February 27, 2012

Forgetfulness, Food, & Integrating Life. ~ Camella Nair

As part of her work connecting yoga and food, Camella Nair has created a 12 week course that pairs Patanjali’s yoga sutras with the everyday life activity of feeding the body. In this series for elephant journal, Camella provides readers with a short version of what she addresses more deeply in her course.


A Taste of the Yoga Sutras, Lesson 5

2:5 Anitya-asuchi-duhkha-anatmasunitya-suci-sukha-atma-khyatir-avidya

Forgetfulness(Avidya) is taking that which is temporal to be permanent, that which as impure as pure, that which is painful as pleasant, and the non-seer as the self.

 Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Now we get to the “nitty gritty” of the obstacles to enlightenment. One obstacle per sutra for the next five lessons!

In my humble opinion, if you want to become enlightened, then it is worth thinking about them beyond just knowing what they are, and ask what they mean to you.

I know, we already have so much to do. We raise the kids, cook, work, look after sick relatives, shop, etc., but that’s the whole point. We are in a “Leila” or drama of our own making 24/7, and yet, fail to see what’s going on beyond the stage curtain. The practice is the everyday life experiences we have and integrating our so-called spiritual practice in with that.

Photo: Joe King

It does not mean that we only practice for an hour every day or twice a week but, with each and every breath. It’s really not that difficult…honest!  We just have to know that it takes constant practice and continual dispassion to do that. (1:12)   

It is the salt and pepper or seasoning of a balanced practice. This means that we have to be less emotional, which we have spoken about before. We can choose to be consciously aware of things, emotions, reactions, how symbols affect us, and just agree to study our self and apply a little bit of self-discipline with the intention of improving our life.

Here is the punch line—if it doesn’t work, then you know it’s not for you. There is only one path—your path!

In trying to bring the message of this sutra to be relevant today, for this community, we have a recent well publicized ”fall from grace” of a well-known yoga teacher, and how he failed to live up to his students expectations of him. This has caused so much emotionality in the yoga community! Psst…he is only human! As experienced yoga teachers, it is a real problem because we realize that not many of our students really want enlightenment after all. If they did, they would work much harder at it.

The same is true for teachers. They teach yoga because they love it and the difference they are making in the world, but many get stuck in that phase of the journey. (Helping others without helping themselves! Many yoga teachers for example, get so busy that they have no time for a personal practice).

Photo: D. Flam

Nothing stays the same (mistaking the temporal for permanence).

An organization like anything else needs to adjust, adapt and acclimatize to feed the demands of its customers or it will not survive. (Integrity is usually right up there). Yoga students however want their teachers to be beyond reproach and this is really dangerous ground. Saints are made usually posthumously, after many years have passed and no-one remembers any of the dirt on them.

Expecting anyone to be “saint-like” is mistaking the impure as pure.   

We all have personalities and they are all somewhat kinked.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” John 8:7

I am talking about this sutra, and not my opinion on who did what. It is about forgetfulness of our true nature. Patanjali says this is the number one reason that we find obstacles on the path to enlightenment.   

It is this forgetfulness that causes us to identify with a false sense of who we are. We don’t even see our-selves as we really are. We look in a mirror and at all we have accomplished, and think that is us when it is only a ‘shadow.’ 

Patajali says in this sutra that we mistake the non-seer for the self.

We need some special glasses to see what is behind the façade of the ego personality that we see in the mirror. I find it fascinating that I can feel pretty good until I look in the mirror and then start to judge what I see. I forget what I cannot see behind the image. The back body is a symbol of the unconscious mind and as yoga practitioners know, it’s sometimes challenging to know what is going on in the back body in poses like back bends, for example.

