This post is of interest to anyone who has done yoga and is starting to get an inkling for a deeper experience. Or anyone that has thought to themselves during a yoga class… “what is the point of this?” A yogin’s journey beings when s/he consciously takes steps in the search for truth, sataya. Until this point s/he has been engaged with fancy stretching or at most mastering technique neither of which are yoga.
Personal growth is not linear, we develop in a meandering sort of way and over time one seems to absorb knowledge and integrate it with what came before.
Actually there is no ‘growth’ only realisation. Broadly speaking here’s an outline of how I see the realisation taking place.
1. Seeker receives new information. For example:
- Pain / Pleasure
- Something unexpected
- Negative/ positive feedback
- An un/desirable outcome
2. Their ego reacts.
- It has no other option. Something ‘other’ has come to it.
3. There is conflict.
- The Ego initially rejects this new experience/information. There is conflict/shame between the ego and whatever is external to it.
4. The correct attitude emerges.
- The Yogin must humble themselves in order to be able to truly regard the new experience/information. Only then is s/he permeable enough to allow the newness of the experience to be integrated.
- When the defences have been removed the yogin is able to extract what is useful from the experience and in so doing give themselves the chance to integrate it. The yogin now forgives themselves for not having noticed earlier, there is no more conflict.
6. Integration occurs over time.
- A point arrives when the yogin has accepted the essential nature of change and impermanence. The barbs of point 1 are no longer jarringly ‘other’, they are accepted and surrendered to, one is able to forgive themselves and move on.
This is why yogic enquiry is always with the deep self, the part of us that is unchanging and present; by simply moving our attention to this aspect one observes reactions and integrates them.
Yoga is a search for satya/ truth
What’s the harm in a little white lie?
Have you heard people say that if you don’t have the reaction that you should; you can ‘trick’ yourself into changing how you feel? By pretending to have the reaction you think you should (is socially appropriate) one attempts to ‘fake it’.
Our minds are powerful but, I would refute anyone who says it is possible to trick oneself. We always know. We may not admit it to others (or to ourselves) but deep down we know if we chose to look. And it is this knowing that we cannot escape. Like the Coleridge’s Albatros hanging on the ancient mariner.
Pretending requires energy and sustained effort to keep up appearances and whilst you’re pretending you know there are two versions of yourself, the true you and the one you’re pretending to be. There is division. For more about yoga and mental health see this post.
Eventually the mask slips you end up feeling worse than you did before. Because the mask slipping reveals apparent failure. Others may witness it but most importantly the yogin recognises it.
The road less travelled
The alternative is the option that few embark on. It starts with the pain of having erred but then takes loving kindness and forgiveness and eventually effort to not repeat the error. When we can finally admit that we are not perfect or trying to be perfect; just more authentic, the practice of yoga can start.
What stands in our way is the colossus of our collected experiences, failures and the ensuing pain of looking at them.
In yoga this is called Samskara. The psychological and physical imprints collected over time (even past lives) are like well-walked paths in our psycho spiritual environment. They are our daily habits and patterns of reaction. On a physical level one might think of these as neurological pathways that are well worn in and we draw upon these impressions constantly. Like a reflex; samskaras are stored deep within.
Vippassana teacher S.N. Goenka likens to Samskaras to deep impressions. I recall him saying there are three types of Samskaras. The first is a light impression, like a line draw in water. It quickly disappears. The second, are temporary; like a line drawn in sand. When the tide comes in the line fades away. The third type of samskara (Prarabdha karma), is the type that is carried with us lifetime after lifetime and can be likened to a line chiseled into rock.
An example of how this play out might help to clarify.
For those who didn’t watch the video (it’s funny and worth a watch). A simple example, when something happens that goes against our wishes we react with agitation and irritation. Our mind wonders either into the past or the future, this is the habit pattern of the mind. It does not want to encounter the present moment. According to Vedanta, the present moment is not experienced by the mind, the present moment is pure awareness.
Through Yoga we learn to cultivate awareness which helps us recognise our particular habits
The practice of yoga teaches us that by sharpening the focus of our awareness we can reach a place where the impulse to react originates and at this root cause we have the choice of how to respond.
Another way to put it would be to say, that when one is present enough to notice the reaction begin there arises simultaneously the choice, a) should I act how I have always reacted or, b) if I wait can I let this reaction pass and then act once the heat of the experience has dissipated.
