From your Yogamat to God

….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 and energy movement processes, 5. pratyahara: taking the outward senses and turning them inward, 6. dharana: focusing the inward senses/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 all objects dissolve, 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 letting them grow “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 a 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 densities in the leg, bearing attention into the traces left by thought will clear the densities left by the trace, a process that eventually spiritually evolves the bodymind.  A cleared trace is essentially the refinement of the contents of the trace, where the conscious and unconscious mind has cracked the trace’s code. 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.

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 subtler layers. As those layers clear, deeper subtler 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 when we identify with this space instead of with the person viewing the stuff –  no matter how subtle the stuff-  it is experienced as more real than the stuff which gives way to reveal it. This is claimed to be the clearing in and from which manifestation appears. Patanjali calls this place the seer, which implies the person who sees, minus the personality 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 ruckus 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 it is 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 difficult 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 sooner or later leads us into our deepest complexes, ie: Mom, Dad etc.

Another issue 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.


This entry was posted on Friday, April 6th, 2007 at 3:33 pm and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “From your Yogamat to God”

  1. Zee Says:

    hjjjjjuuuuuu.. it was hard, getting to the end.

    Mr. Steve, I said good bye to this forum but your post come to my attention. I simply can not resists hahhaa… I’m warning you that Zee is direct, no bulshiting and no nice manners. If you do not like the comment you can simply delete it. No harm done. Anyway, nobody here reading the something like this.

    Generally speaking, your post(ideas, understanding) is informational but incorrect. So sit down conformably, put your seatbelts on and enjoy, we are taking ride and the ride will be jumpy…


    Yoga is a path of duality. Any path of duality will never lead an aspirant to non-duality or so called onenness or realization. So let be clear, from yogamat you will never come to God.

    I see that you do not understand this things b/c you said: “you’re always with God, the yogi just tries to realize this consciously…” oooooh do not allow your ego to jump here, calm down, explanation is coming (see: seatbelt is very useful):

    1. to be “always with God” implies “somebody” as a separate entity and implies also something called god as a separate entity. (that is not true, there is no separation) 2. “yogi just tries to realize this consciously”.. yogi (as you describe it, with trigonosana and scanning the body) can try as hard as possible to realize it but it will not succeeded b/c it does not work that way…

    I’ll not comment further your words (the words of scholars) even those words are 3000 years old. I’ll keep it simple, listen: What is a “thing” that we all have and without all of this communication is not possible? Is it a consciousness? If you not conscious (like in sleep) where is yoga, god (btw why G is capital?) So the first thing first.. consciousness.

    What is consciousness? Is it everything you know, everything (world, yourself, yoga, your mat, God (capital G), senses, emotions, feelings, your understanding, your thoughts, your ego… everything).

    How the consciousness came on you? Where you was 100 years ago? You‘ll answer that you do not know. Who answers that? It is consciousness. So it is true, your consciousness was not “here” (or “there”) 100 years ago, it came around 2-3 years after the birth of your body. Ok, we have now relation between physical body and consciousness. (Oh please leave causal body on the side, do not ever mention it again.).

    What is physical body? Is it started as male sperm – female ovum union? What is sperm? is it food, some enzims, protein etc.. the same applies for female ovum. (I am not a doctor or biologist, I simply said it is FOOD). Then the human egg grows, it develops according to nature and the human being is born, completely unconscious of itself. It start developing the psyche and after 2-3 years it KNOWS that it exists – it became conscious being.

    How did you became conscious of itself? (when you were 2-3 years old). How? Before that you did not know yourself and after that you KNOW that you exist. (Of course parents told that you are born, you got a name etc.. etc..) But what have changed? Can you answer? If you can’t lets continue…

    Ignorant people will say you got IDENTITY. But what is that identity: you was baby, then child, then young man then middle aged man… What is your identity? How you define yourself? Do not answer it, b/c there is no identity at all. Rather, find out what is it in you that is not changed since the time you started to KNOW yourself (that you exists) until today. What is it? I’ll help you. IT IS YOUR “I AM” SENSE.

