Although Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra and David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography could not be more different in terms of core message and approach, both share the same underlying problem. Essentially, this is that each in its own way replicates the dominant paradigm that divides our studies of the Yoga Sutra (YS) between 1) practitioner-oriented studies that are reverentially devoted to explicating it as a timeless truth, and 2) narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners. This split between lived practice and scholarly inquiry is unfortunate in that it narrows the scope of ideas and information in ways that impoverish both.
Prakriti is the physical realm – the external realm of our senses. It is what we see, hear, touch, taste and feel. Everything, our nature and behavior – our very minds – are affected by the innate qualities of Prakriti. These principles are called the gunas and there are three of them: sattva, rajas and tamas.
Memory, as Proust reminds us, is not always a reflection of the way things actually were. Indeed, human memory, unlike, say, computer memory, fulfills a different function. The function of memory has been analyzed by both contemporary psychology and in the literature of classical yoga, with some interesting convergences and equally interesting divergences. Here we will examine the purpose of remembering from both the contemporary psychological perspective and the perspective of classical yoga, as exemplified by Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras. The purpose of laying out this framework is to suggest what the yogic practice of memory is, and what it can contribute to the effort toward liberation.
In the world of contemporary Western yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is revered as canon, which is to say that the yoga community accepts this collection of philosophical aphorisms as fundamental to yogic practice and as significant in the process of understanding the history of our tradition. This work, the jump-off point for many yoga philosophy conversations, is written in a unique form, characteristic of its time: the sutra.
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.
Once the yogi has had an experience of pure consciousness, the mind continuously strives to attain, over and over again. Attunement to the universal energy of the gunas is only one piece. There is an internal landscape, at the depths of the human mind that must be analyzed, parsed, and deconstructed. This deep psychological work happens at the most subtle level, where thoughts originate and instigate our behaviors and emotions. This exploration is the path to freedom.
The two historical texts employed by yoga practitioners to navigate the path are the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The former promises freedom, or “kaivalya,” from the shackles of embodied existence through the state of samadhi; the latter promises a kind of blissful transcendence of the body-mind conundrum through union with God. These two texts offer a wealth of information to all who read them and pose an important question: what kind of yoga will you practice?
“Is there therapy in the Vedas?” I was a bit taken aback by this inquiry from a young and dedicated yoga practitioner. He had been struggling for years with psychological problems. Although he had embraced a traditional path of yogic transformation, he found the help he needed in a more modern self-help process based on contemporary psychology. As I thought about his inquiry, however, the answer seemed obvious. Rich in a tradition of intact family and community support, those born in traditional India did not need to rely on specialists to sort out mental afflictions caused mostly by social dysfunction. Classical Indian philosophy, especially its traditions of yoga, does, however, have detailed information on the nature of the mind.
Delving into the ancient yogic texts requires having a strong sense of imagination and a splash—if not more—of suspended of disbelief. More than mere philosophy, these texts introduce the reader to a symbolic works in which hangs the delicate veil that separates reality from myth. In fact, many ancient yogic texts and their study depend on the very question of the existence of reality.
Leave enlightenment in the 18th century, where it belongs. The world does not need a single additional enlightened master. Rather, we need humble, compassionate interactions — and most of all, we need to be strong enough to tell the truth about our own mistakes, climb down off our high horses, and sincerely acknowledge our contribution to the mess. A little more of that, and a little less seeking after or claiming of “enlightenment,” wisdom, or spiritual depth, would go a long way to making life mutually bearable; and that is the most enlightened thing that one could wish, by any definition.
Kashmir Shaivism, a school of Tantric philosophy and technique, offers the analytical tool of the three “malas,” or impurities, to help us cognitively unveil the obstacles to the experience of our infinite nature. These malas are likened to veils obscuring the truth. If they were tangible, physical things, they would be easier to overcome, but the fact is they are ever so subtle!