Integration means that you don’t have to be nice. Instead of choosing what ‘should’ be done, one choses what is natural. The reaction occurs and then the process of accepting as outlined earlier.
Is this what happens at a yoga class?
If you’ve been to one of my classes, you may have heard me something along the lines of:
‘yoga is more than the poses and stretching’Yoga With Sunil Hertford, Ware, Welwyn
The rest of this post will go into what I mean by that.
The longer one engages in observation of themselves the more one learns, this might be why meditation is a lifelong pursuit. This is the true teacher within, this is why you learn and someone else cannot do the learning for you. Observation is a curious nexus of ‘being’ and ‘trying’ it’s difficult to dissect precisely where one ends and the other begins.
Life is an intermittent series of puzzles and problems to interact with. We suffer when we don’t get what we want, the lack of something draws ones awareness away from their inner self. But even when we do get what we want; eventually we suffer, because all things change and sooner or later we’ll have to encounter loss of that thing too.
Is there a way out? Yes. And this is the teaching of the Buddha. Gotama Buddha discovered that in observation of the self eventually one comes across ones own conditioned responses. To put it another way, when we can still our racing thoughts we’ll notice that our senses (touch, taste, smell etc) will encounter sensations. Observe the sensations and you’ll find that they are triggering thoughts. Observe for long enough and one may find that one is continuously pulled hither and tither by their thoughts. There is no rest from this and this is why one suffers – as there is no peace.
Each reaction further enmeshes us into the web of sensation triggering reaction triggering thought.
Is that the same as mindfulness?
No. Mindfulness is a simplistic training exercise, a preliminary step toward a much deeper practice. Mindfulness as most of us encounter it today, has its origins in clinicians researching meditation but not wanting to engage with the culture out of which it comes. It’s popularity is in part due to the declining faith in religions. It seems that our modern sensibility has an aversion to the ‘G’ word. Perhaps it triggers ideas of original sin, hell, the devil, being judged and found wanting etc… the cold rationality of science is less offensive.
In yoga there is no man in the clouds ready to condemn you. There is the consciousness principal that manifests itself in all things. A concept that requires detailed exploration, one must think, ask questions and then assimilate the information, in short – work.
How to further your yoga practice
Understanding that one of the ways we humans learn is via experiences becoming hardened into our brain through repetition until we develop conditioned responses. Pavlov and his dog are a popular example of this. Knowing what we know about the brain’s elasticity, it is possible to reshape our responses into more desirable ones. Then over time and repetition one can respond to the same stimulus in a completely new manner.
In yoga asana (postural yoga) as we get stronger the poses become less challenging and one has more bandwidth to incorporate awareness of sensation into their practice. So that the effort now involves maintaining bodily awareness but, critically; integrating feelings as they arise. By letting ‘it’ all play out one begins to let go or move beyond the established reactions so that a new space is created.
We work to create this space and then not fill it.
All the technical language (jargon/nuanced ideas made short) can easily waylay someone into engaging with the language itself and thought games. Instead the primacy of the experience in yoga is more useful than a variety of words describing it.
It’s difficult to say one can ‘know’ it, but rather be in understanding/accordance with it. Nevertheless it is a human experience.
The usual pattern of our thoughts.
- Raga / Duesha > like/dislike
The Beatles were right…
All you need is love. The mind that we bring to yoga or meditation is the mind that we have carried with us for the whole day. So the thoughts we think create impressions in the mind and these impressions play out during our yoga class or meditation.
Our day-to-day interactions influence the way we think, and some experiences can be so disturbing that they create deep samskara’s. By reliving the experience we reinforce the experience which makes it harder to resolve. Thoughts come to us all the time, some we let pass others we reinforce through repeated thinking. For example anxiety, or fear of the future.
Violent disturbances such as these can be discouraged by training the mind, by keeping the mind in balance. Equanimity of the mind, of somatvam; is a natural progression in the journey of the yogin. A balanced mind is not emotionless, rather it experiences things fully rather than compartmentalising unpleasant experiences and preferring pleasurable ones.
How to attain somatvam? Karama yoga, giyan yoga. The yoga of action and knowledge. One has to experience life and to engage with it, be willing to learn and forgive and then go again. We all do this in an unfocussed and generalised manner, yet time allotted in a dedicated yoga practice is the fastest means of self integration.
So, the next time you’re in a yoga class and you wobble out of a balance, or some other struggle ensues observe it and make space to integrate it – this is yoga, this is how to dissolve samskara after samskara.