“Yes, but…” I can hear many people say. No one said it was easy. Life is a journey full of experiences where we can refine our personality and its flaws. In the case in question, a person sees themselves as being above reproach and forgets the (manmade) moral codes that Patanjali lists later on in this chapter to help us remember our true nature once again. They are called the Yamas (things we are trying not to do) and the Niyamas (things we are trying to do) and we should try to practice these in thought, word, and deed with every breath, through self-study and self-discipline. If we screw up (and who doesn’t) then it is a learning experience we can grow from, or not.

Niyamas 2:32 (things to cultivate in our life)

  1. purity
  2. contentment
  3. self-discipline
  4. self-study
  5. attunement to indwelling reality (the good that is Humpty Dumpty before he fell off the wall)

 *The third and fourth and fifth of the five Niyamas, are things we should be trying to do more of in our life (A volitional action or kriya) or application of self-discipline and self-study along with attunement. So the very definition of Kriya yoga which was sutra 2:1, Patanjali lists again in the Niyamas.    

My son is into protein shakes at the moment and he uses one of my glass jam jars to shake the powder and milk together to create something different from two ingredients. Similarly, when ‘stuff’ happens in our lives, we get shaken up as two energy fields come together (people) as an experience in  relationship to one another. We may go through life for example not believing in a higher force or God until such a time that we are confronted with the death or illness of a loved one, and then begin praying. In my online course, I use the metaphor of an egg to try to communicate my thoughts on this sutra and we make some delicious home-made mayonnaise along the way.

Photo: Alan Turkus

We are mystically Humpty Dumpty and fall off the wall and into creation with each birth. An egg is a unitive(dualistic) principle that is whole and complete in its self. We could also consider a seed in the same way, infinite potentiality. Humpty Dumpty, as every child knows fell off the wall onto the floor, becoming fragmented.  We forget our true nature in other words, as we are born. In order to “keep alive” this false or shadow image of our-self, we sometimes hurt ourselves and others, often telling lies, and stealing what we think is ours. We can misuse our creative energies and/ or become greedy.

Yamas 2:30 (ways we can apply restraint in our lives)

  1. engaging in violence
  2. telling lies
  3. stealing
  4. misusing  creative energy (not just sexual energy) 
  5. being greedy

Mistaking that which is painful as pleasurable seems like a bit of a crazy notion.

Who could possibly do that? And yet, I think it has many deep layers that we can reflect upon individually.  People are going to be “‘people” and they have opinions. I think one of the most poignant teachings in this series of 4 books by Patanjali, is where he says that we should be genuinely happy for those who have it great in their life right now, and genuinely empathetic for those that do not. (1:33) Pain is sometimes not avoidable, but suffering is, because it is created by the mind.

Consider what is probably the most miraculous thing that has ever happened to all of us? And see how much we remember about it. I am taking about our birth. Not many people can remember anything at all about that. We came into this world and have a particular messy area in our life that needs some cleaning up, just like we would clean up a smashed egg as it falls onto the kitchen floor. The experiences we have here are trying ultimately to put ‘Humpty Dumpty’ back together again. But he (we) will never be the same. And that is a good thing. If we got everything right all of the time, we would not have needed to be born here in the first place, and this really is a great place to bring ourselves back into balance.  If we know which area is a little messy and take responsibility for the cleanup, that really is moving in the right direction.

This sutra highlights forgetfulness as the first of the five kleshas or obstacles to enlightenment.  It is easy when you know something is it not? Two and two are four and if you boil an egg for five minutes you can slice off the top and dip your toast into it. Many people cannot boil and egg however and would not even know where to begin, and so are limited by the horizon of their awareness. We are here in our ‘shell’ to do something.

We just have to remember what that is and then get on with it.




Editor: Kate Bartolotta

Camella Nair is an ordained Swami in the Kriya Yoga tradition and has been practicing yoga since she was 17. She has written two books on yoga as well as an online course on the yoga sutras which is part philosophy and part cooking (http://www.cookingtheyogasutras.com/). She lives with her two teenage sons in Northern California. She can be reached via email at [email protected].

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