June 14, 2011

If I Wanted Religion, I Wouldn’t be a Yogi! Why I Can’t Teach Patanjali as Gospel Truth.

This is a follow-on from my initial foray into proposing that there are more interesting and substantive ways of teaching the philosophy segment than are utilized in many contemporary yoga teacher training courses. For me, this is part of a larger theme you will see throughout my articles which suggests that the trio of critical thinking, shadow work and inquiry-based practice is key to contemporary, integrated spirituality.

Let me begin by saying I am about as interested in becoming (or suggesting that others become) a true believing Hindu as I am in being a true believing Christian – which is to say: not at all!

I think that our Western fascination with yoga began as a counter-culture move away from conventional religion, but that as yoga has become more mainstream and more institutionalized, there is an authoritarian pressure to remain true to the tradition and train teachers in a quasi-religious way. I think this is a mistake that dilutes the possibilities of a robust, intelligent, transformational spirituality.

I am going to look at Patanjali, seeing as his Yoga Sutra are considered to be the gold standard in yoga philosophy. Part of my observation here is that all too often Patanjali is taught as a “scripture” – a kind of revealed divine authoritative pronouncement to be learned by rote and believed at face value. For me this is antithetical both to a kind of philosophical depth, as well as being able to take a more anthropological stance in relationship tot his particular cultural artifact. It also bumps up against my sense that there is a distinction between a more conventional religious belief-based spirituality and the kind of counter-cultural, inquiry and practice-based spirituality that I see yoga representing in the West.

The fact is that Patanjali is one thinker among many thinkers in the rich Yoga canon, and he represents a particular, dualistic historical perspective based in a specific metaphysical belief system. For me it seems immensely useful to distinguish between the experiences one can have as a result of dedicated practice and the culture-bound beliefs that these experiences are thought (by some) to evidence.

So – let’s start at the beginning. I am using Desikachar’s quite contemporary translation from the Heart of Yoga. My next article will go into a great deal of depth about Book 2 and Patanjali’s Samhkya-based distinct dualism between Consciousness and Nature as well as the context for this key theme in Indian philosophy and the contrast with Advaitin and Tantric perspectives…

For now though, here is Part One of my analysis:

1. Samadhipadah

1.2 Yoga is the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions.

From the start we might observe that what we are embarking on here is a description of meditation practice, specifically that based in concentration to the exclusion of distractions. This is not to be a treatise on the asana practice that makes up perhaps more than 90% of what aspiring yoga teachers and their students will be focused on.

In the following two verses we are told that by directing the mind without distractions we can come to a clear understanding that is superior to our conceptions when in a less disciplined focused state. Fair enough. The goal here appears to be a kind of seeing-reality-as-it-is. I’m down!

Patanjali goes on to detail the five activities of the mind: comprehension, misapprehension, imagination, deep sleep and memory. We truly comprehend via direct observation, logical inference, or reference to reliable authorities, while we may misapprehend initially until more favorable conditions allow us to see the actual nature of the object of our attention.

Wonderful. Sounds like a quite empirical approach, right?

We imagine the object when it is not present, using words and expressions – and Desikachar points out in his commentary that our past experiences contribute to this imagining. OK.

We go on to find fairly uncontroversial definitions of deep sleep and of memory, and then find out that we can achieve the state of yoga (or accurate comprehension via undistracted direction of the mind) through two things: practice and detachment.

Again, we appear to be laying the foundation for a kind of empirical, objective awareness of reality as-it-is. I’m in.

We are encouraged to adopt a positive attitude, eagerness and uninterrupted practice to reach the state of Yoga.

1.15 At the highest level there is an absence of any cravings, either for the fulfillment of the senses or for extraordinary experiences.

1.16 When an individual has achieved complete understanding of his true self, he will no longer be disturbed by the distracting influences within and around him.

A good enough description of detachment, but I do notice here the creeping in of two as yet undefined concepts: extraordinary experiences, and the true self. Furthermore, this true self can be understood completely. Let’s just be explicit that these ideas have been introduced, there is a true self that can be completely understood, this correlates with a level of detachment in which one is not disturbed by inner or outer distractions, as well as with the absence of craving for sense-pleasures or “extraordinary experiences” – presumably of a spiritual nature.

1.17 Then the object is gradually understood fully. At first it is at a more superficial level. In time, comprehension becomes deeper. And finally it is total. There is pure joy in reaching such a depth of understanding. For then the individual is so much at one with the object that he is oblivious to his surroundings.

So here we have the culmination of this description of the process of a concentration based meditation that results in a detachment from distractions, clarity of mind and such deep absorption in the object being considered that one enters a blissful state that is oblivious to the surrounding world. My only observation here is that this is a description of a state of consciousness attained through a meditative concentration exercise. Great.

Next we hear that though mental disturbances cease in the state of Yoga, memories of the past remain, and that some are born this way and need not practice. For the rest of us it is necessary to have faith and continue practicing, knowing that it is merely a matter of time. Our results will be a direct reflection of our level of faith.

Let’s just note that at this juncture we are starting to deviate from the objective empiricism that was being described and are now adding an almost religious notion of faith, although we could interpret this in a secular way as being a kind of trust that the teaching will work if we continue to apply it. However, the sutra continues:

1.23 Offering regular prayers to God with a feeling of submission to his power, surely enables the state of Yoga to be achieved.

