The world of yoga has become very much about asana. I have written about my concerns about this trend before when I considered quitting teaching yoga … Indeed it is so much about asana that I found myself shocked recently when one of our Mysore assistants announced she was going on a 10 day Vipassana Retreat!
In my twenties these retreats were the gateway into spiritual practice. Held throughout the world, by donation, all welcome. I have attended many – yet as I moved out of my dharma/zen/vipassana world and more fully into teaching yoga it is rare I hear about someone wanting to go on that inner journey that a 10 day silent retreat offers.
I was pleasantly surprised and delighted as I know anyone who has undertaken intensive meditation understands yoga in a slightly different way. There is something that comes from sitting alone watching the breath for hours on end that marries well with moving with the breath through yoga postures.
It excites me to see those on the precipice of being ready to come to know themselves deeply.
Yoga is rich and diverse with depths that our ordinary mindstates can’t completely behold. The practices, texts, philosophy and history of yoga beyond the postures are an incredible resource on our journey. I see regularly the benefits that asana brings into people’s lives. I see how it gives a taste of stillness, an experience of peace. Yet a dedicated asana practice simply scratches the surface of what yoga has to offer. Even with a dedicated asana practice we can still make decisions out of fear, turn away from looking at our shadow side, live with avoidance, selfishness and unhappiness. It is not to say that yoga beyond the asana is the answer to our questions or problems. Yet, in my experience there are many discoveries to be made beyond what just asana reveals.
In this series of ‘Beyond the Asana’ posts I intend to share (when I have time!) some aspects of yoga other than simply asana. Tradition, history, philosophy, stillness practices – basically topics which lay beyond asana. I say beyond, as for many of us the asana is the hook, but I also see for many yoga students and teachers it is where people can get stuck. For those ardently deep into the study of the texts and practices of yoga, this exploration may lack academic rigour. If that’s what you are looking for feel free to read the books / journals etc I have written papers for or read the books this blog links to. But if you practice asana, are experimenting with other limbs yet are hungry for further information I hope you find some of the blogs in this series useful. We begin with some info on Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras.
Patanjali & Yoga Sutras
Most dedicated yoga practitioners have heard of Patanjali and the Yoga Sutras. Asana is one of the 8 limbs of Yoga as outlined by Patanajli. In yoga schools throughout the world we often see images and statues of Patanajli. Within Indian mythology he is pictured as half man, half serpent with a coiled serpent’s tail as his lower body and his head is protected by multi-hooded cobras. He was thought to be an incarnation of Adi Sheesha – or Nagaraja (‘naga’- snake ‘raja’ – king), the King of all Snakes. Adi Sheesha is the primal being upon which Lord Vishnu dwells.
Even though he is often represented as a god, Patanjali was a historical figure who is estimated as having lived between the 2nd and 4th century of this era. Patanjali compiled the Yoga Sutras which is like the Bible of yoga for many people. While the Yoga Sutras don’t have a lot to say about yoga asanas, they have a lot to teach us about yoga beyond the asana.
The Yoga Sutras serve as a ‘spiritual map’, wherein Patanjali details the many steps and stages along the path of yoga, some of the obstacles we may meet and how to work with these obstacles. Because the Sutras are quite pithy, we rely on interpretations and commentaries to fully understand the possibilities of Patanjali’s work. Indeed the way in which we understand the Yoga Sutras has been greatly shaped by the commentaries by Vyasa. Most commentaries are actually commentaries on Vyasa’s commentaries!
It is important to remember when reading any commentary on the Yoga Sutras that interpretations and translations are never neutral – they will always bear the imprint of the commentator / interpreter. Thus it is difficult for us to know precisely how Patanjali hoped his work would be understood. Nonetheless, I believe the Sutras provide us with a manual of sorts for getting to know ourselves better as we walk the path of yoga. As Edwin Bryant points out, the Yoga Sutras are not so much a philosophical treatise but an inquiry into human consciousness and a presentation of ‘yogic’ psychology.
The deference paid to the Yoga Sutras by modern yoga practitioners is understandable, but somewhat misplaced. The Yoga Sutras, as discussed by Mark Singleton were historically not the central text of ‘yoga’. The sutras were compiled by Patanjali. They are not the beginning of a yoga tradition as such, nor are they representative of a type of yoga called ‘Classical Yoga’ which has always been in existence. Yoga doesn’t have a central text or set cannon, yoga is diverse and a rich tradition with a variety of systems of practice and philosophy. All of which point to the truth of yoga as a space of being, rather than as a technique, tool or philosophy.
As David White explains, the Yoga Sutras fell into obscurity for hundreds of years. But in the modern era the Yoga Sutras were revived by Vivekananda, who played a key role in the ‘export’ of yoga. With the revival from relative obscurity the Patanjali’s work has now gained a central place on the bookshelves of yoga teachers and students worldwide.
When you read the Yoga Sutras, you might be surprised to see there is little about yoga asana included! An intellectual leap needs to be made to understand how the teachings of the sutras relate to what is now commonly understood as ‘yoga’. Because yoga has become primarily (and incorrectly) associated with just yoga postures, a bridge needs to be built between the teachings Patanjali compiled and what we undertake on our mats when we practice asana. Besides breathing, moving and being mindful, the Yoga Sutras can teach us about how we might work with the mind during our practice in order to experience freedom.
While the Yoga Sutras provide a wonderful resource for understanding the psychology of mind and how to work with the mind during asana, we can find many texts that detail the purpose of asana and provide more ‘how to’ information. Texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Gherananda Samhita and Siva Samhita can ‘fill in’ the lack of information in the sutras about the specifics of certain asana and pranayama practices we undertake.
Yet, our depth of understanding will always be limited by a lack of stillness practices. Thus, when you decide to dive deep into yoga, a mixture of both movement and stillness based practices will be key to deepening your understand of yoga. Begin slowly, with a few mins meditation before or after your practice. Over time you may find the space and courage to extend this practice on a retreat … it is unlikely you will regret being silent and meditative for 10 days … and you will certainly come to see yourself, other people and your practice in a new light.