In September’s blog, I began to explore the issue of seeking The Unknowable.
In so many ways, that is exactly what the path of Yoga is: seeking that which we do not, and indeed cannot ~ in our current state of consciousness ~ know.
Yogini Jude asked a question: “When you say, ‘we can use the body, through our asana practice, to open an inner path to enquiry1,’ would that lead to an experience of stillness and peace, rather than an uncovering of the self, as we can never come to know it?”
Jude is not alone in her enquiry ~ seekers have been exploring the place of the body in this search forever. Before we begin to look at it, we have to remember Yoga is not a modern invention around the wellbeing and fitness industry ~ it is an ancient enquiry into the truth of what we are, what our world is, what we are in relation to one another. To explore this question in the context of Yoga, we have to look back into Yoga’s origins.
In the most ancient text we have on the philosophy and practice of Yoga, The Katha Upanishad, a young seeker on his search for Truth, encounters Yama, the God Beyond Death. At first Yama gives him the following advice:
taṁ durdarśaṁ gūḍham anupraviṣṭaṁ guhāhitaṁ gahvareṣṭhaṁ purāṇaṁ |
adhyātma yogādhigamena devaṁ matvā dhīto harṣa śokau jahāti
That Self which you wish to know, which is subtle and difficult to reveal, is there: deep within the deepest part of you. Fix all your thinking and all your enquiry on that ancient, radiant Self. This practice is called Adhyatma Yoga; through it you will rise above joy and sorrow. 2
After this, the great Sage Patañjali, in his sūtra-s3 building on this Upanishadic teaching, defines Yoga in his second sūtra as:
yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ || 2 ||
Yoga is the stilling of the movement of thought in the mind. (2)
We ordinarily know and measure with the mind. We might take the actual measurement with our physical instruments, hands and feet, and then our mind goes to work to make sense of that measurement and comes up with an hypothesis to explain the measurement.
Yama says quite clearly and succinctly that’s not going to work on the seeker’s search ~ and yet we have to bring body and mind to it.
In the above passage Patañjali offered the next bit of the puzzle: Yoga is the stilling of the mind as it tries to hypothesize about that which cannot be measured.
Measurement requires that we know ~ and have defined limits of ~ that which we are seeking to know. That’s what the body/mind4 complex works with. However, the body/mind cannot know the truth about our ultimate reality because that is limitless.
So, how do we ever know it? And what has the body, and āsana, to do with knowing it?
The Past is Alive in the Present
One of the most stunning philosophical propositions of the ancient philosophers of the Sanatana Dharma was pariṇāmavada ~ the theory of things transforming over time, evolution. This theory can be applied to all things in nature (a theory that preceded Darwin by more than a 1000 years!): everything evolves and changes. In this evolution the past leaves its traces in the present, and is carried forward into the future. If we apply this to time, it is strictly called avasthapariṇāma-vada (vada simply means theory) ~ the past evolving into the present, which evolves into the future.
In this way, the past is never past. We experience the past in our bodies: we wake up each morning and we remember how to get up out of our beds and walk across the room ~ and our Mum’s potty training remains with us as we stumble towards the bathroom. However, muscle memory is much more than walking and remembering from our childhood how to ride a bike.
The body is the most immediate feature of our social self ~ it is ever-present and carries our own personal history as well as the social content of our community’s collective view of ‘the body’. For example, it is now well-documented that as Christianity grew in power in the West, an ascetic attitude towards the body ~ which was seen as the seat of evil ~ developed and grew with it. It is a past that is with us still (pariṇāmavada) even while the power of the church declines. In a similar way, as women we still carry the legacy of being a “…secondary creation…”5, coming from the rib of the male, the first creation. As racism developed and continues in our communities, the body of the black and brown person bears the traces of those social prejudices in muscle and connective tissue, in nerve fibre and blood vessels, just as women carry it in our patriarchal societies.
Thus, even in our modern ‘permissive societies,’ our bodies are not free.
Āsana , the Body and The Search
Our senses, always focused outward, can be turned inward on our own body (pratyāhāra ~ 'turning inward'). The Yogin takes the time each day to practise this pratyāhāra: keeping the awareness (buddhi6) focussed. The body is the place where this inner journey begins. Here we encounter the body's knowing ~ and its many distortions. Āsana is then exploration of our own personal past (whether of this life or many7), and how the past of our humanity is embodied in us ~ what our embodiment actually holds.
In the past few years most disciplines that embrace bodywork have begun to focus on trauma as a phenomenon, not simply of mind, but also of body: we hold our trauma in the tissue of our bodies. There is now a huge emphasis on uncovering and letting go of that trauma through movement and breathwork.
Of course, it’s not as if this hasn’t been explored before. The great Wilhelm Reich was among the first in the West to articulate the fallacy of mind / body separation in our lived experience. Beautiful bodywork therapies that would explore the holding of trauma evolved out of his work ~ like Rolfing, Bioenergetics, the Hakomi Method, biofeedback techniques, and so on.
In Yoga, the body is woven in with the breath and vitality (prana), with the mind and memory (manas) ~ none of these are separated out from the other: what we think is as embodied as what we feel. In this way, Yogāsana uses the body as a field of spiritual exploration. We become aware of how the terrors of the world have woven themselves into our tissues, and then āsana and pranayama offer us a method of returning the body to a more integrated response to gravity ~ rather than the distortions our individual histories have placed on them. When we release tensions and traumas of a lifetime, we reconnect with a natural sense of balance and vitality.
It is this sense of balance and vitality that we need in our search of Self, and the body is the means of gaining it.
As an instrument of the spiritual search, the body is largely ignored in the Abrahamic traditions ~ where it is often presented as something that has to be overcome on the spiritual journey. Not so in Yoga. In Yoga the body is elevated to being a vital part of our search for the True Self.
It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Yoga ‘redeems’ the body. We can quite easily walk through life unaware of how we embody history ~ but Yoga calls us to awareness of it. In that awareness we have the balance and strength to walk the next part of the journey: discovering, uncovering, the ghost we created when each of us says ‘I’, in order to reveal the truth of ‘I’.
We do not leap over, ignore, nor condemn, the body ~ we use its lessons (which we will explore further in the next blog). The sacred fire teaches us: do not discard anything on this journey, use it all for light.
I finish with the words of one of my favourite 12th century Virasaiva poets, Basavanna. When we confine ‘I’ to that mythical creature we have created, we also define the True Self ~ That ~ as ‘other’. Basavanna worshipped Siva as That and defined Siva as ‘the Beloved of the Meeting Rivers’. Here’s his vacana (sacred saying or poem):
Will make temples for Siva.
What shall I,
a poor man,
My legs are the pillars,
My body the shrine.
My head a dome of gold.
Listen, O Beloved of the Meeting Rivers:
Things standing fall away,
Only the moving remain.
Yogins, let’s keep moving.
©Swami Ambikananda, October 2022