The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom or knowledge—the wisdom earned through deep practice and experience. The prefix ‘a’ indicates a lack of, or an absence of. In the yogic sense, avidya means something that goes far beyond ordinary ignorance. Avidya is a fundamental blindness about reality. The core ignorance we call avidya isn’t a lack of information, but an actual inability to experience your deep connection to others, to the source of being and to your true Self. Avidya has many layers and levels, which operate in different ways. We see it threaded through every aspect of our lives—our survival strategies, our relationships, our cultural prejudices, the things we hunger for and fear. All forms of cluelessness and fogged perception are forms of avidya But behind all of avidya’s manifestations stem from the failure to recognize that essentially you are spirit, and that you share this with every atom of the universe.
Out of Śiva’s Self-awareness and His joy in that experience, manifestation is created—including us as individuals. The power that Śiva uses to do so, kuṇḍalinī śakti, is the descent of the highest pure Consciousness into form. The practice of Kuṇḍalinī Sādhana is our pathway back to that primordial experience of non-separation. In Tantric practice and tradition, the liberation of kuṇḍalinī is the pathway not only to knowing God but to recognizing that we are God. There are three phases of that realization. The progression of Kuṇḍalinī Sādhana entails the arousal, awakening, and liberating of kuṇḍalinī śakti from our limited capacity and identity in order to realize our highest Self.
A recent article has come to my attention by Chris Wallis concerning his scholarly research into the ancient writings on the chakras, and his debunking of modern or Western writings, including my own. “The Six Most Important Things You Never Knew About the Chakras” is circulating widely among the yoga community and I am very grateful for the opportunity to open up some juicy dialogue on the subject. I hope we can all benefit from this and that the entire subject of the chakra system continues to evolve as a result.
To live a life according to the wisdom of ecology is the most urgent task for humanity today. What can the philosophy of yoga contribute to this critical challenge? How can we develop an environmental ethics according to yogic principles? What would a sustainable ethics based on yoga look like?
Ayurveda takes the philosophical outline of Sankhya and applies it to the art of living, stretching its reaches beyond the confines of ascetic practice to the real world of relationship, career, conflict and even technology. The gunas (tamas, rajas and sattwa) and the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether) converge to explain doshas, or individual constitutions. This provides a basic categorization process to everything from body type to spiritual practice, disease, human cravings and proclivities.
Rare is the yogic text or scripture that does not extoll Om as a method of Self realization. You will find there that Om is sometimes referred to with synonyms, such as “Pranava” – sound of the prana; “Udgita” – uprising song; “Shabda” – primordial word; or “Nada” – subtle sound. These readings indicate that Om itself is a universal teacher of the enlightened state.
When we’re overwhelmed by our emotions, the most important—and most difficult—thing to recognize is that we can consume the energy of whatever is gripping us. Otherwise we’re just torn apart, like a fish being mauled by sharks. What’s happening is real and painful, but if we recognize that our emotions function within a narrow level of our consciousness, we can save ourselves from being devoured. Even as we’re being bludgeoned by an experience, we can pull back and tune in to a deeper dimension in ourselves.
The human race is a single species at constant war with itself. Strange, isn’t it?
This state of affairs exists for one simple reason: the great majority of individual human beings are at war with themselves. “As inside, so outside; as here, so elsewhere.” The world is nothing but a macrocosm of the inner state of most individual human beings.
Individual human beings are at war with themselves for one simple reason: they are internally divided, and these divisions are not compatible. They do not cohere.
If the grand story of the Mahabharata is the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, then the Bhagavad Gita is “Street Fighting Man.” It gets all the ubiquitous radio play; maybe you’ve even heard it in a commercial, definitely in a Martin Scorsese movie. You likely know the words, even the harmonies, without having had to try at all to memorize them. The story of Draupadi is one of the less played tracks, perhaps “Salt of the Earth,” tucked away on the end of the second side of the album. Let’s throw it on the turntable and take a listen...
The season of Navaratri has recently ended, and by spending nine nights with the three primary aspects of the feminine I entered into a softening in my perception of practice. It was as though the Divine Mother moved my body and sense organs for me toward the anchor points of practice that somehow I keep forgetting exist: the Sutras. Not often thought of in connection with the Divine Feminine, the Sutras suggest concrete means of active practice which are expressions of the Divine Mother’s qualities and aspects.
The feminine is revered not only in the embodied forms of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, but the qualities of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, also known as the gunas- tamas, rajas and sattwa. Her force is measurable in the inertia of our gross body: the dense, hungry, woundable layers of flesh and bone. She is also present in the agitation of prana: circulation, breath and thought waves. She is also sattwa or harmony, in the delicate balance of stability in the midst of change we call yoga.