    “I AM” sense is your sense of presence. Somebody calls it “here and now”. It is not changed since you started to KNOW yourself. Actually, you can blame your I AM sense for appearance of consciousness. Ramana Maharshi calls it “I-thought”, but who cares for Ramana, investigate for yourself. You have to find out what is this I AM sense? What is your sense of presence?

    I can tell you, but I recommend that you find out that for yourself. I AM Sense is a sound, OM. It is final product of food we take. It is essence of organic food. It is not YOU. On YOU as GOD appears I AM sense and it creates all that you KNOW, your consciousness, the concepts.

    I AM sense is called Maya or ignorance b/c it creates subject (imaginative entity) and the world (as an object). This is why I said that “yogi just tries to realize this consciously” is impossible thing to do b/c there is no yogi. It is all concepts, dream.

    Revert back to your own I AM sense. Forget about eight limbs. They are made for ignorant people to lower their suffering. You are capable of much more. Go to the root of consciousness: I AM sense. Meditate on it, BE that. There is no experience IT IS BEING.

    We practice yoga to make our body healthy and strong so we can sit in meditation for 3 and more hours, so we can BE AWARE of ourselves for entire day. That requires energy, and yoga is the way to acquire it. This is why we practice yoga, everything else is hearsay. Investigate for yourself.

  2. Steve Says:

    Zee: Not totally clear on all your points but I’m responding because basically I agree with you:

    1. Patanjali and Samkhya are dualistic, but in Ashtanga as taught by Patabhi Jois, Shankaracharya holds a prominant place- he is the saint above Guruji’s chair, right there on his tiger skin. Not sure how you feel about him, but he is Advaita, much like Maharshi in total outlook. At this point, most yogis who have looked into this thing consider Patanjali’s dualism to be limited, though his methods are good.

    2. What, is yoga mat something other than God? Is it important to limit your experience on a yogmat to something physical because it can never be more? Ever practice with other people, ever felt that? When you sit there doing your I AM thing, where is your body? Does it go away? Is body some very bad thing? Is relative existence worthless? Your presentaion of I AM, and your refutation of Ashtanga is still all about the path to get to pure presence, which needs to make discernments like that. But ultimately, everything is God, surely for Maharshi, for Zee too?

    3. What do you mean by “body healthy and strong”? Another translation of Dhyana is meditation, with a body that has been prepared and is yogically fit. Patanjali prescribes a steady development of subtlety in our preparation of the “food body”. In my view, methods that attempt to skip straight to Samadhi are like taking acid: possibly a a good grounding in pure presence, but combined with a barely developed person. Not sure why you’re down on the causal body with such indignation- you don’t see Nagarjuna dilineating the same place? I see this as the essence of I AM. It takes a bit of practice to take pure I AM back into the world, ie: non-dual, advaita etc, but this is what Maharshi did. Are you guys onto something new and different? (Incidentally, I didn’t make it totally clear in my post that this causal body I mention is different than Patanjali’s). Also, Maharshi’s teachings don’t trash relative existence, or experience. There IS experience, there is ALSO Being.

    4. Finally, one problem with “no bulshitting” is that your will to power through your writing becomes a bit hard to take. Wouldn’t you actually like people to read what you write? Also, it just comes across as another version of “my way is THE way, yours is wrong”- my response to that: I’m right AND you are right. I’ve pointed out some of what I see as your LIMITATIONS here. But, basically, yes: the way is to meditate and BE I AM. You can also get on your yoga mat and enjoy the higher parts of Lila.

  3. Zee Says:

    Hey Steve, you responded…

    I do not know who is Shankaracharya and no desire to find out. You don’t need to be clear about my points, I am just calling you to investigate for yourself.

    “Is it important to limit your experience on a yogmat to something physical because it can never be more? “ Yes, it is important to distinguish between yoga practice and self-realisation.

    Ever practice with other people, ever felt that? I do not practice in yoga studio although I practice every day; yes ashtanga – alone, every day at 7:00AM.

    When you sit there doing your I AM thing, where is your body? Does it go away? Is body some very bad thing? Oh I see, let me explain: I AM sense (the sense of presence) is the essence of physical body (I call it food) exactly as sweetness is the essence of sugar or saltness is the essence of salt.. I AM sense is the essence (soul, or isness) of physical body. I AM sense is not YOU.

