, bearing attention into the traces left by thought will clear the trace, a process that eventually clears the heart/mind. Every trace cleared in the mind makes the heart a little bigger. Attention, if cultivated, gathers power over time, gains potency with practice. The stronger it gets, the heavier and deeper the stuff it can engage and transcend.
A cleared trace is essentially the realization of an integrated experience, where the conscious and unconscious mind has cracked the trace’s code and no longer needs to fight it off.
So, what next? We’ve covered the physical and the psychic. Vedanta has one more primary division of being: the causal. Here’s how I see it: as the bodymind begins to clear/transcend, we get to deeper layers. As those layers clear, deeper ones appear successively. Now, there is no end to the layers, because once we get through the personal we begin hitting the collective, in fact the collective and the personal get cleared together, infinitely. But, at some point here, spaces open out and offer themselves between the spheres of stuff, and reports from this journey claim that this space presents itself as something more real than the stuff which gives way to reveal it. This is experienced to be the clearing in and from which manifestation appears. Patanjali calls this place the seer, which implies the person who sees, minus the person part. Our own personality who experiences the world has been progressively winnowed away, but of our own choosing, because…we get this compelling sense that there is something really important and utterly fascinating in there behind our little self. We just can’t help but want to know what it is.
Now, Yoga offers essentially two views about what this is, this causal space. One is that it is nothing at all, merely the space from which things arise: nothingness, emptiness, the void, the abyss, Brahman. But terms like these can’t really capture this place, no word can really be used to describe it. Vedanta and much of Buddhism holds this view. (If you want a real headache, try Nagarjuna’s sure-to-dismay Buddhist dialectics, guaranteed to induce rapid true delta sleep- he gives us a sense of the causal realm from this perspective by showing everything that it isn’t).
The other view is that this is Godhead, and in this space we will find the personality of God, such as Krishna, an active living being from which humans are modeled, much like the God of the Bible. This is known as the impersonalist versus personalist debate, a long term food-fight in India. On one side the Shakaracharya monks, on the other the Bhaktis, flinging ghee at each other.
Those who conduct alter puja to Ganesh, Vishnu, whoever, can fall into either camp. Meaning, some would hold the view that the causal is absolute nothingness at all, and place Ganesh or any other diety clearly within the realm of manifestation, although truly deep, at archetypal levels, an energy manifestation to which one attempts to become harmonious through regular and often incredibly complex ritual.
Anyway, whether we’ve hit Krishna or the void, this is the place that Patanjali talks about when he says “Yoga is the cessation of conscious fluctuation, at which time the true seer arises standing within itself. At times we identify with the seer, at others times we identify with the fluctuations.” I hold that quote to be the essence of Ashtanga. But its a bit of a journey from our practice on the mat to these higher spheres, and yet I hold it to be a very clear and well walked path, a very real, robustly experienced and thoroughly confirmed possibility. This is not mumbo-jumbo or wishful thinking, this really is the way it goes: the physical body gets clear, the psychic body gets clear, and we begin to get glimpses of that which throughout history has been called God.
Big issues arise for those of us doing this, and I’ll get into those next time: basically, once we start getting high into the subtle realm, we hit a realm of both delights and perils. Hitting the perils, it is not uncommon for practitioners to give up on their path and try a different one, which really isn’t a solution, since all legitimate paths will lead to this place. This approach really just becomes avoidance of the subtle altogether. The perils include hitting big deep internal stuff that many people would never bother with in this lifetime, and with good reason: they’re nasty, and can just completely mess things up. People living the unexamined life just go along sort of bugged by stuff but never really addressing it. That doesn’t seem to be an option with intentional spritual life, which often leads us straight into our deepest complexes, ie: Mom, Dad etc. Another is the growth of sensitivity and the carrying of other’s pain, so that you really do begin to feel the explosions in Iraq, or the struggle of the person on the mat next to you in class, you may have a hard time differentiating between what is hers and what is yours. (The good side of this is the possibility of blissful communion with others, the greater the sensitivity, the greater the bliss.) Another is what I call the activator field: this is when you’ve undertaken the spiritual process and it begins to become very real, such that you simply come to class and all kinds of internal process becomes quite active, you have no choice, it doesn’t just shut off. If a yoga class is conducted well, with a community of people intentionally practicing, this is what should be happening, although it may seem like a long way from this nice little class where you thought you were coming just to stretch out a bit and walk out feeling happy. True psychosomatic fulfillment is a different animal than that altogether.