Since the early yogis first withdrew their senses to find higher consciousness; since Buddha first practiced renunciation; since the early Christians retreated into monastaries; and since New Age spiritualism started talking about ascension, the arrow of our attention has been pointing upward, toward transcendence and detachment—saying that the realities of everyday life were not real—that only spirit was. Even the chakras have most often been seen as a ladder for liberation, a means toward an end: to transcend mundane reality.
And what has all this upward spiritual pursuit gotten us? Do we have better command of the reality around us? Are we more effective in our lives? Have we been able to prevent genocide, ecocide, pesticide, herbicide, and collective suicide? Are we becoming an enlightened civilization? I would argue that higher consciousness contributes to solving these causes, but it takes something more than that to actually create a new world.
Love is the easy yoke, the discipline which removes every burden. The yoke of love is known as Bhakti Yoga. Bhakti, pure devotion, is the short cut to realization. Please don't do yoga practices without love. Love is so easy; one moment of immersion in pure love dissolves all burdens. Love immediately centers you in the heart, the dwelling place of the Supreme.
Many folks think that human consciousness has been the same throughout time, but, just as an individual human consciousness can change by re-adapting and re-molding, so has greater humanity adapted and evolved as a species. The world today does not look the same as it did to the ancient horticultural and early agrarian societies. Our collective vision evolved with the advancements achieved by the Industrial revolutions and the overthrow of monarchies and the creation of representative democracies.
We live now in a multiculturally-rich worldview, where all prior worldviews are within our capacity to understand. It is the informational age! Could enlightenment be different for every individual self today, because everyone’s experiences and interpretation of enlightenment are seen through their unique view of the world? And is there a fuller, wider, deeper and more complex understanding of what enlightenment actually is now, today?
Yājñavalkya is one of the most memorable characters in Vedic literature, known not only for his wit, insolence and intimidation – he nearly purloined one thousand cows from a group of renowned brahmins just before shattering the head of one of them –, but also for the profundity and newness of his thought.
For many of us, the last days of traditional schooling are perhaps a distant memory. And yet, even though we no longer live our days according to the cycles of the syllabus, nevertheless we continue to learn. We learn from the jobs we take and the relationships we make. We learn from our failures and the unexpected events that accompany our accomplishments. We learn and grow from every life experience that slaps up against the rigidities that tend to form when we live life habitually.
Indeed, habitual living is fertile soil wherein mindlessness and a sense of “stuckness” begin to grow. The best education we can hope for, then, after the A-B-C days are over, is a continuous process and practice that pulls us out of the deadening grooves of habit and into the pulsating vibrancy of presence.
The philosophies of the “East” and their respective practices are roadmaps to an expanded sense of self, and, thus, a deeper connection to that sacred presence. In the spirit of that connection and this “back to school” time of year, we’ve put together a short list of wisdom books to enhance your studies this Autumn in yoga philosophy, meditation and contemplative practice.
Obviously, none of the books we can recommend should supplant the task of putting these philosophies to practice in your life. So our hope is that this reading list will inspire you to take action and will deepen the insights of your own yoga, meditation, or other contemplative journey.
To be a true yoga master, you need to master the art of negation. That’s Patanjali’s idea, from the Yoga Sutras:
2.33 Vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam
The practice of pratipaksha bhanavam prescribes that, when disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite thoughts should be brought into awareness.
It takes a good amount of logical and spiritual training to know how to approach the art of negation. It’s like when you were studying algebra, and you learned how to use the order of operations. When you are solving for x, you need to understand the operations and their inverses, and figure out where the parentheses are, to really figure out the value of x. And just like algebra, it takes a good amount of practice to do it consistently well.
Language, by its very nature as crystallized concept, can only stab at slivers of experiential fullness. It isn’t fine enough a sieve to completely capture the multidimensionality of any experience, including experiences beyond the familiar. To put something into words is to limit its limitlessness, to pin it down behind glass. The onlooker creates what they see in the very act of observation. If we are limited in our discussion of any experience, how then do we digest and integrate awakening experiences that are beyond language and concept?