1.24 God is the Supreme Being whose actions are never based on misapprehension.

1.25 He knows everything that can be known.

1.26 God is eternal. In fact he is the ultimate teacher. He is the source of guidance for all teachers: past, present, and future.

We are further encouraged to address God properly and reflect upon his qualities. I am not sure how we got from the concentrated yet detached empirical desire to see reality-as-it-is and be free of misapprehension to this detour into assertions not only about the existence of God but that it is male and has specific qualities, but here we are.

Now we return to a description of the nine interruptions to our practice and detachment as we strive for the state of Yoga. Perhaps we have the first link to asana here in that Patanjali says that all nine of the interruptions produce the following symptoms: mental discomfort, negative thinking, the inability to be at ease in different body postures, and difficulty in controlling one’s breath.

So presumably, as we become more comfortable in our asana practice and maintain control of the breath, while overcoming negative thinking and mental discomfort, we will be well on the path. Sounds good.

Next we are told to maintain a kind of detached, generous, and compassionate attitude toward the people we encounter in daily life, and that when we encounter any of the interruptions we might practice breathing exercises with extended exhalations.


1.35 By regular inquiry into the role of the senses we can reduce mental distortions.

1.36 When we inquire into what life is and what keeps us alive, we may find some solace for our mental distractions.

1.37 When we are confronted with problems, the counsel of someone who has mastered similar problems can be a great help.

1.38 Inquiry into dreams and sleep and our experiences during or around these states can help to clarify some of our problems.

1.39 Any inquiry of interest will calm the mind.

Fair enough.

1.40 When one reaches this state, nothing is beyond comprehension. The mind can follow and help understand the simple and the complex, the infinite and the infinitesimal, the perceptible and imperceptible.

This is tricky. We are once again in the territory of faith, but here less faith in God, but faith that there is this special state in which absolutely everything can be understood. Divine revelation. Absolute truth.

Uh oh!

But let’s carry on.

1.41 When the mind is free from distraction, it is possible for all the mental process to be involved in the object of inquiry. As one remains in this state, gradually one becomes totally immersed in the object. The mind then, like a flawless diamond, reflects only the features of the object and nothing else.

We are back to the description of a lucid state of concentrated awareness of the object-in-and-of-itself.

The next two sutras describe the process of gradually becoming free of past experiences, ideas and memories that may distort our pure perception, free of a feeling of our selves.

We then learn that:

1.45 Except that the mind cannot comprehend the very source of perception within us, its objects can be unlimited.

1.46 All these processes of directing the mind involve an object of inquiry.

1.47 Then the individual begins to know himself.

1.48 Then what he sees and shares with others is free from error.

1.49 His knowledge is no longer based on memory or inference. It is spontaneous, direct, and at both a level and an intensity that is beyond the ordinary.

1.50 As this newly acquired quality of the mind gradually strengthens, it dominates the other mental tendencies that are based on misapprehensions.

1.51 The mind reaches a state when it has no impressions of any sort. It is open, clear, simply transparent.

This is beautiful, but a little tricky. Again we have a rich description of a specific meditative state of clarity, but woven into it is an assertion of inerrant authority. The one who attains the state of Yoga is free from error and has an extraordinary spontaneous, intense, direct access to absolute truth.

We are squarely in the domain of the guru tradition, and I think it is worth mentioning that the last 50 or so years of Western interaction with the guru tradition has perhaps given abundant evidence that there are those who attain to extraordinary states, carry rich and nuanced spiritual knowledge and are possessed of intense extraordinary charisma, but are indeed capable of errors in judgment, ethics, behavior and statements of fact.

Leaving out this detail of yoga’s history in America in the name of tradition seems to do us a dis-service. A good question for discussion might be whether or not the guru model makes sense in contemporary Western practice of Yoga, and whether it might be wise to disentangle the attainment of meditative states from claims of inerrant authority.

Conclusion to Part 1. Samadhipadah

My sense is that we have here a description of the intention to see reality clearly via a meditative discipline rooted in concentration on an object, as well as the description of a gradual process of learning to perceive more clearly by becoming more detached and less distracted by memories, misapprehensions, and the distortions of the senses. While this sounds like a noble attempt to be objective in an almost empirical way, we also take a detour into assertions about the existence and qualities of God, the existence of a “true self” and “extraordinary experiences,” and find a perhaps inflated set of assertions about the accompanying knowledge of “absolute truth” that can be attained via this mental clarity.

I would suggest that teasing apart these threads is helpful to the contemporary reader who wants to ascertain what is a set of instructions or descriptions about a practice-based inquiry into the nature of the mind and perhaps into what can now be understood as our brain’s potential for neuroplasticity, and what is a culture-bound statement regarding metaphysical beliefs about God and the unerring authority of the guru.

It also seems to me that so far we are mostly in the realm of meditation practice and a discussion of a path toward mental clarity, rather than a specific theory of how asana practice affects the mind and body. So this text seems to be a better companion piece to teaching a specific approach to meditation (concentration) than to asana.

Part Two: Patanjali’s Key Dualism – The Seer & The Seen is up now! This article goes into much more depth and creates a context for Patanjali’s ideas –  a great introduction to the contrasts of Eastern thought…

More to follow as we look at the other books of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra!

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