    Ok, let stay here for a moment, for example, you have a memory of an event. That memory can not pass for the real event, nor can any of your anticipation. There is something exceptional, unique, about the present event, which is the previous or the coming do not have. There is something LIVE about the present – the actual, it stands out as if illumined. What gives the present that “stamp of reality”?

    Investigate for yourself. Throw away Bhagava Gita. (Who cares for that). Here you have a real problem to solve. Listen carefully: There is nothing peculiar in the present event to make it different from past and future. For a moment the past was actual and the future will become so. What makes present so different?

    Obviously YOUR PRESENCE. YOU ARE real for YOU ARE always NOW, in the present, and what is with YOU NOW, shares in YOUR REALITY.

    The past is in memory, the future in imagination. There is nothing in the present event itself that makes it stand out as real. The present event is a “living event” due to fact that YOU ARE ever present so a thing focused in NOW is WITH YOU, it is YOUR REALITY.

    YOU ARE present before your birth. YOU ARE present now. YOU will be present after your death.

    What happened on birth? The body appeared. The food body with its essence of I AM sense. YOU as EVER PRESENT identified with small I AM sense of the body. Apparent imaginary subject is created, given name and in started its relative existence.

    ”Is relative existence worthless?” Yes. All understanding about usefulness of relative existence should be dropped asap. ONLY thing that counts is to find what you really, really are.

    Your presentation of I AM, and your refutation of Ashtanga??? No, I practice ashtanga yoga every day. I am just trying to shift you understanding, let say to change your point of view.

    What do you mean by “body healthy and strong”? Steve, do not ask me what I mean… I mean exactly what I say, exactly. The physical body must be strong and in shape.

    “Not sure why you’re down on the causal body with such indignation.”… No indignation, just please do not speak about things that you do not know. My point is clear, do not repeat words of others. You did “spiritual homework” now you must go your own way. Throw away all books , all. You are close man!, you are destined for self-realisation, do not delay, do not waste your time due to trivialities of Patanjali…

    Regarding Maharshi… Maharshi’s teachings were from highest to lowest according to the spiritual development of the aspirant. His highest teachings has no words (just silence) then comes self-inquiry, then puja and chanting etc…

    “In my view, methods that attempt to skip straight to Samadhi are like taking acid: possibly a good grounding in pure presence, but combined with a barely developed person.” This is a real problem of your understanding. You think that by doing something there is a place or understanding to be reached and somehow when it is reached you will be different , you will get self-realisation. It is not like this at all. YOU ARE self and nothing but SELF. Person simply does not exists (it is phantom).

    “Finally, one problem with “no bulshitting” is that your will to power through your writing becomes a bit hard to take.” Hahahha. You noticed that. It means your ego is still active. I write in specific way: obtrusive and ruthless way. If anybody have an iota of ego he/she can not understand what I am talking about. And this is exactly what I want. I do not want that people waste their time. They will see just insult and bye, bye… (it means – they are not ready.)

    “Wouldn’t you actually like people to read what you write?” No. This is not for public consumption. I am not a teacher. Rather treat me as an accident. You can read these words but what you’re going to do with them it is up to you.

    “my way is THE way, yours is wrong”- my response to that: I’m right AND you are right” . You get it all wrong here. I am telling you to stop believing in any way (or path) but to investigate for yourself. How, because of what you know that you exits? Start from there, you can not make mistake. BTW. there is no wrong and right.

    For the end let me cc Susan she likes the stuff.

  4. Steve Says:

    Ok Zee:
    You like pure presence, not so crazy about relative world of form.
    I say both are good. this is our primary difference.

  5. insideowl Says:

    Steve, what a wonderful resource. I’m happy to discover your blog. On this particular topic, thank you for sharing all of this, and for taking the time to feed Mr. Zee such that he would shrink rather than expand. Strangely, from his comments elsewhere on the web (he strangely used my blog to register his snarkier replies to your more personal questions: ), it appears he learned a little something from talking with you. One way or another. 🙂

  6. Rigoberto Says:

    good blog bro

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